Reports, studies, testimony and conversations on public policy
by Bruce Fisher
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Our Waterfront, Ourselves
by Bruce Fisher
Seattle's Pike Place Market
After Bass Pro, new ideas take shape
There is great news from Norway, a country with limitless oil revenue and a pretty much uninhabitable interior. Norway will be host to an international conference later this fall that will bring together many experienced designers, planners, and developers to discuss good ideas about waterfront development. Next week in Sweden, the Canadian Urban Institute will host a similar event in Malmo, a Buffalo-sized city that has been water-oriented since, oh, about the time its native Vikings rowed their longboats to practice their version of cultural tourism in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Russia, and other places whose gene pools they enriched.
Can Buffalo learn from other cities? Of course—just so long as we remember some facts about ourselves. When we forget that every responsible observer projects continued population decline in Buffalo-Niagara for the next 20 years, when we overlook our sprawl-induced lack of population density, when we gloss over our isolation from the major population centers of the East Coast, we enter our own version of Neverland—the land where we never get it right.
The challenge that some folks in this community are now bravely undertaking is to make sure that Buffalo’s models for redevelopment be relevant to Buffalo.
The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation got this community into trouble by designing a waterfront development proposal based on Baltimore, which is in a metro area of 22 million people that includes the nation’s capitol and which expects significant population growth by 2020. Buffalo, like so many Great Lakes cities except Chicago, is not a big place. We are in a metro of 1.1 million that will become 1.0 million by 2020.
Numbers matter. The distinctive challenges of the Great Lakes communities begin with a recognition of what we are. That doesn’t mean throwing up our hands in despair—but it does mean figuring out whether we are after visitors or whether we are after a sustainable context for the people who live here.
Strangely enough, folks who have been working for years on the sustainable context seem to have stumbled upon the right formula for attracting visitors. Architectural tourism, which used to have major support from Erie County and from New York State, today gets Buffalo about 70,000 visitors a year, up from 1,000 about 10 years ago. Fallingwater, the Wright residence in western Pennsylvania, gets about 140,000 a year. A realistic goal for Buffalo is to get up to the Fallingwater number. It has taken 10 years to get halfway there. The word is getting out about other distinctive Buffalo offerings. The Garden Walk gets a few thousand out-of-towners, but the reason the Garden Walk works is because it’s mainly about sustainable context for residents, and about re-invigorating the urban landscape for people who live here or nearby. These are successes—but the reality is that the in-city population, like the metro population, continues to shrink. Buffalo was 328,000 in a county of 960,000 in 2000. Buffalo today is at best 275,000 in a county of 908,000. The 50,000 people who are no longer here decided to leave the very place where we have succeeded so very well with our community sustainability projects.
What we have to ask ourselves is whether our post-Bass Pro visioning will be more pie-in-the-sky imported from places where the economic fundamentals are very different, or whether get down to the business of thinking about how to succeed in our own context.
I think we can succeed. The vision of clean water and green space, of an environment that is a safe public play space, seems financially achievable and also sustainable. If the Goldman v. Bass Pro lawsuit is successful, then this community will have about $9 million a year for the next 20 to 30 years from the New York State Power Authority re-licensing settlement available for getting us something sustainable.
Think of the Buffalo River today—a filthy, sewage-laden stream that this fall will start getting some of its toxic sediments dredged out by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Notwithstanding the fact that untreated sewage flows into the Buffalo River at least 50 days a year (i.e., whenever it rains enough for the storm sewers to mix with the sanitary sewers), people love the Buffalo River. East Side locals cherish the Seneca Bluffs project, which won a national award a few years ago as a model for urban reclamation. Drive to the foot of Smith Street and see the lovingly painted murals on old railroad abutments, and if you can shoo the necking teen-agers away and get a parking spot, you can see where kayakers put in to a quiet, wind-protected river that winds past grain elevators that loom overhead as if part of the set design from The Lord of the Rings. At the foot of Hamburg Street, a new mini-park will house the ice boom and give small-boat users some new access. Downstream from the Ohio Street bridge, past the Bison Rod & Gun Club, there’s a park, then the new Scholastic Rowing Association’s white fabric boathouse, then some land known locally as “Peg’s Park” because South Buffalo icon Peg Overdorf, who runs the Valley Community Association, helped spur Erie County and New York State to get a few more acres of riverfront given over to public access.
Some folks like to think that if those green spaces could be strung together, connected to the Inner Harbor and then to the 100 or so acres of the Outer Harbor, Buffalo would then have a new, sustainable park system that would be a fit addition to our Olmsted legacy.
That’s what locals have been quietly working on. But here’s what could happen to us if we anoint visionary outsiders to come in and tell us about the great waterfront successes of the growing population centers of America, places like Seattle, on the theory that Buffalo and Seattle have a lot in common.
At one time, Buffalo and Seattle did have much in common. Back in 1975, just like in Buffalo, there were billboards that read “Will the last person to leave Seattle/Buffalo please turn out the lights.” Back then, a couple of Seattle’s major old-line industries were in deep trouble. But Boeing and Weyerhaeuser, unlike the steelmakers and grain-millers and aerospace engineering firms of Buffalo, did not leave. Nor did the massive US military presence in and around Seattle and Puget Sound depart. God bless our Buffalo Naval and Serviceman’s Park, but not since Admiral Peary and the War of 1812 has Buffalo had nearby Navy yard employing thousands. And we didn’t have Bill Gates, either. He’s the Seattle native who went home in the early 1980s, then got an antitrust exemption from the US government that made the IBM-Microsoft “tying arrangement,” which every law student learns is flatly illegal, legal. Afterwards in Seattle, as in formerly down-on-its-luck Portland, Oregon, came the astounding boom in containerized cargo from the Pacific, making their ports boom. By sad contrast, Buffalo lost its relevance as a port when the Saint Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1957.
At the upcoming conference in Norway, the Seattle folks who run the phenomenally successful Pike Place Market will tell everybody how their market became an anchor for the distinctive culture of their waterfront city.
Sure it did. The Pike Place Market got rebuilt because the demand was there. Supply rose to meet it. In Buffalo, the demand is not here. Yet the public sector keeps creating more and more supply—of infrastructure, of entertainment venues, of education spaces, and, through tax breaks that are effective developer subsidies, of private spaces, too, especially housing and commercial real estate. We have a massive excess capacity of all of this stuff, an excess that we cannot absorb. Four houses are being built for every household being formed. There is a 22 percent oversupply of central business district office space. Buffalo-Niagara has over-retailing as bad as Cleveland’s or worse. No wonder Harvard’s provocative economist Edward Glaeser got so much play a couple of years ago when he came to town and told Buffalo to stop investing in things and instead invest in its people.
As preservationist, restaurateur, historian, and litigant Mark Goldman pointed out in a recent Buffalo News column when he criticized the plan to massively subsidize retail stores in Erie Canal Harbor, creating supply does not create demand.
So here is a bold suggestion: It’s time for settling on some common goals—things that we might be able to get everybody to agree on, like clean water, beaches that won’t make you sick, and green space that people can actually get to, and that should stay undeveloped today and tomorrow until somebody wants to invest their own money rather than ours.
Can we aspire boldly? How about we aspire to creating uniquely beautiful parks that will endure for as long as Olmsted’s has endured. How about we aspire to creating a new riverfront park and trail system that starts at the polluted old grounds of Republic Steel and goes the entire length of the Buffalo River. Preservationist Tim Tielman, East Side activists Greg Olma and Yuri Hrescheschyn, South Buffalo community leaders, Kaisertown citizens, and longtime civil servants who succeeded in giving us Seneca Bluffs and Smith Street and Ohio Street green space have lots of ideas, and some solid achievements along the way, too. If those achievements were not created as a unified system, it’s high time to start thinking of these jewels as elements of a greater whole, for piece by piece, this community has already demonstrated that it has a very clear idea: It wants access to the waterfront, even if the water today is so damned dirty that it makes us sick.
As the community meetings start happening and the big events start being planned, Buffalo should keep the doors open to outsiders and to their proposals. It helped focus us tremendously 10 years ago to have Roy Mann lend his credibility to the community’s decision to bring back the Commercial Slip, the bowstring bridge, the Central Wharf, and the historic street pattern of our old Canal District.
But we also need to do a better job of welcoming our own competent locals. That’s why there’s a buzz underway to create a series of community events at which knowledgeable locals can step forward and tell the rest of the world what they’ve been up to, some facts about where Buffalo is in its history, its economics, its population trends, and also in its finances. There are local experts who can tell the community which environmental challenges are urgent and which are super-urgent. What’s needed is a series of forums at which people can wish out loud for what they want and explain not only how to pay for it today, but also how to sustain today’s decisions in the years to come.
Bass Pro may be gone, but the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation still has a plan to find an anchor retail tenant for a retail-centered development. If Goldman v. Bass Pro loses in court, there may be no way to stop the stores for which there is no demand. Nonetheless, there’s some energy on the street these days. People are talking about coming together to think together about what to make of our waterfront. A central question, the question that the 40-odd member groups of the Canalside Alliance have been asking all along, is how to ensure that there is a net community benefit in whatever choice is made.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
Vince McConeghy 10 Sep 2010, 08:53
I don't think any reasonable person expects us to duplicate Pike Place at Canal Side in the near future. But a downtown waterfront market that emulates Pike Place is a noble - and rational - goal.
Take a look, instead, at what happens on a weekly basis in Rochester at their Downtown Public Market. Year round it is filled with activity, not only from agricultural vending but foodservice businesses that have a long term presences in the community (restaurants, wholesalers, artisans, bakers, butchers, etc.).
A downtown market at Canal Side supports and enhances the growing residential trend in downtown. Downtown residential developers should take an interest in building it - it will only increase the market value of their properties - not Benderson Development which has no interest in downtown residential development.
If designed so that it is enclosed, the Market could sustain itself year round and also expand as business permits. It does so by lending itself to local companies that want to grow with and need that crucial mix of retail/wholesale to help them along at a reasonable rental rates. The initial build would be about 50,000 sq ft.
There are many earnest groups already with an interest in a downtown market (too many to credit here, but they know who they are and I salute you). It might not happen at Canal Side, but that would be a shame. It's our best place to create a legacy for the next generation to look back later and say: yes, they did it right.
Bruce Fisher 10 Sep 2010, 09:29
Anybody who wants to invest in Erie Canal Harbor should go forth, purchase a parcel from the City of Buffalo, and get to work using skills, savvy, sweat and smarts to create a winning venture. Public funds should be put to public use. Right now, there is a $500 million project waiting to be done, which must be done: fixing the sewer system so that what we flush doesn't end up in what we drink. Either we use the funds that Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has on hand, funds they STILL intend to give to Benderson Development Corporation to bring in out-of-town retailers, or we raise our own taxes and sewer fees while our money walks out of town. Would a big downtown farmers market succeed? Let market forces decide. Should we first get ourselves clean water and green space where there are now brownfields? You betcha. Public money for public space and public health, private money for a venture many of us might support.
Vince McConeghy 10 Sep 2010, 10:23
500 million to fix the sewer system and get clean, green space? Did market forces decide the cost of this spend? Suggesting that market forces decide the future of the private development of our waterfront is disingenuous. It's never worked that way in this town.
The city of Boston just ponied up 10 million to ensure a year round market is built beside Fanueil Hall. We're not Seattle, not Boston, the two cities we shared much in common with in the late 60s early 70s, but 10 million is doable even here.
I'd say for 500 million you should be able to get clean water, wipe your arse, ride your bike along the lake, and get to a Public Market. I can't think of another use for the waterfront that has the year-round potential that a Public Market - not a farmer's market - has for downtown sustainability.
I'd like to see something in addition to a clean flush and a bike path on the waterfront - in our lifetime.
Tucker Curtin 10 Sep 2010, 18:26
Please consider the following proposal for the redevelopment and reuse of the outer harbor structures known as Terminal A and B located at Fuhrmann Blvd. on the outer harbor:
The objective is to form a cooperative of food processors and local farmers to process, store and sell their commodities under one entity. Terminal A could be divided into different incubator spaces, each specializing in their prescribed food products.
"The Butcher Block" could be a section devoted to the humane processing of local beef, chicken and pork. The block could have many diverse tenant/members that could include sausage makers, European and Kosher butchers and similar type purveyors of artisan meat products.
A Produce section would feature a year round market open to the public. It would be equipped with a processing area for washing, canning and freezing of the local seasonal harvest. Among the tenant/members could be vegetarian restaurants and producers of fruit and vegetable based foods such as soups, sauces and baby food.
A Bakery section featuring locally milled wheat and other grains with specialized products such as pizza, hand made pastas, breads, cakes and candy makers. Baked goods and confectionaries could be sold wholesale, to the public as well as individually quick frozen for future sale. Production areas would be glassed in for public inspection and entertainment.
The facility lends itself well to different types of restaurants that can be exposed to the waterfront as well as the ability to create within a streetscape with a mall type open air feel during the more inclement months. A focal point, such as a village square, could feature a gathering place for weekend cooking demonstrations and a live music/theater venue.
The list of potential tenant/members from apple pie makers to wine makers is too numerous to list. The ability for local farmers and small food producers to bring their products to the mass market through cooperative methods will allow tenants/members to share services, marketing, processing equipment, byproducts and knowledge. The local farmer can and will continue to increase production knowing that there is processing and storage capacity for the commodities farmed. Products produced would be sold to other cooperative members, the general public, local specialty stores and supermarkets. Commodities could also be shipped via truck and rail widening future markets and lowering costs through bulk purchasing and shipping amongst tenant members.
The cooperative would be committed to green technology and efficiency through environmental responsibility. The facility could also employ hundreds of people with jobs paying $10-$25 or more per hour. The location could also act as a conduit providing seasonal rural farm jobs to the inner city unemployed through job temp services. The Terminal could be a waterfront attraction for tourists as well as becoming a catalyst for year round outer harbor development. Vendors could accept food stamps allowing the poor access to local wholesome foods at reasonable prices. Projects such as this could be financed through the US Department of Agriculture and could qualify for many grants and subsidies. The Cornell Cooperative currently has resources and expertise in this type of initiative that would promote rural farming and the processing and storage of local agricultural commodities. There exists a tremendous demand from the farming community to have more USDA processing facilities so that they may grow more products and feed more people. The consumer currently has gone back to the basics acquiring an insatiable appetite for wholesome nutrition. The demand and market share for these type products continues to claim its rightful share in the marketplace.
Please consider this request to further develop our waterfront. I look forward to working with you all
FYI- Louis Fuhrmann was a four term Mayor of Buffalo. He was raised poor and worked at the Elk Street Terminal cleaning stalls and eventually worked in Kansas City at a meat packing facility. He married into a Buffalo meat packing business and worked his way to the top. He became successful and very wealthy in the food industry before and after his public service. His accomplishments as Alderman and Mayor include the construction of the outer harbor wall, electrified city street lamps, improvements to the Buffalo River and the construction of the Hamburg Turnpike to name a few. Fuhrmann believed that the people of Buffalo should utilize all our natural resources and capabilities for the betterment of its citizens.
Bruce Fisher 12 Sep 2010, 21:10
Vince - sounds very rational to me. And yes, market forces drive this infrastructure-repair project. We are running numbers this week on economic impact of diverting ECHDC money into sewer retrofit versus collecting the revenue to meet this cost from rate-payers. The cost of not doing it? Undrinkable, unsafe water. Not just undesirable. Unsafe. State, federal and international law can't be ignored.
Tucker - the planners always repeat adjacency, adjacency, adjacency. Right now, the food-distribution center for region's largest population node (Buffalo) is at Clinton near Bailey. Locating a new food-centered industry complex away from where what we have today now happens? I don't know, but there are many very sophisticated food-industry people here who should address your proposal.
Andy Nash 14 Sep 2010, 08:57
Fisher's article is one of the most rational planning essays I have read in a long time. It's almost impossible to for planners not to "make big plans" but it seems to me that the biggest of plans begin by someone taking a realistic look at the possibilities and building the foundation for something better.
Building a foundation of clean water, public access to a wonderful landscape and development ideas generated in the adjoining community could do more for Buffalo's future than any out-of-town retailer ever will.
Big box stores, as well as taking dollars from local neighborhood shopping, are completely inconsistent with attracting tourists. Having lived in both Boston and San Francisco, I can tell you that shopping is not the main attraction, people come for the history and environment, then happen to buy things ... it doesn't start with shopping.