Can the tide be turned on development of the city's waterfront?
The Buffalo State College Center for Economic and Policy Studies will host the third in a series of Citizens Waterfront Project meetings Thursday, November 18, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center auditorium. After previous sessions at the Burchfield Penney and at City Honors, this time the focus is economics—costs and benefits—and more specifically on weighing the claims of economic benefit contained in the official documents prepared with millions of taxpayer dollars by consultants to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation.
It’s a tough topic, but a necessary discussion at a time when fantasies abound. The list of proposed uses for the $153 million in public funds under the Harbor Corporation’s control is comically long, and include many ardent proposals for museums about sports, weather, Erie Canal history, bicycles and even meat-packing. Creative citizens have been attending ECHDC sessions, and the corporation has just announced a series of “open house” meetings at which the corporation’s lead consultant, which has received over $5 million in public funds, will be present to answer questions about the new, modified plan—which is just a version of the retail-centered plan that would have given us Bass Pro at one of America’s most important Underground Railroad, immigration, and commercial history sites.
Ideas can be expected to keep flowing in: Skyway observation decks, new $100 million bridges, even an idea for a “22nd-century library” have been floated. With $153 million in public funds available—funds that, sadly, are being depleted by the numerous expensive consultants, attorneys, staff, and expenses of ECHDC—everybody from a bicycle collector to a green-energy consultant is stepping forward with a compelling presentation.
ECHDC listens to them all, but stays strictly on plan—that is, the new plan. Since 2007, the corporation has been more or less ignoring the hard-won community consensus that led to the re-watering of the Commercial Slip, the construction of the Central Wharf and the bowstring bridge, and the uncovering of old foundations and streets—the elements for which preservationists marched and went to court, and which they succeeded in convincing state and local officials to keep authentic. The new, post-2007 plan has been all about retail stores—and about the parking garages that big-box retail stores have when they’re located in suburban shopping malls.
But nowadays, the “creative class”’s view of Erie Canal Harbor is resurgent. Elements of the coalition that defeated the previous state agency in control of waterfront development—then as now an offshoot of Empire State Development Corporation, then as now advised by a New York architect named Stanley Eckstut—have stepped forward again.
At Thursday evening’s presentation, Tim Tielman from the Campaign for Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture will join the Canalside Community Alliance, historian Mark Goldman, and others in a community briefing session that will include some of the history, the context, the analysis, and also some recommendations that are distinguished from the many hundreds of new museum, library, and subsidized-store ideas that have been so prevalent—mainly because Thursday’s presentations will be squarely consistent with the original plan that the community thought it had achieved in the first decade of the new millennium.
Our special money
Meanwhile, in the world beyond Buffalo, New York State’s fiscal crisis is deepening, and this crisis has a special significance to the Erie Canal Harbor, the Buffalo River, the Outer Harbor, and to all the plans being promoted for the front yard of our moderate-income, over-retailed, housing-glutted, depopulating region. In the extra two weeks of comment that ECHDC is allowing on its modified plan, Buffalo will be doing something that the rest of New York State can’t do—namely, relying on a special source of funds for our waterfront planning.
Just this week, experts in municipal finance began warning of a potential crisis in the multi-trillion-dollar debt load of distressed states, including our own. The word is hitting Wall Street and Main Street alike: A new age of austerity is upon us, because there is no more “stimulus” money coming from Washington, and there is no will in any capitol, including Washington and Albany, to raise taxes to pay for anything new, or even for existing commitments. One consequence is that the standard practice of Empire State Development Corporation, which is used to being able to offer credit and financing to the normal run of politically favored projects, is abruptly over. Personnel in New York State’s primary economic development agency are being told that accounts that still contain project money are going to have to be emptied so that the overextended and underfunded health, welfare, and education budgets of state government can be kept whole. With the election of a Republican majority to the House of Representatives in Washington, the days of extra federal matching funds for New York’s huge Medicaid budget are also over. Earmarks—also known as Congressional pork—are a target of the new Tea Party-flavored majority, so we cannot expect money for infrastructure except from special funds like the Great Lakes Restoration Act fund, which is for sewers, not bridges, convention centers or stadiums. Already, projects across New York State are being put on hold.
But the situation is different for Buffalo’s waterfront. While there are state and federal funds involved, most of the money is from a unique source—namely, the 2005 settlement with the New York State Power Authority, which grants Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, as well as the Niagara Greenway Commission, a special revenue stream for the next 50 years. It’s special money from a special source—money that will almost certainly be left in place. But once this money has been spent, it won’t be backfilled in the usual way from the various legislative slush funds and executive reserves. Those are about to be gone.
So the question facing Western New York just became more urgent: If $105 million of the $153 million in ECHDC’s coffers is a one-time, single-source pot of gold, how can it last through coming age of austerity? If that’s all we get, then what’s the most sensible use?
The two-week timeout
On Tuesday, ECHDC announced a two-week delay in submitting its revised plan for approval by its parent body, Empire State Development Corporation. Previously, Empire State had rubber-stamped whatever ECHDC sent it—which is one of the complaints of the plaintiffs in the Goldman v. Bass Pro lawsuit pending in New York State Supreme Court. (I am a plaintiff in that case.) The new, “modified” plan is largely identical to its previous plan, which was notoriously centered on Bass Pro Shops. The new plan is also still focused on bringing retail stores and restaurants to the historic Erie Canal Harbor area. More than $50 million of the proposed $152 million public investment is still programmed for parking. More than $10 million is proposed for various architectural, planning, and other “soft costs.”
But as the old coalition reasserts itself, and joins with the Canalside Community Alliance and the Buffalo Common Council—which has endorsed the Canalside Community Alliance’s call for a community benefit agreement—five strong themes are emerging.
First, there’s strong interest, once again, in authenticity. ECHDC insists on committing $40 million of public funds for water features that it characterizes as “canals,” but neither Buffalo preservationists nor visiting experts like Fred Kent nor Tony Goldman salute this flag.
An idea Buffalo could emulate: projections on Qubec City's riverfront grain elevators.
Second, there’s a recognition that it’s a diverse group of activities—art shows, light shows, concerts, “tent cities” such as the one that forms each June for the Allentown Art Festival—that gains the support and interest of the regional audience. The region’s historic waterfront is seen now, as it was a decade ago when it was first saved from the Horizons Waterfront Commission and its New York City consultant, as the logical home for these light-footed, quickly assembled and quickly disassembled activities. A pavilion that could house such activities—and some permanent potties—might be the only structure needed. Some of the remaining funds might go to a program fund, leaving the bulk of what’s left for cleaning up the filthy water of our waterfront.
Third, a quiescent but very strong element of Buffalo’s 20th-century identity is reasserting itself: the indigenous avant-garde sensibility. In the next two years, a recently arrived curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery will mount an exhibition on the extraordinary flowering of culture created 40 years ago here when the late Governor Nelson Rockefeller put public money and his brand-new SUNY flagship known as UB at the service of musicians, painters, filmmakers, and literary artists. Suddenly, discussion of Erie Canal Harbor is being contextualized as a historic zone where new expressions can find a home as they did back then. A few years back, Quebec City’s riverfront grain elevators became the projection screens for towering images, and tens of thousands of tourists joined hundreds of thousands of natives when the shows went on. Buffalo is much closer to the rest of North America than is Quebec City, the thinking goes, and we do things in English. With appropriate observations about the distinctiveness of each place, there is an emerging sense that dramatic art displays based in our own Buffalo psyche might inspire us, attract the world and create some jobs along the way—all for a lot less than the subsidy cost of a retail “anchor tenant” and some ersatz “canals.”
Fourth, there’s a growing recognition that the money is going fast, and if it is to leverage any other money, it had better happen soon. That’s why proposals for new museums and libraries are inherently flawed, while cleanup-greenup investments that leverage federal matching funds have a more compelling logic. Even the advocates of a new Erie Canal Harbor heritage center have a hard case to make, made more difficult because of the behavior of local politicians like Erie County Executive Chris Collins. Collins has slashed cultural funding by more than 25 percent from the level of his two predecessors. Collins has also cut the Erie County library system by more than 20 percent. Construction, staffing, maintenance, and programming for the comedy museum, the weather museum, the bicycle, sports, green-tech, lake ecology, immigration, canal heritage, or children’s museum would all be partly public for the duration of the new museum’s lifespan. The stewardship of existing cultural assets is questionable. So is future philanthropy. Spending today without leveraging new money looks worse and worse.
Fifth, there’s a hunger for green space and clean water, not new, prefabricated destinations.
As the public discussion goes forward, decisions on spending public funds will ultimately be made by ECHDC and by Empire State Development Corporation. The two-week comment period will inevitably result in more proposals being floated, and more money being spent on out-of-town consultants. Meanwhile, the message from the Buffalo Common Council remains as clear as the day when that body first endorsed the community benefit agreement concept earlier this year: The Council will not turn over the Erie Canal Harbor land to ECHDC unless it negotiates a CBA. The Goldman v. Bass Pro Shops lawsuit remains pending in State Supreme Court; until it is resolved, ECHDC does not have all the funds that its revised plan requires in order to pay for parking garages, replica canals, and consultants galore.
If there is a moment for clarity, this is it. Buffalo had that clarity with the 2004 plan for Erie Canal Harbor, but that was before the New York Power Authority money, Bass Pro, and the old crop of consultants arrived. Sadly, unless the new governor and his staff understand the need for the state-created development agencies to seize their true opportunities in the harsh new economic climate, the current generation of Western New Yorkers may be stuck with its own planning disaster to rival a previous generation’s nightmare. The economic consequences of squandering $153 million of public funds that could have re-branded Buffalo while cleaning its filthy water might turn out to be worse than the decision made almost 50 years ago, the one that sent so much of Buffalo’s intellectual capital and prospects for self-generating renewal out to the swamps of Amherst.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.