* This admirable goal will become a reality only if Buffalo’s East Side residents are able to identify influential partners whom they can trust, and effectively organize *
The Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force is sponsoring a town hall meeting with an impressive title: “GENTRIFICATION WITH JUSTICE.” The event takes place at the Moot Senior Center, 292 High Street, Buffalo, New York, on Tuesday, May 12, 2015 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Speakers will include the legendary George K Arthur, former City of Buffalo Common Council President; Betty Jean Grant, who currently serves as an Erie County Legislator; and John Washington, a Community Organizer with People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo).
“Gentrification” is defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” Veronica Nichols, the town hall meeting’s spokesperson, and fellow members of the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force have spent years fighting to empower and preserve the rights and dignity of low-income families on Buffalo’s East Side. There may no longer be the imminent threat that SUNY Buffalo will purchase the 15-acre McCarley Gardens site and displace the 150 mainly African-American and Hispanic families from the federally subsidized townhouse development. But, as reflected in the forum’s flyer, the housing task force is determined that any changes to the neighborhoods adjoining the ever-growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus [BNMC] will be “based in respect, listening, cooperation, collaboration, [and] fairness.”
According to Veronica Nichols, the speakers – and, hopefully, the audience – at the May 12th town hall meeting will discuss a number of poignant topics, including: How do you ensure that the poor benefit from, and are not displaced by, gentrification? What tools and strategies are available to create an environment where low-income residents are treated as business and real estate partners, not enemies? How do you have a process that is mutually beneficial for the original residents and the wealthier newcomers? Can steps be taken to: assess who is facing eviction (the elders, the disabled, and those with the most limited incomes); stabilize existing renters; cap property tax assessment for long-time homeowners; and, organize the affected neighborhoods.
I’m looking forward to attending the May 12th event, and listening attentively to the perspectives and concerns of the speakers and, more importantly, the East Side residents. What will concern me most, however, is determining which political, business, and institutional leaders – currently in power – can be trusted to truly protect and advance the interests of the less advantaged neighborhoods.
Here are some of the reasons that I’m skeptical:
City and State officials. As is addressed in detail in my August 8, 2014 posting, “Disregard of ‘Fruit Belt’ Residents by Buffalo’s Leaders is Unjust,” the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) placed an obligation on the City of Buffalo and State of New York to protect the residents and neighborhoods adjoining the BNMC from the adverse effects of gentrification by objectively assessing “potential acceleration of the displacement of local residents and businesses” prior to approving or financing the many construction projects comprising the medical campus. To date, neither the City officials, nor the various State agencies involved in BNMC projects, have met their obligations to gather the pertinent information, and implement the necessary mitigation measures to minimize the adverse impacts associated with gentrification.
My concerns regarding City of Buffalo officials – in particular, Mayor Byron Brown and the Office of Strategic Planning – go beyond the failure to comply with SEQRA. The most recent draft of Mayor Brown’s proposed “Buffalo Green Code” (issued in May 2014) does not provide the 150 families living in the McCarley Gardens development, or the nearby Fruit Belt residents and homeowners, protection from displacement:
(a) While the draft zoning code classifies the McCarley Gardens development as a “Residential Campus” (“D-R”), it does NOT protect the current residents from being pushed out of their homes to make way for a new and totally different “Residential Campus.” Not only does the Green Code – as currently written – not prevent demolition of the existing low-income residential development, it provides a major incentive for developers to demolish McCarley Gardens and replace it with an up-scale development that could include, for example: large scale retail and service businesses, medical clinics, professional offices, residential care facilities, cultural facilities, government offices, frat houses, a hotel, restaurants, taverns, outdoor dining, a “solar farm,” cell towers, etc.
(b) The draft Buffalo Green Code would not protect the Fruit Belt from encroachment by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. While the draft Green Code provides an initial boundary for the medical campus, it does NOT – and cannot – guarantee that future rezonings will not expand the campus beyond the proposed boundary. More importantly, the draft Green Code’s lengthy list of non-residential uses and sizeable buildings that would be allowed in the “residential” districts proposed for the vast majority of the East Side (that is, N-2E and N-2R zones) would fuel the speculative purchase of properties and the intrusion of non-residential development, hastening the displacement of the current homeowners and tenants, and gentrification of the Fruit Belt and other East Side neighborhoods.
The Buffalo News. The cavalier attitude towards gentrification expressed by the editorial board of Western New York’s most prominent daily publication in a July 29, 2014 opinion is, at a minimum, troubling and distasteful. The Buffalo News editorial proudly proclaims: “New Buffalo – Development near the Medical Campus shows the city is shaking off its despair.” The opinion piece praises the creation of wealth for developers, landowners, and business owners who “rush to take advantage of the multiple opportunities” created by the still-growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. According to the editorial, “It’s a thing of beauty.” As expressed in an earlier post, I emphatically disagree. What is not beautiful is the callousness shown by the Buffalo News editorial staff towards “people without means [who] may also be squeezed out of their homes” as “the line marking ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ is moving further east.” According to the July 29th editorial: “Those are the disadvantages and consequences of gentrification, which is not only wholly desirable, but as inevitable as the laws of supply and demand.”
Rev. Michael Chapman, Pastor of St. John Baptist Church. McCarley Gardens is owned by the housing arm of St. John Baptist Church. According to the Buffalo News, St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Chapman, “offered to sell the 15 acres on which McCarley Gardens sits to the University at Buffalo Foundation for $1 million an acre,” and “UB took Chapman up on the offer.” UB may have taken the deal off the table, but residents of the housing complex have good reason to fear what will happen when the next developer or speculator offers the good Reverend a similar deal.
Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Board of Directors. The 2010 “Master Plan Update” adopted by the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (which includes Mayor Byron Brown as a member) expresses the following sentiment in a section entitled “Fruit Belt Neighborhood Strategy”:
The transition between the medical campus and the Fruit Belt neighborhood must be carefully considered to take advantage of proximity while also mediating building scale, character and use.
Although the master plan update does not expressly address the displacement effect of BNMC expansion on existing Fruit Belt and East Side residents, it does recognize the constructive role that SEQRA and the City of Buffalo could play in regulating future activities related to medical campus growth:
SEQRA would provide a neutral platform within which all the various agencies and proponents could contribute information and weigh development options and impacts in a public forum… Ideally, the City of Buffalo would be the lead agency and would submit a full Environmental Assessment Form (EAF), cooperating with UB, Kaleida, RPCI, the BNMC and other agencies.
And the update plan includes – in its list of “Collaborative Opportunities for Moving Forward” – the following call for a comprehensive environmental review under SEQRA:
Create a campus-wide Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) in order to facilitate future campus development and assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts of growth.
However, despite the passage of four-and-a-half years since the December 2010 Master Plan Update was adopted by the BNMC Board of Directors, there is no evidence that the proposed GEIS review process was ever commenced – much less diligently pursued – by the Board of Directors or the City of Buffalo.
While the term “Gentrification With Justice” may sound to some like an oxymoron, the residents of Buffalo’s East Side deserve nothing less than a just and inclusive decision-making and development process fully and fairly implemented by trustworthy partners.
Hopefully, a constructive and inspired crowd will be in attendance at the Moot Senior Center on May 12, 2015.
With All Due Respect,