Monday, June 30, 2014

May 8, 2014

The Downtown Stadium

A stadium like this one on the Outer Harbor? No, says the author: Let's bring people downtown - on Niagara Street or along South Park Avenue.

Where, and why, to return the Bills in Buffalo

Although Buffalo is arguably the smallest National Football League market, and despite the good arguments for freeing the community from both the distraction and the financial drain of the Buffalo Bills franchise, the Buffalo Bills will stay here, and will play their games in a new, publicly financed stadium. The best way to make a virtue of that necessity is to do what the community should have done in 1972: build the new Bills stadium downtown.

A downtown stadium will strengthen the region’s core. A downtown stadium will be the best option to draw ticket-buyers from beyond the 1.1 million who live in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro. And to reprise and extend the very sensible, very compelling notions advanced in the late 1960s by the late Buffalo Courier-Express, the new Buffalo Bills stadium should go on Niagara Street next to City Hall or, second-best, on South Park Avenue next to the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.

Parcels that are quite large enough can be acquired on both Niagara Street and South Park Avenue. The footprint of the Ralph Wilson Stadium and fieldhouse in Orchard Park is about 2.5 million square feet, which is precisely how much room would be available in either of the downtown locations. Acquisition, site preparation, and construction of either of these stadium sites would mean tearing down fewer than 1,000 existing units of subsidized housing in a city market that has more than 20,000 vacant housing units to pick up the slack. For what is likely to be a half-billion-dollar investment, acquisition and demolition costs would be well under $30 million.

Why here? A technician would cite “agglomeration economics,” but let us translate, because it’s not that fancy: existing hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, public transit, and one of the largest inventories of surface parking in any North American city are well within the 3,000 feet that today’s Bills fan has to walk from Erie Community College south parking lot to the Ralph. If the decision-makers on the secretive stadium site-selection panel possess even a glimmer of understanding of the economic power of adjacency, then they should understand this: Siting the stadium downtown provides us with the best, if not the only, possibility for the regional economy to recoup the $20 million annual subsidy, plus the price of the new stadium itself, that taxpayers will lose should the Ralph be replaced in the suburbs.

The new Buffalo Bills stadium has to be a big, bright, intrusive, visible presence downtown. Sorry, Central Terminal. Sorry, Rockpile. Sorry, HOK, the firm that foolishly proposed marooning a combination stadium/convention center/children’s museum on a the brownfield island on Fuhrmann Boulevard that politicians now call the Outer Harbor. That site should become the waterfront park that Frederick Law Olmsted proposed more than a century ago. It will not become the Buffalo Bills stadium site.

Downtown should, and our elected leadership should quickly assert its collective self to say so. We need for Canadians to be able to sit on the Peace Bridge, on those happy days when they crowd into town for their holiday shopping, and see the stadium right there next to the Thruway. We need for suburbanites to park their cars in all those parking structures on Washington Street, Franklin Street, Pearl Street, and Huron Street that are empty every weekend, and then walk their squishy, wide-bottomed, car-obsessed selves across downtown—past saloons, restaurants, hotels, street vendors, ice rinks, courthouses, and monuments—so that they get that big-city feeling again. The region needs Buffalo to succeed. The stadium will assist in the healthy process of self-redefinition that is underway.

And if the owners of Niagara Street’s Shoreline Apartments won’t sell, and if the Buffalo Board of Education insists on keeping its problem-plagued Waterfront School building, then the stadium can go where the Perry Projects currently are—2.5 million square feet of Thruway-adjacent, highly visible space on the very northwest edge of the Old First Ward, adjacent to the soon-to-be refreshed Ohio Street corridor.

The Niagara Street property would be much better for the urban economy because of the dozens of existing businesses that all stand to benefit from the trade 80,000 Bills fans will bring their way a dozen times a year. But there is a certain people-mover logic to the South Park Avenue site. Adjacent to the Seneca casino, a new stadium would give the NFTA every reason to lay some more track down atop South Park Avenue for what should be the first of several more light-rail rapid transit lines radiating from the hub Pierre L’Enfant and Joseph Ellicott gave us 200 years ago. Shuttling from downtown is less good than walking through downtown, but let us not make the preferred the enemy of the acceptable.

There are two Thruway exits for each of these sites. There is pre-existing parking galore. The water, sewer, and electric lines are already in. The Buffalo Police Department can handle the traffic and the crowds because they know how to handle traffic and crowds for all the festivals, concerts, Sabres games, conventions, and trade shows we already have, which means taxpayers can probably dispense with the redundant sheriff road patrol that should long ago have been consolidated with Buffalo’s police force anyway.

And putting the stadium downtown will be another, very visible, very powerful demonstration of Buffalo’s fresh new understanding of what every successful urban center of the last two millennia has demonstrated, something that every athlete, every dancer, every personal trainer and meditation guru knows: the power of core strength.

Da Bills, the bills

The late Ralph Wilson was skeptical about any new franchise owner being able to keep the team in Buffalo unless there were a brand-new commitment to Ontario, where population growth and strong household income growth, too, support a small but evidently growing fan base for Buffalo’s professional sports. The chatter about Niagara Falls as a potential site for the Buffalo Bills stadium is all about getting Canadians into the stands. There are, after all, three international bridges for those dozen game-days. But it’s unlikely that poor, needy Niagara Falls will win on Canadians alone, when 85 percent of the fan base is from the Buffalo metro. Canadians are indeed interested in football—that is, after the seasons of the hometown Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger Cats are finished. And the growth spectator sport in increasingly polyglot Ontario is not American football, but international soccer.

Some argue that the most sensible location for any new athetic field would be the UB athletic director’s dream—a huge new stadium out at the Amherst campus. Major college football programs in places like Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio bring hundreds of thousands of fans to college ball games. But those are not professional football towns: Pro sports suck the air out of college ball. Here, it’s one or the other. UB should have been placed downtown a generation ago, as should the stadium. There is no chance of moving the gown to the town, but the franchise? As a part of the overall amenity packaging and creation of new demand for radically increased supply of hospitality services? Football now definitely belongs here.

Skeptics of entertainment as an economic driver, just like the bean-counting critics of the subsidy-sucking nature of professional sports in small- and medium-sized markets, need to face it: The rent-seeking rich guys are going to get their way with public money, just as Ralph Wilson did for the last half-century. There will be football. The question is, will there be a public benefit to football’s presence in the Western New York economy? The answer depends, as the real estate industry knows, on three issues: location, location, location.

The lesson of cold, rusty, steely old Pittsburgh is that clustering the sports venues downtown keeps the ancient regional crossroads fresh despite Greater Pittsburgh’s indecent sprawl over all those once-pristeen Pennsylvania hills. Within a season or two, credible observers believe that Buffalo will indeed have become a mecca for hockey, thanks to Terry Pegula’s investment in all those new rinks clustered immediately adjacent to the rink where the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres play 40 nights a year. Situating the football stadium a few blocks from where the hockey stadium and our handsome baseball stadium sit will help refocus the region’s leisure-time behavior—which is precisely what all the preservationists were talking about back in the late 1990s, when they fought against Dennis Gorski’s and Larry Quinn’s plans to bury the historic Erie Canal district under generic asphalt parking lots instead of restoring Buffalo’s unique identity.

Bringing the Bills downtown will help knit the raveled sleeve. Bringing the Bills downtown will reverse the destructive sprawl dynamic. Bringing the Bills downtown will repopulate empty streets, fill local barstools, focus expenditures of discretionary disposable income, create agglomeration opportunities, help neighbors pocket a few bucks from parking fees, bring more Canadians, give cops more opportunity to give tickets to gutter-pissers, help the city’s real estate market, and educate a new generation that the city, the city, the city is the place to be.

Let’s not screw it up this time. Like the shoe company says: Just do it.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or

May 1, 2014

Getting to Square One

Parsing the numbers, steering the trends, as the city prepares for the Congress of the New Urbanism in June

Life is good! Things are looking up! In another month or so, an international gathering of very smart, very positive, very influential urbanists will come to Buffalo to enjoy our architecture, our parks, our weather, our water, and our prospects. The Congress for the New Urbanism will bring big thinkers, enthusiasts, and city-fix-it gurus from all over the place.

In some circles in Buffalo, we’re preparing for the event by practicing hymns of self-congratulation. In other circles, there is trepidation.

No jitters needed, folks. We should welcome a look-over by some fresh eyes, and some robust discussion, and tours in open-air buses led by local experts as well as tours led by folks who have toured dozens and dozens of cities. Comparison is good. Let’s expect and embrace conversation with some people who will do some searching, some tire-kicking, and some polite and possibly even uncomfortable questioning of what we do and what we are and where we’re going.

But let’s brace ourselves with some data—the first chunk of which should be about how our economy is doing, actually. The latest Brookings Institution Metro Monitor says that employment in the Buffalo area is now about where it was in 2008, which means that by Brookings’s accounting, we’re back to about square one.

That would mean that the Great Recession here is over. That would be great news; it would be even greater good news if we were just a bit stronger than we were before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 set off a national and international economic swoon.

But let’s ’fess up: The numbers here are actually down a bit. Back in January 2008, there were 579,100 people in the workforce here, with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate. As the new year dawned, there were just under 17,000 fewer people working in Erie County, and just about 4,000 fewer people working in Niagara County, than there were in 2008. At the end of 2013, there were more than 34,000 unemployed people in Erie County, The unemployment rate was 7.1 percent.

We’re doing better than much of the rest of the country, except for places like North Dakota, where the fracking boom has led to 25 percent growth in just the past year. As the new annual report of M&T Bank just pointed out, in an atypically positive introductory essay by its chairman and CEO, incomes are growing here—not booming, but growing nonetheless, in a manner the author likened to the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare.

In the aggregate, things are doing just fine. Recovery in employment here is faster and better than in Rochester, Syracuse, or Binghamton. There’s an exhaustive breakdown that our federal Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes that shows, by job description, how much folks here actually make for the work that they do. For the folks here who are working, there’s a lot of good-paying work for managers, number-crunchers, healthcare workers, teachers, technicians, and other skilled occupations. And with the employment rebound, the population decline of the area is slowing. Maybe it’s even stopped!

The largest employers here are the same as they’ve been for a couple of decades: a couple of big banks, a couple of grocery store chains, the hospitals, a couple of big insurance companies, auto dealerships and big HR firms, the Seneca casinos and Delaware North, plus government: New York State, Erie County, the 28 school districts and the 25 towns, three cities, and 16 villages. Don’t sweat the government employment, unless you’re sweating that it’s not enough: It’s holding steady at about 16 percent of total employment here. But note that in Forbes Magazine’s latest annual list of America’s richest counties, six out of the top 10 are dominated by taxpayer-funded enterprises, including the federal government, and most especially the Defense Department.

And while employment here is creeping back up to where it was before the 2008 calamity, there hasn’t been much disruption in the positve trend of growing metropolitan GDP. The Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro economy is now over $40 billion in inflation-adjusted money. It dipped below $39 billion during the recession. But the latest estimate of the total value of goods and services here is half a billion dollars larger than it was in 2006, before the housing bust started, before the Wall Street cyclone hit.

Drilling down into detail

Come June, the visitors who go to lots of other cities are going to take a look at all the stuff that first meets the eye. They’ll see the construction cranes for the new Delaware North headquarters at Chippewa and Delaware, and probably won’t ask about the vernacular curve-faced building that was recently there. They’ll see the construction cranes for the new hockey complex, and maybe they’ll see their faces reflected in the canal-shaped reflecting pools where the old Memorial Auditorium recently was.
Anybody with eyes to see will note the barrier/corridor we call Oak and Elm Streets, the very Cold War sort of Berlin Wall that separates downtown, with its two million square feet of empty office space, from the East Side, with its 1,400 acres of parcels that are either empty or worth less than $5,000 apiece. (That is correct: 1,400 acres, in a central city, in a regional hub, that could be purchased outright, at fair-market value, for less than $5,000 per parcel.)

There will be tours of the the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is the cluster of older, newer, and about-to-be- or just-repurposed buildings that houses Roswell Park Cancer Center, the Hauptman-Woodward Research Center, and the rapidly consolidating Kaleida Health System, which for years said it employed 10,000 or more, but which now, according to Erie County, employs about 8,500. The out-of-towners who look at lots and lots of other cities will notice that now Buffalo, too, is investing hundreds of millions of public dollars in a new medical center complex in hopes of achieving a comparative advantage over other mid-size cities that are also pursuing this strategy.

And, if the weather ever warms, the visitors will witness this year’s splendid, highly idiosyncratic, deeply localized self-improvement and life-affirmation program we know as the home-gardening renaissance. Buffalo inventors gave the world the grain elevator, and electric power, and Shredded Wheat, and the chicken wing—and the Rust Belt urban renaissance-as-a-transitive-verb movement, one flower-patch at a time.

We are way ahead of most cities on grass-roots civic engagement, but way behind in recalibrated, refreshed public transportation. We are marching with seven-league boots toward celebrating our water, and now, thanks to the Buffalo Sewer Authority, moving a step or two toward catching some of the stormwater that still flushes billions of gallons of our own shit into the celebrated drink.

Come June and the arrival of the new urbanists, hospitality employment will grow as it always does as summer rolls in. The ice boom, presumably, will have been gone a week or two. And we will still be pushing along on the path toward 2008’s numbers. Were we more focused on green energy, public transportation, regional land-use planning, and resettling more refugees, we’d be back there to that pre-crash future already. But hope springs eternal—especially when other folks are watching.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or

April 17, 2014

A Nation of Spectators

April 10, 2014

Putin goads, anti-Semitism roars, America snores

Twice this spring, Bernard-Henri Levy was invited to address the democracy activists massed in the streets of the capitol of Ukraine, a city that Americans know by its Russian name, Kiev.
The natives call it Kyiv, and Europeans respect this national self-assertion. European intellectuals, politicians, bankers, and news consumers have a high awareness of the distinction that, according to surveys, seems to be lost on all Americans—except Republican politicians, who blame Barack Obama for not preventing Vladimir Putin from subverting, terrorizing, and, starting with Crimea, dismembering Ukraine. The polls say that we are a world away from caring much about whether the Ukrainians invite a French philosopher or a French waiter to talk to them about democracy, human rights, and a foreign concept that the famous Levy referred to in both his speeches at the Maidan.
He kept saying “Europe.” Invoking the name of the continent was Levy’s way of asserting that the Ukrainian protesters, the folks who bore up against murderous snipers imported from Putin’s Russia, the folks who tolerate their own home-grown anti-Semites because they’re anti-Russian, are all a part of a bigger culture—a culture of individual freedom, of limited government, of rationalism and secularism, of the rule of law, and also of material well-being.
In Levy’s two speeches, he said “Europe” the way we say “America,” asserting a shared definition even as he was challenging European politicians to get the Ukrainians’ collective back. “Nous sommes tous des Ukrainiens,” was his echo of John F. Kennedy’s famous assertion “Ich bin ein Berliner,” except that Levy, the writer without weapons or armies at his command, said “we,” while Kennedy, commander of a fearsome arsenal, made it personal, individual, a deadly threat. Levy is just an intellectual and thus no threat. Levy looks behind himself to see who has his back and sees snarling Senator John McCain, the other major voice invited to Maidan, but he doesn’t see the US president, nor the leaders of France, the UK, Germany, or anybody else official from his beloved Europe. Neither does Vladimir Putin, the Russian nationalist who is now a Russian imperialist.
This month, while the Ukrainians look for somebody to back them up, Putin himself challenges the intellectuals. Putin says that “Europe”and “America” mean the same things these days—bankers and militarists and exploiters. His counter-narrative is that Europe and America stand not for democracy and protection of the rights of ordinary citizens, but for the criminal financiers and oil barons on whose behalf we invade any country, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Serbia to Libya and who knows where next, to advance their interests.
This month, a few days before Passover and the start of Holy Week, we see our Supreme Court monetizing our democracy and an American anti-Semite go hunting Jews in Kansas City. The armed asshole bags a Methodist father and son and an Italian-American lady visiting her mom at a Jewish old folks’ home, and shouts old epithets first spoken in Russian, and nobody in America could have prevented him from buying his gun.
We see these events for an instant. Then it’s back to the usual American discourse of the Tea Party rage, liberal equivocation, and leftist narcissism.
Forgive the despairing tone, but why should Putin take us seriously?
Levy said we should have pulled out of the Sochi Olympics to protest the Russian thugs who were cracking Ukrainian heads there before they started shooting unarmed civilians. Levy challenged: Don’t we remember how Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to distract the world from his arms buildup? Nobody but the Ukrainians responded.
Then, as the Maidan got bloody, he went back in. As a Jew, his endorsement of the Maidan protests helped muzzle the Svoboda party, which has ugly roots among Nazi collaborators. But it matters that this guy has invested his fame in Ukraine, a country with Jews, Muslims (including the now-marooned Crimean Tatars who feared going back under Russian rule again), Poles, and Russians, too, who all want to be out from under the neo-Stalinism of Putin’s rule.
A couple of years ago, Levy got a better audience here with his book Left in Dark Times, which took out after the new complacency of liberals, American and European alike, in the face of the insane anti-Jewish pronouncements that are the daily texts of Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the mullahs in Iran, and the hand-puppets who surround Putin.
Levy would educate the world about the Holodomor, the Ukrainian term for Stalin’s genocidal famine of 1932-1933 that diminished the Ukrainian population by as many as 12 million. Until Ukrainian independence in 1991, speaking of this genocide was illegal. To this day, it is denied by Russians, and by Russian toadies like Viktor Yanukovich, the guy whom the protestors of the Maidan sent scurrying. Ask an American, even an American knowledgeable about the Holocaust that killed six million Jews in the 1940s, about the 12 million Ukrainians lost in the Holodomor a decade earlier, and don’t bother waiting for any response other than blankness.
As Levy speaks of that Ukrainian catastrophe, and of the Jews’ catastrophe, and of Europe as the framework for a new tolerance based on a steadfast commitment to the rule of law, he is doing the work that a public intellectual needs to do. Perhaps if Levy had better English he’d have an American audience for this important message. Levy bravely defends Ukraine. And he defends Israel, too. A few American heads nod, but nobody with much power, no modern-day Kennedy, goes to Kyiv claiming Ukraine as ours, as family, as an indivisible part of the family. And while Levy challenge the Left for its equivocation and its fashionable anti-Semitism, here in America, defending Israel starts to look like this: liberals deploring nastiness at Gaza and West Bank checkpoints, but never ever acknowledging that the Hitler rhetoric of Hamas, et alia, is a problem. And no national politicians are flying into Kansas City, to say, “Hey, we deplore that guy, the Klansman, the Jew-hunter.”
America watched the Kansas City killer for an eye-blink. Fringe character, right? Nothing to trouble ourselves about, right? Just as Ukraine is a fringe country, too far away, too exotic. Kiev, Kyiv.
Sorry, folks. It’s not that easy. This is our fight, too. The neo-Nazi went after the Jews in KC and killed two Methodists and a Catholic. Levy is right: We are all in this.