Cars and College Students
by Bruce Fisher
Why ECC needs to consolidate downtown
A generation ago, two creative and relentless Erie County legislators named Joan Bozer and Minnie Gillette led preservationists and educators on a successful mission to save the downtown post office building from the wrecking ball, and to turn it into the city campus of the county’s community college.
Adding to that campus has been a bipartisan effort for 30 years. Democrat Dennis Gorski and the World University Games added the Flickinger Athletic Center to the college’s downtown footprint. Republican Joel Giambra added the Public Safety Campus, which houses an emergency operations center, central emergency dispatch for all cell-phone 911 calls, the DNA lab where the Bike Path Rapist case was solved, and training facilities for emergency responders region-wide. State funds, meanwhile, gush into new development just up Main Street in the Main-High medical and research complex, which includes a cluster of institutions that hire the healthcare services workers trained by Erie Community College.
The logic behind all this concentration of capital and people-power is pretty straightforward. Downtown Buffalo is still the transportation crossroads of Western New York, and its legal, financial, and administrative center. Concentrating the region’s vocational-education resources downtown makes sense, too: The federal and state workforce development programs are centered downtown. The welfare-to-work offices are downtown.
And concentration of these public functions makes economic sense, too. As Harvard’s Edward Glaeser explains in his new book Agglomeration Economics, the “agglomeration effect” creates efficiencies, simply because when activities are clustered together rather than scattered across the landscape, the costs of everything from utilities to maintenance to transportation are lower. and the return on investment is higher.
And as the regional transportation authority dusts off its old plan to take a look at the possibility of extending the light-rail surface system out to the Southtowns, east to the airport, and north to the Tonawandas, one old reality comes into focus again: The historic crossroads of the region is still where it was 200 years ago. It is downtown.
But these days, the logic of concentration is once again being ignored. Erie Community College, which only a few years ago was on the path toward a one-campus consolidation downtown, is once again planning to disperse its resources to its suburban campuses.
ECC currently has a $40 million capital expansion on the drawing board. A committee of the board of trustees—a highly political body dominated by suburban Republicans—decided to issue a request for proposals last fall that specifically called for bids on a new healthcare training facility for the Amherst campus of ECC. In today’s jargon, the building would be known as the “Center for Academic Excellence.” The document ECC used to brief Western New York elected officials says, essentially, that there isn’t room downtown for all the new students that are flocking to ECC, and that there is “excess land” at the suburban campuses. And on this “excess land,” ECC officials want to use public funds to build other stuff, too—including housing and commercial space.
The capstone argument of this document is that the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which endlessly upbraids Albany for more and more public subsidy for private enterprises and capital projects at the Main-High medical complex, endorses ECC’s plan to put its new building for healthcare-worker training program in Amherst at the intersection of Youngs Road and Wehrle Drive, which is many miles away from the Main-High medical complex.
In 2011, with crude oil just having topped $105 per barrel and gasoline pump prices approaching $4 per gallon, it is déjà vu all over again.
The relentless logic of sprawl
Only a few years ago, a consultant hired jointly by Erie County and by Erie Community College concluded, in a blisteringly obvious but well documented study, that keeping three separate physical plants and three separate program mixes in Amherst, Orchard Park, and Buffalo costs more in maintenance and administration than would one consolidated campus. In 2004, the consultant calculated the extra costs of keeping three separate campuses at $5.7 million per year, not including the cost of any new buildings on the three campuses.
Those were innocent days. Gasoline had not yet spiked, as it did in 2008, and as it is spiking today once again. Leaked official diplomatic cables did not in 2004 indicate that Middle East oil production would peak in 2012. Today, we know that gasoline may become permanently expensive. The threat of price-spiking for transportation is so real that economists are predicting that the anemic economic recovery we now see may be undermined.
Fuel prices are why so many former adversaries are getting religion about fixing up old central cities. At a recent discussion of land-use planning professionals held in Buffalo, there was much talk about the impact of a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in fuel prices on the purchasing power of moderate-income households. If one’s take-home pay is under the New York State median, then the average AAA estimate of automobile operation costs (about $8,000 a year) goes up by about $2,000 a year. Out of a disposable income that maxes out at about $30,000 a year for an individual, that’s serious money.
That’s just one reason why an educational institution designed to serve moderate-income workers should be located where it’s easy to get to by private or public transportation.
Back in 2004, when the last effort to consolidate ECC’s three campuses into one was underway, the driving issue was the upcoming accreditation review by the all-powerful Middle States academic credentialing commission. Then, as now, there was a clear choice: Meet the academic standards by keeping three campuses and erecting new buildings to replace 1960s-era Amherst and Orchard Park facilities that are falling apart, or invest anew in one central location, achieve economies of scale, and meet the academic issues with new inputs.
The capital cost figure in 2004 was $130 million to bring the suburban campuses up to Middle States standards. But remember, that capital cost is not all. Keeping three campuses would also commit the community to bearing the extra (and avoidable) costs of $5.7 million a year—an annual tab that would not exist on a consolidated campus.
By contrast, the total cost of building a new campus downtown—with new buildings, new technology, secure parking, and transit access to the entire region—was estimated in 2004 to be $160 million. That’s $160 million plus normal operating costs, versus $130 million for new buildings on three campuses, plus $5.7 million a year in avoidable costs, on top of normal operating costs.
In short, the consolidation option was cheaper. It would have seemed an easy choice. Less money, better product; unification and co-location versus more money, same product, continued fracturing and sprawl. City students would get access, suburban users would get a unified campus with secure parking for those who drive and established bus service for those who didn’t, and everybody would get a regional hub with a college at its core, with no more public money being squandered in triplicate.
That’s what Niagara County Community College offers. What students call “N Trip” (for NCCC) is all in one place. A survey of ECC students done after 911 found that those who drive all the way to Lockport to go to NCCC do so in part because they don’t have to horse around going to three different campuses to complete their two-year degrees. And it’s not just students from far northern Amherst and Clarence who go to NCCC: Even residents of the Southtowns drive all that way for one-stop shopping.
Suburban fears at work again
Consolidation had its logic. But in this fractured region, weirdly persistent antique racial politics intervened, and ECC’s leadership, then and now, coyly avoids any talk of consolidation. The president of ECC would put more public money in a three-campus system that isolates poor kids in Buffalo, sends suburban kids into traffic hell at Youngs and Wehrle, and could strand them in proposed dormitories near the airport or in Orchard Park—all because, according to their documents, there isn’t enough parking downtown, and because downtown land is allegedly too expensive to acquire. Left unaddressed is the fact that the Town of Amherst, among other prospective users of the Youngs Road ECC campus, expressed serious interest in purchasing the land.
Not much has changed in the last decade. The current president of ECC, Jack Quinn, wants the three-campus status quo. The faculty union is content with the status quo. Administrators (of whom there are more today than there would be in a unified campus) accept the status quo. Each academic department that has a presence on each campus has separate leadership, which wants status quo.
The current ECC president wants incremental capital spending on each of the three campuses. His predecessor wanted to build hockey rinks and dormitories on the south campus in Orchard Park. Promoters of amateur sports object: The Flickinger Center is a major destination for swim meets, and hockey aficionados say that if rinks go anywhere, they should go downtown, near HSBC arena. As for student housing, developer Jake Schneider recently completed an adaptive-reuse for the old Alling and Corey building, using no public funds beyond the usual tax incentives, to create apartments and retail space.
The current ECC president, like his predecessor, wants to build a new academic building at the Amherst campus even though the very activities it would house have nothing to do with and are literally miles away from any healthcare employment, internship, or continuing-education function.
The math is very straightforward.
The “social” math is very straightforward, too.
A community college is a place for people in transition. Its students are a mix of displaced workers seeking retraining, kids on their way to a four-year school, adults seeking various vocational training courses, and others, of various ages and at various stages of life, looking for skills-upgrades related to specific companies in the area. A community college should be accessible (e.g., a 17-minute drive from anywhere in Erie County), upgradable, networked, cheap, convenient, and flexible in schedule. A community college is not a university. A community college should not be an academic environment sequestered in splendid isolation.
The old Erie County Vocational and Technical College got turned into a three-campus oddity during an era when sprawl was relentless and money for suburban education, apparently, was limitless. Now, when resources are constrained, and when demand for the vocational education in which the community college specializes is in greater demand, there is good sense in upgrading a physical plant. But there is no sense at all in doing it three times.