I’ve been amazed over the years on the content of development-related articles written by Buffalo News business reporter Jonathan D. Epstein. The reports are often so one-sided that I can’t help but wonder how closely they track the developer’s press release or the friendly conversation Jonathan may have had with a project’s sponsor.
While the “article as press release” phenomena is not new, I’ve also been witnessing something even more damaging to the public’s right to know: development-related articles with half-truths, omissions, and misleading characterizations that put developers in a sympathetic light, and portray a project’s opponents as sinister.
Here are several examples from two recent articles written by Mr. Epstein concerning developer Gerald Buchheit’s latest proposal to construct a mixed-use tower on the Outer Harbor at the site of the former Freezer Queen facility – one published November 18, 2019 under the heading, “Queen City Landing project revised with 20 floors at Outer Harbor,” and one on December 9, 2019 headlined, “Queen City Landing opponent warns city about approvals and process“:
Delays in constructing Buchheit’s 23-story tower (approved in 2016/early 2017):
According to Epstein: His first article states, “Construction has been delayed as lawsuits over the project’s approvals moved through the court system.” It also provides the following quote from Buchheit’s spokesperson, Phil Pantano: “For the past two years, Jerry [Buchheit] was handcuffed with a project that he couldn’t build. He couldn’t move forward because of outside influences, He utilized that time, aside from completing the remediation at the site, to really review and refine his vision and plan for the project.”
Unmentioned facts: All litigation challenging the approvals given by the City of Buffalo for the Queen City Landing project ended nearly a year-and-a-half ago, on June 29, 2018, when the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, entered its order dismissing the appeal in Wooster et al. v. Queen City Landing, LLC. [AD4 Dismisses Wooster Appeal 06-29-18] Also, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation issued its “Certificate of Completion” for Queen City’ Landing’s Brownfield Cleanup Program to remediate the site one year ago, on December 14, 2018.
Size and footprint of the newly proposed tower:
According to Epstein: The Nov. 18th article tells of a proposed 470,444-square-foot tower, reduced from 23 to 20 stories, with 206 residential units, a restaurant and 9,455-square-feet of retail space and galleria on the ground floor, and an 18,426-square-foot event and banquet facility on the sixth floor. It also references 350 covered parking spaces built into the tower, and an additional 220 surface parking spaces. According to Epstein, “The complex would now occupy 30% less land.”
Unmentioned facts: The reader is not told whether the 20-story tower is, in fact, shorter in height than the previously-approved tower. Nor does the Epstein article advise the public that:
(a) the proposed 470,444 square foot, 20-story tower has a substantially larger footprint and mass than the previously approved 23-story tower, with a total gross floor area that is 67,444-square-feet larger than the 23-story tower;
(b) the 570 proposed parking spaces equals 52% more spaces than the 375 total parking spaces approved in 2016/2017 (apparently, additional parking would be needed to accommodate the expected traffic generated by the proposed 18,426-square-foot event and banquet facility, a use not included in the prior plan);
(c) if the “complex” does, in fact, occupy 30% less land (we don’t know, for example, if this figure includes the surface parking area), it reduction is due to one fact: under the previously approved project, the majority of the “occupied” land consisted of the 3-story parking garage, not the most controversial aspect of the project, the 23-story tower.
Content of the December 9, 2019 letter submitted to City’s Zoning Administrator:
[Full disclosure: I am the person who wrote and delivered the 12/09/19 letter on behalf of myself and Margaret Wooster, Jay Burney, Jim Carr, and Lynda Stephens.] [Giacalone Letter to Zoning Administrator 12-09-19]
According to Epstein: “Giacalone says Buchheit has to start from scratch with a new municipal review – this time, under the city’s new Green Code – because the earlier approval from January 2017 under the old code was no longer valid after more than a year. Also, he said, the new zoning for the property doesn’t allow a “tower” as one of the four building type options, and caps new building height at six stories. So variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals will also be necessary.”
The full story:
(a) Although Jonathan takes the liberty of stating as fact, “Giacalone says Buchheit has to start from scratch with a new municipal review…,” my December 9th letter never addresses the issue of whether the review must “start from scratch.” I intentionally avoided that legal issue until I have had a chance to closely review the entire application. [As mentioned in the 12/09/19 correspondence, I was not allowed access to any of QCL’s application when I visited City’s Office of Strategic Planning on November 25, 2019 with one of my clients.] Mr. Epstein’s attribution of the “start from scratch” command to me is false and a liberty that he, as a reporter, should not be allowed to take.
Note: My request that the Buffalo News print a correction regarding that attribution, and/or provide the public with an on-line link to the actual letter, has been rejected by Jonathan’s boss, David Robinson. [Email exchange 12-11-19 requesting correction]
(b) Epstein’s December 9, 2019 article fails to indicate that the letter filed with the Zoning Administrator, Nadine Marrero, provides specific support for the claims that the City Planning Board’s January 3, 2017 application for its 23-story tower is no longer valid, and that the Green Code’s 6-story limit and prohibition of “towers” at the former Freezer Queen site now apply to Buchheit’s project(s). That support includes verbatim quotes of the pertinent provisions in both Buffalo’s former zoning ordinance and current “Green Code”.
The Buffalo News fails to serve its readership and the public in the manner they deserve when its reporters write articles concerning major (and, controversial) development projects that do little more than provide the developer’s spin, attempt to paint opponents in a negative light, fail to substantively detail the opponents’ position, and/or take liberties with what an opponent has actually stated. Western New York’s largest newspaper must do better.
With All Due Respect,