Some might call the proposed formation of the Linwood Lafayette Urban Development Action Area (UDAA) – at the former Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital campus – a creative use of an urban renewal agency’s powers. I see it as a shameless distortion of a tool intended to correct conditions in municipally-owned slums and blighted areas.
Article 16 of the State’s General Municipal Law (GML) is entitled “Urban Development Action Area Act.” Its “policy and purposes” section recognizes the existence of “municipally-owned areas” – which were acquired through the urban renewal process, through condemnation procedures, or tax foreclosures – and which are slum or blighted, or are becoming slum or blighted areas. In order to ameliorate the blighted conditions in these municipally-owned areas, Article 16 gives cities such as Buffalo broader rights and powers to offer enhanced tax incentives and financial aid to encourage business enterprises to undertake corrective projects.
Buffalo’s Common Council has designated the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA) as the agency authorized to carry out the purposes and provisions of GML Article 16. According to its mission statement, BURA strives to “create quality and vibrant living in Buffalo New York through neighborhood driven development projects.” Its website expressly encourages Buffalo residents “to be involved with BURA,” and states that its “goal is quite simple: to become a resource and partner to City residents, community development agencies, and staff in seeking results to the most pressing issues facing the Buffalo area.”
Under its current leadership, however, BURA is pursuing a different goal: to provide corporate welfare to financially-troubled private developers, in this instance, TM Montante Development and the Montante Group Companies.
BURA is controlled by Mayor Byron W. Brown. As Mayor, Brown sits as chair of BURA’s nine-member board of directors. Three of the board’s members hold high-level positions in the Brown Administration (and, therefore, serve at the pleasure of the Mayor): the Executive Director of the City’s Office of Strategic Planning (Brendan R. Mehaffy), who also functions as BURA’s Vice-Chairman; the City’s Corporation Counsel (Timothy A. Ball, Esq.); and, the City’s Commissioner of Administration and Finance (currently, Donna Estrich). The Mayor also hand-picks two citizen board members, ensuring his command over a majority of the 9-person board.
Neither the process used to prepare the proposed Linwood Lafayette UDAA, nor the substance of the proposal presented to the City of Buffalo’s Planning Board and Common Council, complies with the requirements, purposes, or intent of either the Urban Development Action Area Act, or BURA’s own mission statement:
Deficiency No. 1. The official request to create the Linwood Lafayette UDAA, submitted to the City’s Common Council and Planning Board in February 2019, states that it is BURA that “respectfully requests” the designation. However, a review of the agendas and minutes of the BURA Board of Directors – from March 2019 back to June 2018 – discloses that the BURA’s governing body never considered, much less approved, the request to proceed with the Linwood Lafayette UDAA designation. [So much for transparency and neighborhood-driven development projects.] Had the topic been placed on the board of directors’ agenda, its members (including three Common Council members), the media, and, most importantly, the public, would have known in advance of this “creative” use of GML Article 16’s incentives and financial aid.
[Note: It appears that the “permission request” filed with the Common Council was prepared by Scott Billman, BURA’s Counsel. Frankly, I would not be surprised if Mr. Billman was merely following instructions from the head of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning (and, BURA Vice-Chair), Brendan Mehaffy.]
Deficiency No. 2. No objective, rational observer would describe the community within which BURA proposes to create the Linwood Lafayette UDAA as a slum or blighted area. Even the intended beneficiary of the proposed UDAA – TM Montante Development – proclaims that its proposed “Lancaster Square” project is “located in a premier urban, mixed-use neighborhood that the American Planning Association has selected as one of the 10 best neighborhoods in America.”
Deficiency No. 3. The “policy and purposes” of Article 16 is to provide incentives to eliminate slum or blight, or prevent slum or blight, in “municipally-owned areas” which were acquired pursuant to urban renewal powers, condemnation powers, or tax foreclosures. [See GML Section 691.] Article 16’s focus is not privately-owned real property. Despite this fact, BURA’s request for UDAA designation is premised on “the present condition of the privately owned real property in the area [that purportedly] impairs the growth and development of the City of Buffalo municipality because the area is at significant risk of further deterioration and blight …”
[Note: To the extent that the existing “blight” is created by demolition debris not promptly removed by TM Montante, Common Council President and Ellicott District Member Darius Pridgen and other elected and appointed officials must be asked: Why haven’t you insisted that the City’s inspection office compel the property owner to comply with Section 103-38(E) of the City of Buffalo Code? That provision requires removal of “material and debris resulting from demolition” within 5, 10, or 45 days, depending on the height of the demolished structure.]
Deficiency No. 4. Consistent with Article 16’s policy and purposes, an area designated as an “urban development action area” must be “appropriate for urban development,” and at least 60% of the UDAA must consist of city-owned real property. In a tortured effort to meet the 60% city-owned-real-property requirement of Article 16, the “creative” authors of the permission request have drawn the boundary lines of the UDAA to artificially include the entire width of adjacent public roads (that is, Delaware, Lafayette, and Linwood avenues), and historic Gates Circle. These public rights-of-way were undoubtedly not acquired through urban renewal powers, condemnation, or tax foreclosure procedures. And, in this context, they certainly cannot objectively be treated as areas “appropriate for urban development”: TM Montante is not proposing to “develop” these public streets and adjacent traffic circle. Additionally, even the site’s vacant parking garage, while clearly city-owned real estate and (it would appear) deteriorating, was built and operated for decades as a municipal parking ramp, and, presumably, is not the product of a recent condemnation or tax proceeding. [See Buffalo Courier Express article from 1975: BCE19750122 re parking ramp .]
Deficiency No. 5. Article 16 envisions the use of enhanced financial aid and tax relief as incentives to encourage otherwise hesitant business enterprises to participate in programs to correct blighted and deteriorated conditions on city-owned property. The UDAA program is not intended to bail out a private developer who enthusiastically proposes and commences a massive development project, but then, in the words of the Buffalo News, “needs a new partner and financial help to make the project work.” The Mayor-controlled BURA and Office of Strategic Planning have improperly and unwisely chosen to use BURA’s powers and resources, not to stimulate neighborhood-driven development, but to bail out a well-heeled, politically-connected developer.
[Note: Although Darius Pridgen has only received a pedestrian $200 political contribution from TM Montante Development, in the past five years TM Montante and the Montante Group (which includes TM Montante and Montante Construction) have made generous contributions to: Mayor Byron Brown ($1,000), Councilmember Joel Feroleto ($1,000), State Assemblyman Sean Ryan ($1,000), State Senator Tim Kennedy ($1,850), and State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples ($3,500).]
Buffalo residents deserve an agency that truly focuses on “neighborhood driven” projects – rather than developer-driven handouts – and that works to benefit the public, rather than politically-astute development companies.
So, Buffalonians, get involved, and demand that your elected Common Council members deny BURA’s requested to designate the proposed Linwood Lafayette UDAA.
With All Due Respect,
P.S. The Linwood Lafayette UDAA proposal is not the first time that Mayor Brown’s BURA has been involved in activity that appears to me to not further the interest of the public. See for example Op-Ed – The Mayor The Carlo and BURA sent 03-06-13.
P.P.S. Likewise, the Linwood Lafayette UDAA proposal is not the first time Buffalo’s “leaders” have embraced an unworkable and inappropriate plan for this site. See Kaleida Health’s 7-12-2013 press release announcing Chason Affinity’s failed effort to recruit a veterinary school to the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle campus: Kaleida press release 07-12-13 re Gates Circle