Western New York has been having a great run with getting public and private development off the drawing boards and into reality. Kind of makes you want to start singing “Buffalo’s got the spirit, talking proud, talking proud.”
For those of you under the age of 40, that was a community spirit song beaten into our memories in the early 1980’s in endless television commercials. The fact is, there wasn’t quite so much to be proud of at that time. You could probably say that we hadn’t even hit bottom yet.
Fast forward to the 21st century. There are projects all over town that are re-building or building new. Ex-pats and locals alike marvel at the new face of the city at Canalside. As great as that venue is, there is a lot more going on that is also valuable and important, and the construction work and resulting jobs that are created have given us a decades-low unemployment rate. I’m thinking of things like the rebirth of One Seneca Tower, the Explore and More Children’s Museum, new hotels and apartment buildings, and restaurants galore.
Sometimes, though, developers and public agencies who work with developers seem to get in one another’s ways. Take, for example, the controversy about the area in downtown Buffalo that is known as the 201 Ellicott project, currently the site of a large surface parking lot across the street from the Central Library. It is a Ciminelli Real Estate project, and it is butting up against the already existing work of another developer, Rocco Termini. Termini is suing Ciminelli and the City
Full disclosure on this issue: Rocco and I have been friends for more decades than we wish to count. What I am writing here, however, are my own views on the subject.
It seems to me that taking an entire block of surface parking, which is heavily used by local residents and visitors to the neighborhood, without providing for compensating parking in the same area is short-sighted and detrimental to existing businesses as well as local residents. There are, of course, local residents because Termini has placed apartments in the Lafayette and the former AM&A’s warehouse across the street.
What is planned by Ciminelli on that parking lot is a small convenience store, some apartments and a Buffalo centric location for a local food distributor. The parking spaces used by the Lafayette’s residents and guests and others in the area will be gone. Ciminelli will not include much in the way of parking on the site.
It is hard to understand how the City of Buffalo would allow such a development to go forward without considering the collateral impact. It’s seems like that old “crony capitalism” argument that Sarah Palin used to throw around. Ciminelli was awarded the development rights without the taking of public bids by the City.
So it’s developer versus developer – showdown at 201 Ellicott. Time and money will be wasted, and the progress of the community, at least as noted on that one downtown block, will come to a halt for the time being.
And then consider other development activities of a more public nature which find public agencies proceeding with development projects while a private developer is marching off on his own on the same sites.
The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has existed for the past fifteen years. It was created with the mission of managing and improving the City of Buffalo’s park system that was laid out in the late 1800’s by noted park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.
Before the Conservancy got into the business, City parks were in a challenged position. Their upkeep was part of the City government’s responsibilities. Budget problems made opportunities for parks improvement difficult to achieve. The Conservancy also has financial limitations, but their parks-centric focus gives the heavily used City parks more of a fighting chance to survive and thrive. They have conducted fundraising programs to support their mission.
The Conservancy recently completed a five-year plan for parks improvements. The plan had extensive input from the public in the form of public meetings and an online survey. The organization is setting a target of $18-25 million for the work. That’s a challenging number, given the competing asks of other public institutions who are also looking for capital improvements.
The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens on the Buffalo/Lackawanna border also has a major capital project under development. The facility is owned by the County of Erie but managed by a separate organization. Public attention and attendance at the Gardens has grown substantially over the past several years.
Another full disclosure: Dave Swarts, the Gardens’ CEO, and I have also been friends for many decades. Again, what I am writing here are my own views on the subject
The Gardens have also spent the past several years developing plans and organizing a capital campaign that will update the century-old facility and provide additional public benefits including a reception facility and expanded educational areas, with the benefit of improving the ability of the Gardens to be, as much as possible, financially self-sustaining. The Gardens’ development plans are being vetted extensively with the constituencies they serve and the governments that have for many years helped support the facility’s activities.
But in the face of the publically developed and supported plans for the Buffalo Conservancy and the Botanical Gardens, along comes area thinker, Kevin Gaughan. Gaughan wants to redesign Delaware Park and South Park, and to construct a new golf course. His plan includes a reception facility and an educational facility in the remodeled South Park that would be little more than a stone’s throw away from the reception facility and education venue that is a part of long-planned expansion of services of the Botanical Gardens.
Gaughan sells his proposal on his strong alliance with 1960’s golfing legend Jack Nicklaus. That’s great, mostly if you are a golfer. The problem is, Gaughan has dropped his latest community project in the laps of two outstanding community organizations with long planned and well thought out projects that could very well be compromised by competition for public and philanthropic dollars.
Evidence suggests that golfing does not have the allure it once had, and there are multiple existing private and municipally operated golf courses in the area to serve the interests of the sport’s enthusiasts. That would suggest that Gaughan’s development plans will find it challenging to raise anywhere near the tens of millions of dollars that would be needed. In the meantime his plans compete for attention and maybe dollars with two long-established community assets.
The issue of Ciminelli versus Termini is both a public and a private matter that it appears will have to be settled in court. The issue of Gaughan versus the Conservancy and the Botanical Gardens, on the other hand, is much more of a public interest matter than can and should be reviewed and sorted out in the court of public opinion.
Progress is great. Competing interests can be sorted out. But hurting what is already good in the interest of late-blooming projects with limited appeal or support does not serve the community well.