[A shorter version of this posting was published on-line in the Buffalo News “Another Voice” column on November 10, 2019 under the headline, “Fruit Belt residents deserve moratorium, environmental review.” Here’s the link. Note: The print version on November 11, 2018 omits reference to “moratorium” in its headline.]
The November 5, 2019 print version of the Buffalo News contains an opinion by the newspaper’s editorial board under the headline, “Fruit Belt Friction – Residents’ fears of gentrification demand respect, without slowing revival.” [The on-line version, published November 4, 2019, uses the headline, “Editorial: Friction in the Fruit Belt.”]
The editorial board of Western New York’s major newspaper expresses the following perspective:
(1) “gentrification” occurs when high-tech development produces high-dollar jobs, demand for nearby land rises, and real estate prices in the surrounding neighborhoods are suddenly pushed higher;
(2) the fear of Fruit Belt residents, that economic forces beyond their control could upend their lives, is real;
(3) despite the impacts on Fruit Belt residents, gentrification should not be resisted because the “macro effects are overwhelmingly beneficial to the city”;
(4) “the job of government” is to limit the damage of higher tax bills on Fruit Belt residents who cannot afford them, but this task must be performed “without diminishing the possibilities” of rising prices for those who wish to sell their land;
(5) government should not and cannot view gentrification “as an irredeemably destructive force” because “it is, in the end, just another word for renewal,” part and parcel of reviving a neighborhood that has fallen on hard times; and
(6) although “anyone with a beating heart” should acknowledge that the fundamental fear of Fruit Belt residents that their lives could be upended is real, gentrification should not be slowed down.
With all due respect, I find the approach to gentrification reflected in the Buffalo News editorial – an approach embraced by the powers-that-be – to be fiction, rather than fact, and to reveal a thinly disguised hypocrisy towards the low-income residents of the Fruit Belt and other Buffalo neighborhoods.
The Fruit Belt “neighborhood” is not being revived by BNMC-spurred gentrification.
A neighborhood is much more than its physical location. It’s a section of a city defined by its residents, history and distinguishing characteristics. It’s a place where neighbors feel comfortable interacting in familiar surroundings.
It is fiction to suggest that the Fruit Belt neighborhood is being renewed or revitalized by the gentrification that has been occurring as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) has grown and expanded eastward.
A “neighborhood” is not renewed or revitalized if its existing residents are being displaced, either directly through significantly higher rents or an exorbitant rise in property taxes, or indirectly when long-time residents decide to move as the departure of family and friends leaves them feeling like strangers in a once familiar setting.
Real estate prices may be rising, and property assessments skyrocketing. New buildings out-of-scale with the existing homes, with residential units too expensive for existing neighbors, may be planned. But true Fruit Belt renewal and revitalization isn’t occurring if the neighborhood is no longer affordable for the residents who call it home, or if the character of the community is altered to the extent that it is no longer recognizable and comforting to the families who have lived there for decades.
Government agencies have disregarded their obligation to protect Fruit Belt residents from displacement.
Contrary to the position taken in the Buffalo News editorial, the “job of government” goes well beyond limiting the damage of higher tax bills for the Fruit Belt homeowners who can’t afford them.
Each and every time a state or city agency was asked over the years to approve or help finance a development project for the medical campus, they were obligated, pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), to objectively and thoroughly assess the potential adverse impacts that might result from BNMC growth and expansion. Additionally, they were legally mandated to avoid or reduce the identified adverse impacts “to the maximum extent practicable” by incorporating mitigation measures as conditions to any approval or financing of a project.
It is important to note that SEQRA defines the term “environment” broadly to include, in addition to physical conditions, socio-economic factors such as “existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth” and “existing community or neighborhood character.” As held by our state’s highest court, the “potential acceleration of the displacement of local residents and businesses” is one of the impacts on population patterns and neighborhood character that must be analyzed pursuant to SEQRA whenever a project is proposed. And, the impact must be assessed, not only for the actual parcel of land involved, but for the community in general.
In short, the environmental review mandated by SEQRA placed an obligation on city and state officials to protect Fruit Belt residents beforehand from the “upending of their lives” that might result from BNMC expansion and growth. Disturbingly, government officials have consistently failed to comply with their obligations under SEQRA. Fruit Belt residents have just reason to feel betrayed.
Although the BNMC Board of Directors acknowledged in 2010 that “the transition” between the medical campus and the Fruit Belt neighborhood must be carefully considered, dramatic expansion has occurred without concern for the Fruit Belt.
For a decade-and-a-half, Western New York powerbrokers have allowed virtually unfettered economic development in and around the medical campus to take priority over the quality of life of nearby residents. According to the BNMC, the clinical, research and support space on the medical campus doubled in size from 4.5 million square feet in 2002 – when the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Inc. was formed – to 9.0 million square feet in 2017. During that same time period, the number of employees and students converging on the 120-acre campus grew from 7,000 to approximately 17,000.
From BNMC’s Report to the Community 2014.
Acknowledging that “the dramatic growth of the campus” far exceeded its initial expectations, the BNMC Board of Directors updated its original 2003 master plan in 2010. Expecting an accelerated eastward expansion of the medical campus, the BNMC board made the following statement in the update: “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.”
The 2010 Master Plan Update highlighted a list of “important and necessary initiatives,” which included the preparation of a “campus-wide” Generic Environmental Impact Statement [GEIS] to “establish conditions under which future actions [that is, proposed development projects] would be undertaken.” The GEIS was envisioned by the BNMC board as a neutral platform where information could be gathered and development options and impacts fully and publicly assessed. The City of Buffalo was considered the ideal entity to serve as the “lead agency” in guiding preparation of the GEIS.
Despite the BNMC’s lofty goals and ostensibly sincere concerns regarding the Fruit Belt, the campus-wide GEIS was never prepared. This failure to provide meaningful protections to residents of the Fruit Belt (and, other neighborhoods adjoining the medical campus) is particularly inexcusable given the identity of two members of the BNMC Board of Directors: the Mayor of the City of Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown, and the City Common Council President, currently Darius Pridgen.
Preparation of the recommended GEIS would have provided an effective vehicle both to publicly and objectively assess the potential that BNMC expansion would result in accelerated displacement of Fruit Belt residents and businesses, and to establish and implement practical conditions to limit such adverse impacts. The need for a campus-wide environmental review is underscored by the dramatic growth of the medical campus in the years following the 2010 update. The new institutions that opened subsequent to 2010 include Kaleida/UB Global Vascular Institute, UB’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, Conventus, and the Innovation Center Annex.
Of special interest, due to its proximity to the Fruit Belt, is the opening in 2016 of Roswell Park’s Clinical Science Center at the northwest corner of Carlton Street and Michigan Avenue (a/k/a Harriet Tubman Way)
Rather than providing an appropriate “transition” at the interface of the medical campus with the Fruit Belt, government decisionmakers allowed Roswell to construct its tallest and most modernistic building at the critical Carlton Street/Michigan Avenue intersection. In doing so, the adjoining neighborhood has been subjected to a structure that contrasts starkly in scale, character and use to the Fruit Belt’s predominately one- and two-story residences.
To compensate for the years of governmental and institutional neglect, and to prevent additional displacement of Fruit Belt homeowners and tenants, Buffalo’s Common Council should promptly enact a moratorium prohibiting any new construction along the portion of the Fruit Belt near the medical campus while it conducts a meaningful environmental study that identifies mitigation measures to protect residents from the adverse impacts of gentrification.
With All Due Respect,