New York State Announces New Homeowner Demolition Tax Credit

Mayor Brown, Commissioner Comerford, and Sam Hoyt on hand to unveil new incentive


April 1st, 2015
Buffalo, NY– On a warm and sunny Wednesday morning, Mayor Byron Brown and Permits and Inspection Commissioner Jim Comerford stood in front of the ongoing demolition of the Erie Freight House alongside Empire State Development Regional Director Sam Hoyt to make an announcement about a new program that the State is unveiling today.

“I’m proud to announce the New York Homeowner Demolition Tax Credit, a program that will revolutionize the already ongoing process of eliminating as much of the built environment in this city as possible,” Mayor Brown announced as a demo crew punched through another wall of the last remaining freight house on Buffalo’s waterways. “With our outstanding Urban Renewal legacy, and the efforts my administration has made through “Five in Five”, Buffalo was the ideal place to reveal this exciting new opportunity.”

Site of the Progress Currently Ongoing on Ohio Street Courtesy of Buffalo Rising

Site of the Progress Currently Ongoing on Ohio Street
Courtesy of Buffalo Rising

The program, which offers homeowners a 20% tax credit for the cost of demolishing their residence, was hailed by Sam Hoyt as a “step in the right direction.” “For too long, the residents of this city have had to use their hard earned cash to demolish their homes.” Another wall of the Freight House, comprised of heavy timber, fell behind the assembly. “Now, homeowners can get the needed financial benefits that come with demolishing their old, burdensome houses, and be a part of the exciting future unfolding in Buffalo. In fact, I can think of at least ten homes near the Peace Bridge that can use this program right away,” He said, nodding in agreement with his own comment.

Jim Comerford took the stage, and just repeated, “Demolition, demolition, demolition!” increasing in volume and speed until, salivating profusely, he was seen running toward the freight house, grabbing a sledge hammer, and attacking any historic materials in sight.

Homes like these on Columbus Parkway would be eligible for the program, and should utilize the credits before the State seizes their properties anyways. Courtesy of GoogleMaps

Homes like these on Columbus Parkway would be eligible for the program, and should utilize the credits before the State seizes their properties anyways.
Courtesy of GoogleMaps

Other developers noted that the program doesn’t go far enough. “Why isn’t there a commercial program?” Jim Sandoro said from the driver’s seat of his 1912 Pierce Arrow motorcar. “I can think of at least five buildings that would make excellent parking lots– this program could help Buffalo finally get enough parking downtown to meet the needs of the city. And the region. And the State.”The new program is not without detractors, however. Carl Paladino, when asked to comment, replied, “It’s insane. Why should someone get a tax credit to demolish their home, when responsible homeowners have been tearing down their own homes for years without the government paying them to do so?” He went on to imply that the law was racially motivated, and likely a ploy by the School Board minority.

Several no-good obstructionists were in attendance at the meeting, but thankfully, the ongoing destruction of one of Buffalo’s historic structures drowned out most of their nonsense comments regarding “walkability,” “sustainability,” and “cultural heritage.”

“It’s fitting, announcing this program as yet another worthless wreck comes down in our city,” Mayor Brown said, as more of the nearly 150-year old remnant of Buffalo’s industrial legacy came crashing to the ground. “It’s beautiful to think that soon residents will be able to experience the same joy of watching their historic homes be torn apart and sent to the landfill.”

As the members walked off the stage, each received a handshake from a gentleman in an Ontario Specialty Contracting, INC blazer, who handed a check to Sam Hoyt, which, as reporters gleaned, is intended for Governor Cuomo’s presidential campaign fund, and contained many zeros.

Written by Buffalo Exchange Staff Writer Steve McPreservation

(Intended, and hopefully interpreted, as Satire— Happy April Fools!)

Buffalo Should be Ashamed, and Terrified, By School Board Majority

As Buffalo gets more and more attention to the revitalization happening throughout the city, driven by young folks and state investments, perhaps we should be concerned that anyone who gives us a scrutinizing look will stumble upon news articles about Buffalo’s School Board.

Note that I said School Board, and not “School District.” It’s no secret that the Buffalo Schools are struggling, with graduation rates at 53%, and dropout rates three times higher as the state average, but that’s not what’s embarrassing. Most people understand that Buffalo is faring no worse than any other city with incredibly high poverty rates (especially amongst children: Buffalo has a child poverty rate of over 60%, which is at human rights violation levels).

No, what’s embarrassing about the Buffalo School District are the individuals who currently comprise our school board majority, who over the last month have engaged in some of the most appalling acts of apathy, aggression, and in one case, oppression. And no, I’m not talking about their policies.

First, let’s give some background: Last year, Buffalo elected three new school board members, two of which had the opinion 1) that the previous superintendent should be fired, and 2) that Buffalo needs more charter schools, joining three incumbents who already shared those views, and creating a 5-4 majority on the board. By summer’s end, they’d achieved #1. That majority is comprised of former real estate developers Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino, former CEO of Gateway Longview James Sampson, former police detective and chief Patricia Pierce, and real estate agent/dog park advocate Jason McCarthy.

So what about #2? Last year, four Buffalo schools received “Out of Time” determinations by the the New York State Education Department, with two scheduled to be “phased out” by 2017, and the two others by 2018, unless they could come up with new proposals to turn around their performance. All four schools came up with plans, some of which even turned perceived weaknesses (Lafayette High School’s 40+ languages spoken) into strengths (focusing on careers in translation, immigration and international services), and were scheduled to be voted on January 28th.

It created a natural clashing point for the new board majority who supported closing the schools and replacing them with charters, and parents, teachers, students, and other citizens who want to give these schools a chance to turn things around. As such, the last few weeks have resulted in some glaringly embarrassing, if not outright terrifying, displays by our board majority.

First and foremost, at the January 28th meeting (after the board decided to postpone their decision regarding these schools), a current student was giving an impassioned speech about his school to the attentive audience… and not so attentive Board Member Larry Quinn:

Buffalo’s newest print media had this to say about the incident:

 That’s Larry Quinn, being called out for checking out of board meetings where the future of our community is being decided. And he’s callously ignorant of the fact. Quinn, along with the other four board majorty members, has been aggressively pushing a pro-charter agenda since he was elected to the school board last May. This was supposed to be his big night, but perhaps in response to a large community showing questioning the prudence of this matter, it was not to be. So like any stilted bride, he soothed his pain over wifi.

As though callously ignoring the very constituent who he is supposed to serve wasn’t enough, the very next week, he followed up his apathy with outright oppression:

Yes, dissenting views are not to be tolerated in the current system, especially not from the teachers who are on the ground, witnessing the problems in our system first hand. No, if you go against the current board’s “mandate”, you are the enemy.

At least, that’s the tone set on January 22nd, when Carl Paladino told an independent investigator from the Office of Civil Rights to “Stay out of our way.”

Dr. Gary Orfield, in town on behalf of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to investigate another embarrassment (namely Buffalo’s application process to get into high performing schools is too difficult for low income families to easily complete… and evidenced by the lack of economic and racial diversity in those schools themselves), just sent this letter to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, showing with e-mailed evidence, that Carl Paladino attempted to intimidate him into silence regarding the district.

Apparently, during his investigation of Buffalo’s school application process, Dr. Orfield commented that the current “out of time school” decision making should be slowed so as not to complicate the already complex OCR efforts to recommend positive changes for the district. Carl Paladino took umbrage with those comments, and sent two revealing e-mails.

The e-mails deserve to be read in their entirety, and after some feedback from readers (including my grandfather, his copy of the NRA’s “America’s 1st Freedom” monthly magazine in his hands, as he passed on his advice), I’m just going to paste them completely rather than impose my own judgements (which, truth be told, has not improved with this latest tirade, though his conflict of interest as a real estate developer, and owner of several charter schools and the buildings they rent, were plenty enough reason for me to distrust him):

Mrs. Nevergold is a member and former President of the Buffalo Board of Education (BOE.) [sic] By the Way, as President of the BOE, she served on the Joint Schools Construction Board (JSCB) overseeing a ten year $1.4 billion school reconstruction program. Recent revelations show that in the best case she was incompetent to serve in that position insofar the JSCB allowed the contractor to take over $400 million in profits on the $1.4 billion contract.

On her watch the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) sank into the abyss at the hand of an incompetent African American superintendent with no experience as a superintendent. She was hired by an African American majority of the BOE at the time who were more interested in having a superintendent they could control and protecting their power over jobs and monies than they were concerned with the education of 34,000 kids.

In May, 2014, the people of the City spoke and elected a new majority which had pledged to do whatever was necessary to turn a dysfunctional school system around. The superintendent was bought out of the last year of her contract. The BOE immediately appointed as interim Don Olgovie who had 30 years of prior experience as a superintendent and had institutional knowledge of the BPS. The new majority is now in the midst of making necessary changes to be effective for the 2015-16 school year. The children deserve much better than having 46 out of 57 BPS schools in a state of failure as defined by NY New York State [sic]. 27,000 students in failing schools are entitled under “no child left behind” to be transferred to performing schools.

The BOE minority is seeking to use you and OCR as an excuse to slow down and or stop any progress. The BOE majority has no intention of slowing the process of ridding the system of dysfunction. We will consider how to handle your proposed solutions, if any, when they are rendered.”

Dr. Orfield gave a very diplomatic response, attempting to diffuse the situation by noting he had no stake in the fight except on behalf of the welfare of the district’s children (and even appealing to Paladino’s acumen as a businessman), which could be jeopardized by even more changes to the current system while his investigation was underway.

“It seems to me that hurrying major changes in the midst of a serious civil rights investigation needlessly risks more civil rights complaints because it limits future options and limits the work. I have a great deal of experience in civil rights and education reform research and policy implementation and have found that it is much better to work things our professionally than get involved in escalating investigations and possible enforcement or litigation that could risk federal funds and put great stress on the district and its leaders. While the next step rests with the board and I [sic] my only authority is to conduct a study I believe that action to immediately change a number of schools under these circumstances could create further legal problems for the board and limit positive options for the district’s future.

In summation: Your district is already under investigation for a huge Civil Rights violation, perhaps it would be best to proceed with caution before triggering even more violations.

Here is Paladino’s response in it’s entirety:

“Thank you for your response Dr. Orfield. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. You were retained to advise on one issue. Now in your own smug way you seek to control the future action of the BOE, obviously after being brainwashed by members of the BOE minority.

Other majority members of the BOE and I have spent a great deal of time and resource planning changes to the dynamic of the dysfunctional BPS. The opposition wants to preserve the status quo and to do so they seek to co-opt your effort and delay our action. That will not happen. You say you don’t want to get involved in the local dispute but you side with the opposition with your demand for a standstill.

Your civil rights issue has nothing to do with our intended changes and we will not be intimidated nor will we slow our speed in implementing policy or other changes directed at education our children while you and OCR deliberate. Our mandate from the citizens of Buffalo is to face down and destroy the obstacles to providing an education for 34,000 kids.

Your effort to control our mission is exactly the type of impediment that has historically frustrated any effort to change the status quo. The nonsense of allowing you or the Justice Department to interfere and slow our process of change is the reason good people with common sense refuse to get involved and the reason that our urban systems are operated by idiot less than competent leadership intent on self empowerment with no regard for breaking down the cycle of poverty in our urban centers.

Stay out of our way Dr.”

After reading that for the fourth time, I still can’t believe what I’m seeing. Accusing an investigator of being “brainwashed”… using language that makes it sound like he’s at war with the enemy rather than making decisions about schools… calling Civil Rights investigations “nonsense”… saying they have a “mandate” to fix the schools (last I saw, Carl was elected by 2,700 residents, and in the last election, pro-charter candidates only got 47% of the total vote, with Pierce and Quinn, getting 14% and 16% respectively— those numbers do not constitute a “Mandate”).

This is our school board: ignoring the impassioned pleas of our current students, oppressing dissenting views of their teachers, and outright challenging Civil Rights investigators, not only without any regard to the current violations currently being investigated, but potentially bringing more litigation and indictments against our School District.

Add in the revelation that Board President James Sampson’s stint at the head of Gateway Longview was filled with questionable practices, and that Jason McCarthy was one of three candidates in 2010 to receive in total over $30,000 in outside money from a pro-charter PAC, Buffalonians should be embarrassed with the current state of our school board.

More importantly, we should be terrified these are the people deciding the future of our city’s children, as they will tomorrow at 10AM, when they vote on whether to close four public schools.

Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian

Charters are Not the Solution for Buffalo Education

Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

Last week on an overcast Wednesday morning, a small rally was held outside Lafayette High School to protest the Buffalo School Board’s decision to phase out the school and convert it into a Charter.

The Essenwein & Johnson designed school looms over Lafayette Avenue, one of the most impressive buildings on the West Side, anchoring not just the street around it, but the community as well. The architects’ style for the school, French Renaissance Revival, is fitting consider the West Side is going through a rebirth of its own.

One of Buffalo’s most rapidly revitalizing areas, the West Side was stabilizing by a industrious refugee community, opening stores, occupying formerly vacant houses and giving life to empty streets, with many of the children of these families attend Lafayette High School. With 45 languages spoken, it’s one of the most diverse schools in New York State.

That diversity comes with challenges, however, and the state’s testing demands are proving too much for most of the students, many of them who need to master english before they can even grapple with the subjects the test cover; indeed, some of the schools students have never had a formal education before in their lives. As a result, only 25% of Lafayette High School students graduate on time, and only 40% graduate within 6 years.

Some schools in New York State have figured out how to address this issue, notably the International High School in Brooklyn, NY, which has a 66% graduation rate, which bumps to 80% for those who graduate within six years. As that Buffalo News article points out however, they are two very different situations. While the Brooklyn school has had years to develop that resume,

“Lafayette still struggles to find its footing after a five-year influx of refugee children. Many teachers lack the training or confidence to assist these students, yet the district keeps sending more immigrant students their way. The district does not have a strong recruitment plan for teachers experienced with this population. The school juggles a number of different programs rather than committing to one proven model for educating immigrant children who speak another language. And one approach it uses – grouping its weakest students together and inundating them with adult teachers and translators – comes at a big cost.”

Given time, money, and a strong direction by administrators in the school and in the district, Lafayette High School could someday be an example for other schools to follow, and like Brooklyn’s International High, actually help prepare these newcomers for life in the United States.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like time, or money are available, and while there is a strong direction, it’s in the opposite direction.

Charter Schools in Buffalo

That strong direction comes in the form of former Gubernatorial Candidate Carl Paladino, who joined the Buffalo School Board last year. Since then, he’s made it his mission to fix Buffalo’s Public Schools, opting for a “break it down and build it back up” methodology. After successfully removing Superintendent Pamela Brown from office, he’s set his sights on addressing the epidemic of failing schools in the district, starting with two of the biggest offenders, Lafayette and East High Schools.

Rather than retooling the schools to better service the community, he’s following the same strategy as he employed with the former superintendent; get rid of the problem and start over. Lafayette and East High Schools will be phased out, and replaced with Charter Schools.

Currently, there are fourteen Charter School in Buffalo, with another opening next year, and the Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna. Eleven have been open at least ten years, with four going back all the way to at least 2000, and only two of the schools opened in the last five. Many of the Charter Schools have experienced a lot of success: the Charter School for Applied Technologies graduated 101 of its 105 students last year, and Tapestry Charter School has had remarkable success preparing their students. Furthermore, these schools have had success despite being comprised of almost entirely impoverished minority students, often the biggest claim of defense for failing schools.

The push for more charters comes from more than just Carl Paladino, however, as five families in Buffalo and Rochester filed a lawsuit against the New York State Education Department to give fair funding to charter schools. Additionally, the advocates extend beyond those whose children who are in school, to those with deeply held ideological views about the role of government, as charters have seen as a solution to Buffalo’s bloated, entrenched, and inept education bureaucracy. For some, charter schools are the latest battleground to strip down budgets and privatize public services.

But when it comes to the education of our children, are charters the best option? Are the children really the beneficiaries of these policies, and if not, who is?

Charters Around the Country

For most cities, this debate already occurred 10 years ago, and public schools lost. The first legislation allowing charter schools passed in Minnesota in 1991, and today, 42 States and D.C. allow charters to receive public funding. The charter model, which allows schools to form with greater autonomy to create more individualized curricula, that once approved, only have to be reviewed every 3-5 years to ensure they are meeting standards. For many cities across the country, this was a simple solution to their failing schools, and from 2000 to 2012, the percentage of public schools that were charters increased from 1.7 to 5.8 percent of all schools in the country, with the total students attending increasing from around 300,000 to 2.1 million.

There have certainly been some great success stories in some districts, including Buffalo, associated with their Charters, but for many, the opposite is true. The lack of oversight has allowed fraud to run rampant among charter schools, to the tune of $136 million in only 15 states covered by a recent study. This was the case in Los Angeles, which features the district with most charter schools in the country, where schools have misappropriated funds, extorted families, and even in one bizarre case, forced an employee to marry an administrator’s sibling for them to gain citizenship (on top of funneling $2.6 million in funds to said administrator’s family).

Interestingly, as charter advocates claim that privatizing these schools will save districts money, when charters fail, taxpayers are still left paying for their failure. Last year in Ohio, over 29% of charters in their system failed, leaving nearly $29.5 in unrecovered public funding, and $187 million over the last 10 years. Ohio will spend $888 million this year on charters, resulting in a loss of 25% of funding for public schools, despite the fact that only 10% of their charters have been successful, and over $1.4 billion was spent from 2005-2013 on schools that never got higher than a “D” approval from the state.

The question of performance is key, as many proponents argue that stripped of Teachers Unions and curriculum requirements, charters do better than their public counterparts. Though Buffalo has experienced this with its small charter pool, in Chicago, where student enrollment in charters has ballooned from 8,600 to over 48,000, the schools are performing worse than the overall public school system including magnet and gifted schools.

In places like New Orleans, which experienced a complete overhaul that replaced all of their public schools with charters, the results have been cataclysmic. Though early successes were lauded as signs of the program’s success, last year 79% of New Orlean’s public schools were given D’s or F’s by the Lousiana Department of Education. The district went from having primarily middle-aged African American teachers, who, being unionized, were promptly fired after Katrina and the takeover, to having largely young, white, and non-local instructors. In 2011, over 42% of the teachers had less than three years of experience, and 400 of the districts teachers had certifications through Teach for America in 2013.

How did this experiment with charter schools gain so much momentum? The above examples don’t include the numerous reports of militaristic discipline and excessive expulsion, one of which raises serious questions about safety, and the other which pushes troubled students back onto the already burdened public schools.

An Experiment for the Poor, by the Rich

By now, most people in the United States are familiar with the memes generated from the Occupy Movement, and are either just realizing the scope of the situation, or are exhausted by diatribes against the “1%.” Regardless, as much as the debate is shaped by concerns for students, frustration with inept or struggling school districts, or simply small-government ideologies, the discussion began in earnest once wealthy individuals began looking at education as a source of revenue.

The political watchdog site Politco recently ran an expose on the issue. The title, “The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining are schools,” is certainly designed to incite both curiosity and controversy. Interestingly, the article isn’t just about charters, but about the previous fad in improving bad schools; the “small schools” initiative championed by Bill Gates. The goals were just as altruistic as for the Charter Movement, attempting to fix failing schools by shrinking them, in some cases, simply breaking up an existing school into four smaller schools that shared the same building. The program disrupted 8 percent of the nation’s public schools between 2000 and 2009, ballooning administrative costs, and hurting school extracurricular activities and electives. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had pumped $2 billion into the program, declared it a failure, and moved on, even though the students and districts they affected could not do so as easily.

The article, written by Bob Herbert, goes on to explore other aspects of the emerging privatized education movement. Part of the movement, Herbert explains, is tapping into the hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars tied to education. He provides an anecdote about investors in New York City salivating about the opportunity to sell lesson plans, software, and student assessments to schools struggling to meet new standards. He talks about Pearson pouncing on No Child Left Behind to produce an entire industry around testing materials, even signing a half-billion dollar contract with the state of Texas.

Near the end of the article, Herbert intones the following:

 “[These] are just a few vivid examples of the dangers inherent in a school reform movement driven by millionaires and billionaires with no real knowledge or understanding of public education. I could go on—the Walton Family Foundation, for example, has pushed a privatization agenda that would siphon money from public schools by funneling tax dollars, in the form of vouchers and other initiatives, to families that want to send their children elsewhere. And the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has established training programs to groom non-traditional types—business executives, military officers, lawyers—for appointments as public school superintendents or to other high-level managerial positions, where they put the foundation’s free-market and privatization policies into practice. One Broad graduate, Jean-Claude Brizard, took over the Chicago school system under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, where he continued the reformist policies of his predecessors—firing teachers and shutting down schools—with no appreciable gains in academic performance.”

Using this article as a lens to examine the current charter school debate in Buffalo, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that the two biggest proponents (in the city, and now on the School Board) are millionaires Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino. Quinn, though known for his role as president, CEO, and part-owner of the Buffalo Sabres at various stints throughout the 90s and 2000s, is a real estate developer by trade, and served as Vice Chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. Paladino is a former Gubernatorial Candidate, but is also one of the most well-known real estate developers in Buffalo; his Ellicott Development Company has earned him enough to spend over $10 million on his 2010 race for the governorship. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Paladino and Quinn were educated at private high schools (Bishop Timon and Canisius, respectively), and Quinn reported to the Buffalo news that he sent his children to Nichols School when they were receiving their education.

Though both have strong ties to Buffalo, and their passion for improving the city should not be doubted, the city should be hesitant to blindly follow their suggestions to disband failing schools and create more charters, particularly when faced with the innumerable examples nationwide that this plan simply does not work. When faced with the fact that Paladino owns six buildings that are currently rented to charter schools, this policy should definitely be more scrutinized.

The entire situation is troubling: one of the most influential members of our school board, currently owns six buildings rented by charters, and is advocating for more schools to be disbanded and replaced with charters, likely increasing demand for more spaces to lease. Rumors speculate that Paladino recently won the bid for PS 56, located in the heart of the Elmwood Village, which was put up for sale by the district itself. If those two facts alone don’t raise red flags, his defense of renting to charters should. He claims that a return of investment of 10% is low, yet working in development myself, that’s higher than most projects I consult on, and indeed is 10% on top of the development cost, which from experience includes developers fees, legal fees, and construction costs, all of which would have gone back to various Paladino owned interests. In addition, it fails to take into account the fact that regardless of whether the school is successful or not, he will still own the buildings they are renting, which could easily be converted to other uses. Regardless of Paladino’s motives for joining the school board, there is a clear conflict of interest concerning any push toward Charter Schools, just from the simple fact of his line of business.

For a Brighter Future, Look to the Past

Based on all of the above, the outlook for Buffalo schools seems just as gloomy as the overcast skies above Lafayette High School last Wednesday. On one hand, the schools are performing at unacceptable levels; on the other, wealthy individuals are pushing us toward another system, that on a whole, has not been much more successful, and will benefit the private interests of the most vocal supporters (and decision makers). Herbert phrases the second dilemma as the following:

“Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children? And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often such toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?”

The most frustrating problem is that there is no simple solution. Charter schools perform best when they are used similar to magnet schools, and the biggest problems seem to arise when the system is diluted with too many of these pseudo-public institutions. As US Today recently reported, the best systems have capped and heavily monitored their charters, while also collaborating with them like they are part of the public system, something that shouldn’t be too far-fetched to understand considering they are actually publically funded.

Additionally, current standards are based entirely on preparing students for a college education, which while admirable, is such a lofty goal that is incongruent with realities in cities like Buffalo, as well as for much of the country. For many students in the city, the goal is simply to learn English and American culture, all the while experiencing a true education for the first time in their lives. For a lot of young folks in Buffalo, as well as kids in my hometown in New Hampshire, an education that prepared them for careers in skilled trades would have been much more appropriate than attending college. An education that prepares all students for life is just as important as preparing some for college, or competing on an international stage for education aptitude.

In 1910, Buffalo had one of the largest networks of night-school English classes for immigrants, giving Polish, German, Italian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European new arrivals the tools they would need to thrive in their new city. There was an implicit understanding that the success of the city relied on an educated working class capable of working in factories, running shops and stores, and socializing in the city. By focusing on trying to get every student into college, we’re failing those who would thrive on other paths, and wasting the time of their college-bound classmates who would do better in a magnet school or gifted-program.

There are many problems with the Buffalo School System. It is bloated, with redundancies, overpaid administrators, and it does lack of comprehensive planning, waste resources, and has a complete and total vacuum where strong and competent leadership should be.

The option put forward by Carl Paladino and Larry Quinn does not fix those issues. Instead, closing schools and replacing them with charters circumvents the real issues and just creates problems for the district in the long term if those schools close or underperform. Worse, even if the system continues to deteriorate, it will be at the benefit of those who are currently making these decisions.

The Buffalo Public School system is on the right path; Say YES has already produced a bump in graduation rates, helping college-bound seniors with the other half of being prepared for a college education— paying for it. Lafayette High School is filled with passionate teachers and programs designed to help alleviate the problems that plague the school, the school just needs more time for those things to work.

Lafayette High School is already the anchor of the international community on the West Side. If the problems there are handled correctly, the renaissance won’t just be in its architectural style, or even along Grant Street. If Buffalo can figure out real, lasting solutions to its broken education system, then the city will experience a rebirth throughout. Not just the rebirth spurred by top-down investments like Canalside or downtown, but the type of renaissance that can only be achieved when all people are given the tools they need to live successful, happy, productive lives.

Buffalo doesn’t need to follow another new fad espoused by wealthy individuals to be successful, it just needs to prepare its new generation of immigrant students for a life in the city; to do that, the City simply needs to look at other successful examples around the country today, and more importantly, to what it was doing successfully a century ago.

Facadism and the Outer Harbor

Written by Derek King, an Architectural Historian in Buffalo, New York. 

There is a type of building construction where the exterior of the main elevation, or façade, is preserved, while the rest of the building is demolished, and rebuilt with modern materials and design. It’s most often seen in downtown settings, where developers want to (or are forced through design standards) maintain the historic appearance of the original structure, while still doing whatever they want with the building’s interior.

In architectural terms, this is called “facadism.” It’s an illusion really; giving the appearance of preserving historic materials, while in reality, it only goes skin deep. For historic preservationists, it’s almost as bad as wholesale demolition; it gives a false representation of the building’s history, and worse, loses all the economic and environmentally sustainable aspects of preservation.

For those of you who were unable to attend the public meeting regarding the Outer Harbor on Tuesday night, you missed one of the best examples of democratic facadism. Though the plans Perkins + Will unveiled had only a few problems (though those few were glaring), what the meeting exposed about the public process in our city, region, and state, was far more troubling.

The Outer Harbor Plan

First, the plan. Overall, Perkins + Will’s latest draft plan features a lot of great ideas. Redevelopment around Terminals A+B, a Great Lakes Park featuring research and environmental preserves, new connectivity to Buffalo’s roads, restaurants and night life, and even mass transit to improve access to our greatest resource. The problems, as elucidated in this article on the Buffalo News, were largely tied to the creation of “neighborhoods” and the location of one of them right next to the Times Beach Nature Preserve, one of our region’s most important ecological nodes.

Draft plan

The Perkins + Will Draft Preferred Alternative Plan Source: WIVB (http://wivb.com/2014/09/09/draft-plan-for-buffalos-outer-harbor-unveiled/)

Let’s tease these out a little bit. First and foremost, any residential development on the Outer Harbor will lead to significant cost to the taxpayers, with little benefit. This cost will be in the form of constructing sewer, electric, and road infrastructure, and then maintaining it, for years to come. That includes plowing, and any other winter repairs, in the coldest and snowiest part of our city, when Buffalo already has trouble keeping up with maintenance elsewhere. Does Buffalo need new “neighborhoods” when it can’t even keep up with the roads in the communities that already exist?

That being said, some development makes sense, particularly around Terminals A +B, where infrastructure is already established, but any construction north of there will saddle taxpayers with the cost of construction and repair. What is the difference between building high-density neighborhoods on the Outer Harbor and building one on a former golf course in Amherst? Won’t the costs of constructing and maintaining these enclaves siphon off a lot of the revenue they will supposedly generate for a park?

So if the justification of residential development is that it’s needed to pay for a park, but much of the return will be needed to maintain the infrastructure for these new developments, what is the benefit to the public? New housing units? Won’t this take away from the resurgent housing markets in Elmwood and Downtown?

And who will be able to live there anyways; Noah Friedman noted in the BN article that the public sessions do not reflect “the other folk…that I see on the street.” Considering the median household income in Buffalo is $30,502, with an unemployment rate over 10%, which folks from “the streets” was he marketing these houses to? Indeed, the “older and whiter” demographic Mr. Friedman was noting seemed to be the exact population Tom Dee, president of ECHDC, was targeting; after the presentation, he remarked that appealing to empty-nesters and babyboomers from the suburbs was one of the driving factors for including housing on the Outer Harbor.

Does the public benefit from building new “neighborhoods” to compete with the ones we already have? Friedman mentions Elmwood and Allentown as inspirations for the density found in the “Ship Canal” and “Cultural” districts; aren’t these places the “neighborhoods” you’d be drawing potential young residents and consumers from? Will it really benefit Buffalo to create new neighborhoods that steal residents and business from the neighborhoods that are currently surging, and even more importantly, when we have other neighborhoods that could use some of this infrastructure investment more? I can think of plenty of neighborhoods on the East and West Sides that would benefit from new roads and sewers before we consider building new neighborhoods that draw even more people and investment from our communities.

Now, leaving aside the fact that the Outer Harbor is already an incredible open space with free public access to the water (indeed, the biggest problem currently is actually getting there), the “Great Lakes Park” concept is very cool. The research facility, the “blue economy” concept, and the city beach are all huge plusses for this space. If some residential development is necessary, then building it around the existing infrastructure near Terminal A + B to begin creating such a wonderful asset to our community should definitely be the first phase of this project.

But what about the other phases? The Perkins + Will team laid out two 20 year “phasing plans” to roll out their development scenarios, but didn’t take into the consideration the fact that 20 years from now, we might have a very different Outer Harbor to work with. Suppose that the estimates to repair the Skyway are true ($117 over the next 20 years, back in 2012), shouldn’t any long-term plans for the Outer Harbor consider the possibility of its complete removal? They did include a lift-bridge in their plan connecting to Main Street, but did not include the 45 acres that would be available for development if the Skyway and elevated portions of Route 5 no longer existed.

Acreage available for development

Simple GIS Map showing land available for redevelopment if Skyway and elevated portions of Route 5 were used for residential.

Consider this phasing: Construction of the Great Lakes Park in conjunction with the development of the “Heritage Lofts” neighborhood around Terminals A and B, but refraining from any development north of there (particularly around Times Beach) until the questions regarding the Skyway/Route 5 and Main Street Bridge are settled, at which point many of the plans the firm proposed could be moved east of Fuhrman Boulevard. Considering their plans already accounted for 20 years of roll out, this could be a win-win for everyone; the public doesn’t lose already open and free access to the water, we don’t have unnecessary residential development adjacent to a nature preserve, the ECHDC still gets to see development on the Outer Harbor to pay for our new park, and as a city we can turn space wasted by an superfluous highway into land for tax generating development.

The Bigger Issues

As mentioned, there are much deeper issues tied to this process, much of it related to structural inequality, but some built into our political system. The interactions with consultants and ECHDC representatives during Tuesday’s meeting highlighted these glaring problems with the Outer Harbor planning process, and with our City and State’s democratic process as a whole.

Some of these problems have already been discussed: the lack of foresight relating to the biggest piece of transportation infrastructure currently on the Outer Harbor, the cruel suggestion that the majority of Buffalo would support housing on public land they could never afford themselves, and the negligent allocation of resources that would negatively impact crucial wildlife sanctuaries and divert infrastructure investment from other parts of the city.

The deeper problems lie in the political process, and were elaborated to me by Noah Friedman himself in a not-so-pleasant way. Before my interaction with him, however, I spoke with Tom Dee, the President of ECHDC, and Jaime, the economic consultant on the project.

After the presentation, I spoke with Mr. Dee, who expressed his own opinions about the Outer Harbor, namely that he didn’t think its current state was “good,” that people weren’t using the space, and suggested that Times Beach Nature Preserve was underutilized, asking, “How many people even visit Times Beach? 500 a year?” His reactions were expected; he’s the head of an organization with the words “Development Corporation” in them, so naturally, undeveloped space (no matter how much it’s already used by bikers, fishers, kayakers, and picnicking families), is not his concern except for its potential as a revenue stream. Mr. Dee concluded our discussion by saying, “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” to which I replied, “That’s true, but the difference is that you have a lot more say in this process than I do.” He pointed to the rear of the room, where displays outlined the proposal’s components in depth and said this was my chance to have my say.

Shortly after, I spoke with Jaime, the economic adviser. Unfortunately, I did not get his last name, but we spoke very candidly about our opinions on the project. Like Mr. Dee, his biggest concern was having the largest economic impact for the city, and played devil’s advocate with me regarding my criticisms of the project. After about ten minutes, we came to a loose agreement, compromising with a plan similar to the phasing scenario I outlined above. Overall, as with Mr. Dee’s conversation, it was a very respectful interaction with differing opinions and possible solutions. Encouraged by this, I tracked down Mr. Friedman to discuss how this type of scenario could be implemented.

Now, I’d like to preface this by saying that I have been volunteering with 21st Century Park for the last year, and had interacted with Mr. Friedman at the previous session to bring up some of my concerns. When we spoke Tuesday, it was at the end of the program, just 15 minutes before input session ended, and I’m sure that he had been bombarded by my colleagues at 21st Century Park, and the numerous other advocates (several quoted by BN) who had brought up the discrepancy of going from 7% public support for housing, to a plan with what appeared to be 30% housing related development.

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Having talked with Mr. Friendman about this concern at the previous meeting (the 7% figure was used in both Tuesday’s and August’s presentations), I figured he was a good person to revisit the conversation with. I barely finished my sentence however, before he began an aggressive rebuttal, lumping me into a group of “park people,” belittling my opinion, and in general, addressed my concerns with contempt that at times alternated between condescension and outright rudeness.

His attitude aside, which I’m sure can be attributed to a long night where numerous people had likely aggressively voiced their opinions about his team’s plans, he did make a lot of great points. For instance, he noted that P+W’s plans conformed to the “Green Code”, the new zoning and building code created by the city, and actually featured a lot more open space than the Brownfield Opportunity Area plan for the Outer Harbor, which had much more residential development. He went on to insinuate that it was my fault, and my fellow residents, if we didn’t change those two plans, and thus our problem, if we didn’t like how that shaped P+W’s design.

When I pointed out that I had gone to those meetings, and along with many other residents, expressed concerns similar to the ones related that night, he lumped me back into the “park people,” saying we thought our opinions were the only ones that mattered, but that there were plenty of other people who, just because they didn’t stay as long, or talk as much, had input to consider. Even then, he noted, repeating nearly verbatim the quote from the Buffalo News, “We did not say we would absolutely stick to [the public input] and make that the plan.”

Though I was upset by the interaction, Mr. Friedman raised a lot of points that made me angrier beyond his unprofessional treatment of my concerns. For instance, the President of ECHDC indicated that these public sessions are opportunities to have our voices heard, and then the consultant said that the workshops are formalities, that they are going to disregard the very data they collected, to design for “all of Buffalo.”

Let’s put aside the fact that their design included waterfront housing for “all of Buffalo,” that will likely be out of the price-range of “nearly all of Buffalo,” to focus on Mr. Friedman’s concerns about the demographics of the meeting. Forgetting that it reflected one of the demographics Mr. Dee was hoping to target (babyboomers and empty nesters), you cannot lament poor representation when you announce a meeting one-week before it occurs, located downtown in one of the most difficult spots to arrive by public transportation and walking, in the middle of the week, and at dinnertime.

It’s laughable, and almost hypocritical, that Perkins + Will says their design is “for all of Buffalo,” and is concerned about demographic representation when they choose a poor location, with short notice, and limited exposure, and most importantly, chose to ignore the data they collected at meetings they held in some of Buffalo’s most diverse neighborhoods (their July 10th planning meeting was at the Makowski Early Childhood Center near Masten Park).

Now, one additional comment by Mr. Friedman was exceptionally troubling. After remarking, once again, that they were designing for “all of Buffalo,” he noted “all” included not just the participants in the sessions, but the city’s developers, and the ECHDC. He once again implied it was my fault if I disagreed with the plan, since it was my elected officials who selected the board of the ECHDC, and my elected officials who drafted the Green Code, and if I had such a problem with it, maybe I should elect different representatives.

So here we are, at the crux of the problem with the Outer Harbor planning process. It’s not Perkins + Will, which as Dana Furman-Saylor noted in the BN article is a good firm with national experience, and who at the end of the day are just trying to do their job, so of course they would be upset having to deal with passionate citizens, some of whom may criticize their work.

Mr. Friedman is right: it is our fault that we have a government in Albany more concerned with development dollars than the actual quality of life issues in its cities; it is our fault that ECHDC, a subsidiary of the “public authority” Empire State Development which is exempt from state and local regulations, is allowed to dictate the use of public land, since we did elect politicians who selected the board; it is our fault that our local government seems hell-bent on imitating San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago, when we don’t have the resources, population, or leadership to justify those comparisons; and lastly, it is our fault that we allowed public discussion regarding the Outer Harbor to be divided by three separate planning entities (the ECHD and P+W, the BOA, and the Green Code), culminating in a rushed four-month planning process that will shape the next 20 years for our city’s most important resource.

Rebuilding and Preserving

So where do we go from here? Clearly it is not to public input sessions, because if this planning process is any indication, the voice and opinions of the public are just there for “consideration,” and not for actual implementation. It must not be City Hall, because the owner and driver of this planning process is ECHDC, who answers to the Empire State Development Corporation. Who do they answer to? Albany? Don’t they answer to the voters?

Imagine my frustration as Mr. Friedman outlined this circuitous route, avoiding my concerns with the plan all together, to put the onus of responsibility back on me. Somehow, being the “public” meant my voice didn’t matter at “public meetings,” but simultaneously meant it was my responsibility to ensure that quasi-private entities like ECHDC were kept to task… just not at the input sessions they were hosting.

Lets put this all together: ECHDC plans a meeting with only a week of notice in a place where it’s difficult to attend, and P+W says the demographics of attendees are not representative of Buffalo, despite designing a plan for the demographics of Seattle, that eliminates public space and doesn’t incorporate a plan for the future of the Skyway, and adds neighborhoods, one of which abuts a critical international nature preserve, to a city that can’t even help the neighborhoods it has and will compete with those just beginning to thrive, and it’s my fault if I don’t like it, even though my only recourse is to vote for the people who vote for the board that makes decisions, to which I can give input that won’t be listened to.

So, in the end, I was pretty angry about Tuesday’s Outer Harbor Public Input session. Not with the plan itself, since over half of P+W’s design I’m actually very excited about, or even the firm itself, which has hosted planning sessions that were better than most other planning sessions I’ve been a part of in Buffalo, and whose staff has been exemplary, with the exception of one interaction that was probably catalyzed by stress and frustration (and likely also by some of my more obstinate fellow residents, “park people” or not).

With facadism, there’s no going back. Once the interior is gone, that building has lost its historic integrity, and it’s all just an illusion. You walk through the doors, and it all feels wrong; you can tell that the bones don’t fit the skin, that someone reworked this building to get what they want, and how they wanted it, history (and the people that history belongs to) be damned.

Here in Western New York, we get to vote, and “participate,” but when it comes down to it, we only get democracy on the surface; we get to write on sticky notes, and vote on concepts, but once you get through the walls, you realize someone has reworked the system so they always get what they want, and how they want it. With the Outer Harbor, no matter how few members of the public supported it, we’re going to get large-scale residential development on our waterfront.

On Tuesday, we got to be a part of the planning process on the surface, but behind closed doors, someone ripped out the guts of our democracy. According to Noah Friedman, it’s our fault we didn’t stop them, but unlike with facadism, where you can see the building being demolished just a few feet beneath the surface, the erosion of our democracy has been subtle, and we’re left with a system that’s been reconstructed to suit someone else’s needs.

I don’t blame Perkins + Will for the problems with this plan anymore than I blame the citizens of Buffalo for the problems with our system. I don’t blame any one person or entity at all—but I am angry that the system is broken, and I am angry with the fact that in the end, the session showed just how little say the public has over the future of our city, and how difficult it will be to reconstruct a process that’s been gutted.

‘Latin King” tags at Lafayette High School

[Wordpress still does not allow us to embed Soundcloud files, but feel free to follow this link for some background noise while looking at the following post]

 

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A week ago, someone tagged Baynes Street right outside Lafayette High School. Recently, it was washed off.

Washing it away, however, has only prompted the creation of two new tags.

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It was tough to make out the first tag originally; the only word that was clear was “Maria.” These two, however, are much more legible. “Latin Kings” and “King for life.”

The Latin Kings formed in Chicago in the 1940s, and have spread throughout the United States, forming chapters in over 200 cities in the last 60 years. Though originally started as a Puerto Rican community empowerment group, it has become one of the largest criminal networks in the country. In 2008, a New York police task force formed to address the growing Latin Kings drug trafficking in Buffalo’s West Side.

Last month, the Buffalo News reported the last member of the Buffalo chapter of the Latin King gang pleaded guilty to weapons possession, and was sentenced to 10 years with a $250,000 bail. His home on Grant Street was only four blocks from this spot.

Buffalo’s West Side, though increasingly defined by a variety of cultures from around the world, is still a predominantly Latin American neighborhood, particularly to the south and west of Lafayette High School.

Briefly scanning the Latin Kings wikipedia page has made it very clear that I’m nowhere near qualified to make statements about what these tags mean, if anything, but I’m definitely curious why they’re popping up with such frequency all of a sudden.

The Scajacuada Creek and Expressway

Written by Derek King, architectural historian in Buffalo, NY.

In August of 2012, an urban explorer who runs the blog “Concrete Aperture” explored the tunnels that comprise the capped stretch of Scajacuada Creek. The blogger and his friend traversed the three miles of capped creek from Forest Lawn to the edge of Buffalo, documenting the smells, sounds, and sights (or lack there of, in the pitch-black darkness), of one of the most curious urban planning decisions in Buffalo’s history.

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Entrance to the capped section of the Scajacuada Creek, from Concrete Aperture’s exploration of the tunnels.

In 1921, the City of Buffalo responded to the concerns of citizens in the quickly multiplying urban developments of the city’s East Side. The Scajacuada Creek, a tributary that flowed westward from the surrounding towns out to the Niagara River, was being polluted by nearby factories, overflowing waste, and negligent homeowners. Rather than address the reasons why the creek was contaminated, and thus, smelled awfully, the City decided to construct a concrete cap over the three mile stretch from the city’s Largest Cemetery all the way out to Cheektowaga. Constructed at the height of Buffalo’s wealth, the capping of the Scajacuada was an engineering feat, but an irresponsible and wasteful one that defines the blunders of Buffalo’s planning history.

Many of Buffalo’s decisions over the last century followed similar simplistic logic. Like many cities, Buffalo pursued the easiest solutions to problems rather than the most correct ones. The city ran highways through parkland, and railways through neighborhoods. They let 500,000 square foot factories emerge right next to schools. They demolished entire blocks of buildings in order to combat blight, without any plan to address the poverty that leads to it in the first place. From 1920 until 1980, the actions of Buffalo’s planners, whether pushed by modernist hubris or by an automobile-based planning ideology, irreparably harmed the landscape of the city.

If the capping of the Scajacuada Creek represents the modern ideal that there is a man-made solution to any natural “problem”, the created of the Scajacuada Expressway represents the sacrifices made to appease car-dependent citizens in the years after the Second World War. Route-198 was finished in 1961, connecting the Niagara Thruway (which runs along the waterfront) with Route 33, an urban arterial that was finished around the time as the Scajacuada and runs downtown. The NY-198 corridor has been praised as one of the only east-west corridors through the city, but at what cost?

The route runs through the middle of Delaware Park, the heart of Olmsted’s Parkway System here in Buffalo. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City, chose Buffalo to highlight the true capabilities of urban parks. His parkway system  here connected the entire city to the large Delaware Park, running wide tree-lined boulevards and large-roundabouts through neighborhoods, all leading back to “The Park.”

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Aerial Photograph of Elmwood Avenue and Delaware Park prior to the creation of the Scajacuada Expressway

Combined, the creation of the NY-198 and the NY-33 represent two of the most irresponsible blunders on the part of Buffalo planners in the past.  The NY-33, or “The Kensington Expressway,” created a rift through one of the city’s most affluent African American neighborhoods, creating a literal canyon down what had been Olmsted’s most glorious parkway in the city. The Scajacuada Expressway bisects Delaware Park with a four-lane highway in the middle of one of Buffalo’s best public spaces, and then runs along and over the western terminus of the Scajacuada Creek.

Together, the condition of Scajacuada Creek and the fate of route NY-198 are intricately tied, as citizen-groups advocate not only for the remediation of the waterway, but the downgrading of the highway, if not its outright removal. Though representative of much larger issues in Buffalo (aging and disruptive infrastructure, and neglected natural resources), these two campaigns signify the growing trend in Buffalo to not blindly accept the mistakes of previous generations.

Scajacuada Creek, with expressway in background.

Scajacuada Creek, with expressway in background.

Over the course of the next few months, I will explore the history of the Creek and Expressway, the current campaigns regarding their improvements, and lastly, what the broader implications are for similar problems throughout the city. The series will take a closer look exhibits at Buffalo’s History Museum and Burchfield Penny Art Museum that are highlighting the issues surrounding these two campaigns, as well as the community groups and organizations driving the effort to effect change on these hot-button issues.

Looking back at these mistakes, however, the intent is not to assign blame. Instead, with 100 years of urban planning blunders, this series, and these campaigns, are about learning from previous lessons, and creating a Buffalo that we not only want, but that we deserve.

Like the “UrbEx” bloggers who trucked through three-miles of sewage and stagnant water that currently defines the Scajacuada Creek, the goal is not to criticize and complain, but to understand and improve, so that maybe the future of the creek, and expressway, wont be as dark as the caverns that wind beneath Buffalo’s East Side.

This piece also appeared on the Preservation Exchange.

NFTA Improvements, One Stop at a Time

Written by Derek King, an Architectural Historian in Buffalo, New York. 

Like most cities, the perception of Buffalo’s public transportation system is likely worse than using it actually is. A comprehensive bus network with several dozen routes (including express commuter lines), many routes with very frequent stops and multiple busses, and a light-rail line that could be expanded, but already features one of the greatest ridership per mile in the United States.

Unfortunately, it does suffer from a variety of problems. Up until this month, the comprehensive system was overwhelming and cumbersome. There was no “bus map” that highlighted key routes or gave times, and there were no schedules at bus stops, only the route number, and a 6-digit code representing that stop. Though most streets in the city have their own lines, allowing for incredible cross-town transportation, this means there are over 20 lines in Buffalo alone (numbered between 1 and 35), and then almost two dozen suburban lines (numbering up to 79 to Tonawanda). The numbering system for the routes can be intimidating to new riders, and confusing to people requiring several transfers.

Recently, the NFTA debuted two incredible features to help combat some of these problems. One  is the system’s first comprehensive map. The map allows users to browse different routes throughout the city, and directly links to printable black and white schedules that feature small route-maps as well. These black and white schedules were previously one of the only resources the NFTA offered to help riders navigate the city, which did not show connectivity or all the stops along a route. This new map helps show the broader context, and would allow riders to view times and connections between routes.

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ScreenCap of the new mapping online mapping tool, which also demonstrates just how comprehensive (and overwhelming) the system is.

The second is far more exciting. While the online map is an important tool, it does not help riders who are away from their computer or at a bus stop and don’t have any information about when the next bus might arrive. The NFTA has developed a new “Real Time” map and schedule system, that is designed to work on computers and on smart phones.

Here is how the system looks on the computer:

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And here is the system on an iPhone:

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These types of features are essential for the success of any public transportation system, but particularly in a city like Buffalo. In 2000, the US Census reported that over 30% of households in Buffalo did not own a car, and some estimate that number has only increased in the last thirteen years. With only one Light Rail line, the need for clarity on the city’s bus lines is more important than ever to improve the quality of public transportation.

It should be noted, however that the 30% figure above is misleading, as it encompasses high auto-ownership areas (like North Buffalo and the Elmwood Village) and low-ownership areas like the Lower West Side and East Side neighborhoods. A 2006 study found that in highly segregated cities (like Buffalo), a disproportionate number of poorer households were not only carless themselves, but didn’t even have access to a car (via neighbors or family members). The study went on to report that in Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods, the household percentage without a car was actually 47%.

Improving the quality of public transportation for the 80,000+ residents who do not have access to a vehicle should be the NFTA’s top priority, and these mapping and “real time” features are a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, they are still limited to individuals with computers, internet access, or smart phones, something that is often just as out of reach as car ownership for someone living in poverty.

Indeed, the current improvements seem more in line with the NFTA’s mission to increase ridership rather than improve experience. The recent Buffalo-Amherst Alternatives Study financed in 2011 is a troubling indication of the public authority’s priorities, geared at attracting individuals who have and use cars toward public transportation, as well as rectifying the horrible mistake to locate UB’s undergraduate campus in Getzville. Indeed, the study seems to be focused on improving public transportation options for people who prefer driving (and chose to live in auto-oriented development) as well as study something that is already pretty easy to solve (and has been discussed for over 30 years): direct and continuous access between UB’s North and South Campuses.

If the NFTA truly wants to improve the experience of riders, they already know what they need to do. Their plans for Niagara Street should be implemented throughout the city, adding heated bus shelters, “next bus” clocks, and other infrastructural improvements to Buffalo’s busiest bus routes. They should also be looking at ways to simplify the overly complex network, something that would benefit not only casual riders, but the increasingly large non-English speaking refugee and international community in Buffalo who rely on public transportation.

One such solution would be to create color-coded routes through-out the city, similar to the way  Seoul, South Korea did, which saw bus ridership increase by 30-40%. Though the current improvements along Niagara are great first steps, a simplified map featuring some of the City’s mainlines (The Metro, Grant, Niagara, Elmwood/Delaware, Jefferson, Bailey, Broadway/Genesee, Clinton/Seneca, and key cross-streets of Hertel, Amherst, Ferry, Delevan, Utica, Best/Walden) that are coded and feature the same changes as on Niagara Street could see dramatic improvement  in the perception, and ridership rates, throughout the city. Better bus-to-rail service, including upgrades to the current metro-stations to better facilitate that relationship, could also improve ridership in Buffalo.

There are other options being considered as well. The Citizens for Regional Transit have outlined a comprehensive light-rail and street-car network that would dramatically improve city connectivity, not only inside Buffalo, but to regional nodes like UB and the Airport. Though ideal, there are several problems with light-rail, mainly cost-effectiveness. Not only is light-rail prohibitively expensive to construct (even using existing right-of ways, which there are plenty of in Buffalo), but the cost to run is also exorbitant. The cost to operate Buffalo’s light-rail system per mile is more than double what it costs to operate a bus ($24.22/10.28 respectively), and while Buffalo’s bus fare-revenue is hardly something to be proud of ($92 million to operate, $27 million in fares, or less than a third of return) the light-rail is even less impressive ($24 million to operate, $4 million in fares, or one-sixth return). Knowing that the difference in Transit Oriented Development (a measurement most urban planners use to justify expensive light-rail projects) is negligible between rail infrastructure and Bus Rapid Transit, if Buffalo is looking to expand its network on top of improving current infrastructure, bussing seems the logical way to proceed.

Really though, any improvements are welcome to this system. Slowly, Buffalo’s public transportation is getting recognized (deservedly so) as a comprehensive and reliable source of transportation, and as the NFTA rolls out more infrastructure improvements (both technological and physical), its reputation will only increase. That being said, the Buffalo-Amherst study highlights the need for more targeted efforts by the region and the state to make Buffalo’s public transportation better, not just broader.

In a way, that is the biggest frustration with the Buffalo-Amherst Alternatives. In trying to expand services to attract current non-users, they miss an opportunity to study what ails their system in the suburbs: it’s not just Buffalo that needs better infrastructure, but Amherst as well. This stop at the intersection of Millersport and North Forest could use the same improvements currently proposed for Niagara Street:

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Route 44 (Lockport) stop at the intersection of Millersport and N. Forest Rd.

For a number of years now, a great deal of Buffalo residents reverse-commute to areas like this, where suburban office-parks have emerged for the same reason UB selected their site in the late 1960s; cheap subsidized land. This intersection could use heated bus shelters, posted schedules, and cut-outs just as much as key corridors in Buffalo would. At least this intersection has sidewalks: one-block to the west at Jon James Audubon Parkway (which Google says is also a stop, though I can’t find a corresponding route), one lonely sidewalk is the only pedestrian infrastructure for any bus riders who may be commuting to the numerous offices around the intersection.

An article on Buffalo Rising critiqued the recent stream of marketing campaigns about how nice Buffalo actually is. The author concluded, “If we want more people to know Buffalo the way we know it, we need to stop just telling people about it and simply do more of it. We need to do less of the things that’ll make “them” believe we’re something else and more of the things that’ll make them know exactly who we are.”

The NFTA should take this idea to heart when considering their Amherst-Buffalo corridor and future studies in Buffalo. If they focus on improvements to change the system from something that people need to use to something people like to use, they can stop asking, “If we create new routes, will it increase ridership?”

Instead, if they make the right changes, they’ll be asking, “Can we create new routes to meet ridership demands?”

This piece also appeared on The Preservation Exchange. 

Traffic Calming at Parkside Avenue

Back in early November, a group of citizens gathered along Parkside Avenue to make a statement: This is our neighborhood, this is not a highway.

Parkside Avenue, which runs between Delaware Park and a quiet residential community, is a four-lane road that connects to the Scajacuada Expressway, an urban arterial that passes through the center of the city. Cars use Parkside almost as an extension of that expressway, much to the dismay of neighbors.

Though police eventually arrived, this example of tactical urbanism does highlight the growing discontent with lack of planning and action by city leadership when it comes to the quality of life in Buffalo’s neighborhoods.

Buffalo’s 2013 In-Rem Auction

Written by Derek King, an Architectural Historian in Buffalo, NY, and writer for The Preservation Exchange. 

It was clear as soon as I entered the Convention Center that Buffalo’s In-Rem was much bigger than I expected.

Two lines extended across the full length of the lobby, and all the tables in between were filled with individuals looking to purchase lots and buildings during the City’s 47th annual foreclosure auction of properties delinquent on their taxes. In line were city residents hoping to pick up something on their streets standing next to real estate investors from Toronto and New York. Men wearing kippahs stood behind women in hijabs, and scarf-wearing bakery owners eyed local developers and waved at neighbors.

Between the big diverse crowd, the high energy, and the future on everyone’s mind, it was a quintessential Buffalo event.

2013 In-Rem Auction 47

2013 In-Rem Auction 47

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Buffalo’s In-Rem is an annual auction each October where attendees can bid on properties whose owners have not yet paid their taxes, or other bills related to the property such as water and user fees, and is then different from a mortgage-foreclosure auction. Many of these properties have been vacant for years; some of the lots auctioned, where the buildings were demolished years ago, have been on the In-Rem list for over the last 10 years.

The auction’s existence isn’t very surprising, as many cities have similar events. In Detroit, the number of properties in foreclosure each year is so high that Wayne County began bundling large packages of lots, between 400-1,000 properties, in order to entice more serious investors. It wouldn’t be an unprecedented move either, as Detroit recently agreed to sell 140 acres of land to Hantz Farms for them to plant trees upon. Though criticized by many as a thinly veiled land grab for future speculation, Detroit does actually achieve two goals with the deal; first, it gets a large portion of its vacant land back on the tax rolls, and secondly, it may actually drive up the cost of real estate in Detroit by creating an artificial scarcity.

For many, it may not be surprising to here about these problems in Detroit, as their issues with vacancy and monumental debt are well documented in the national media. Fewer likely know , however, that Buffalo and many other Rust Belt cities face similar issues of vacancy and housing foreclosure. In 2010, during the last Census, Buffalo had almost 21,000 vacant homes within city limits, representing over 15% of the total housing stock. That number didn’t even account for the over 3,300 acres of vacant land in Buffalo. Though that number may have decreased slightly since then, it is still a very daunting number, especially considering the city only owns 4,000 of those vacant properties. 

Each year, the In-Rem Auction attempts to get some of these vacant properties back on the tax roll. In 2012, over 3,100 properties went to auction, and a little over a third were sold. The remaining two-thirds were either sold to the city, or “adjourned.” Some attendees joked that adjourned was just another way of saying the delinquent owner got a free pass. Based on the number of vacant lots that have been repeatedly adjourned, the city has issued a lot of free passes over the years.

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Once people filed into the main conference room, the real fun began. Attendees began discussing the different strategies they’d employed in scoping out certain properties, everything from cursory drive-bys to peeking in windows. Analysis of the real estate market in Buffalo, by amateurs and professionals alike, bounced back and forth. Some people were there looking for their first properties, others for investments. Some wanted vacant lots abutting their homes, others were tired of no one taking care of the house at the end of their street.

Right before the auction began, several individuals gave some important points for attendees to consider. These included: owners purchase properties as-is; anyone suspected of driving up bids or collaborating with others would be tossed out; and several rules to prevent house flipping were outlined. The Anti-Flipping Task Force noted, in particular, that houses had to be owned at least six-months, and could not be sold for over 120% of the buildings purchasing cost during that time. Individuals found in violation would be held accountable, and though a punishment wasn’t noted, the withering stare of the Task Force’s speaker, Joy McDuffie definitely drove home the fact that it would be serious.

Then it began.

The pacing was incredibly quick, as the auctioneer (and City Treasurer), Michael Seaman, stormed through vacant lots at a break-neck speed. He burned through the beginning of the list, which included many vacant lots that had been part of the auction for years. When he arrived at a building, he definitely demonstrated his skills as an auctioneer.

The early bids hinted that this was going to be an exciting few days. As Hawkeye Maps noted about last year’s auction, the average bid was around $7,000, with 50% of the properties sold under $3,000. This year, the average over the two days I attended was closer to $10,000. After several bids were over $120,000, there was even applause.

During a break, I asked local developer Bill Breezer if this was how it always was. “I started buying rental properties in the late 70s, and probably began coming to this in the 80s,” he told me, “but it’s definitely gotten much more popular over the last few years.”

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Though exciting, the fact that thousands of Buffalo properties each year go up for auction is not an encouraging sign. Grouped with the vacancy issues noted above, as well as with a 40% ownership rate of occupied housing, the In-Rem is another sign of how far Buffalo has to go before it has anything resembling a stable real estate market.

For some, this is bittersweet. Young people in particular look at this year’s In-Rem as a last-chance opportunity to take part in an economy that’s booming compared to Buffalo’s recent past. “It’s bad,” said Bernice Radle, one of the co-owners of Buffalove Development, and one of the “young folks” at the auction, “but it’s bad in such a good way.”

One of the good features of higher prices is higher down payments by bidders. Anyone who purchases a property has to pay either the full price, or at least $500 (for vacant lots), $2,500 (for most buildings), or 10% of the sale price immediately on the premises with the full price paid by the first week of December if the winner sought to keep the property. If bid-winners have to put more down upfront, they’ll be less likely to walk away if the building requires more work than they’d like, and the building would be less likely to return to auction the next year.

Of course, higher bid-prices also meant that most buildings and lots were out of reach for local individuals looking to buy their first home or first investment property. After developers and investors, the next biggest demographic seemed to be young couples, one of whom compared the most recent lists of available properties to laptop databases they’d compiled, and during bids elbowed their spouses and partners as the prices went too high.

Though it was exciting to see buildings sold for such high bids, an alarming number of vacant lots were adjourned, many of which had been at In Rem for the last 10 years. With the news that the Erie County Land Bank just secured $2 million in funding, there could be an opportunity to take these vacant properties off the market and create real stewardship for their maintenance. Instead, the adjourned lots, as well as any properties deemed “too risky” to rehab by bid-winners come December, will return to the In-Rem once again next year.

Looking over this years results, it turns out those two bids were the highest of the auction, both by Albert Burruano of Western New York Property Investors Inc. Only one other bid went over $100,000, but many sold for over $20,000. A quick scan through the final results will drive home the diversity  present in the Auction Hall, but considering how positive people were at the auction, it is does underscore the bitter reality that Buffalo faces when it comes to vacant and foreclosed land.   The sheer number of properties “adjourned” or “struck to the City,” really does show how much further Buffalo has to go.

UB breaks ground for new medical school in downtown Buffalo

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From University at Buffalo-SUNY News Center:

The eight-story, 540,000-square-foot building is the first project to be funded by a NYSUNY Challenge Grant provided by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo when he signed the NYSUNY 2020 bill into law in 2011.

“Today’s groundbreaking for a new medical school here at the University at Buffalo is yet another demonstration of the state’s commitment to revitalizing Western New York and bringing Buffalo back stronger than ever before,” Cuomo said. “The Western New York region is becoming one of the nation’s premier locations for health and medical sciences, and this new school will play a central role in bringing the best and brightest medical students, teachers, researchers and doctors here to Buffalo. In 2011, we launched the NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program because we believed that universities like UB could serve as a hub for job creation, economic growth and community revitalization. With today’s groundbreaking, we are continuing to see this vision become a reality.”