So a developer comes along and …

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.

Some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets; a quickie poll

With the incredibly exciting local primary elections now in the rear view mirror, political candidates can get down to the nitty gritty details of an election. In the summer time that means endless picnics, fundraisers, parades, etc. It is also a good time for serious campaigns to map out their strategy, targeting, and palm cards.

Here are some facts, rumors and comments on political goings-on and other stuff:

  • My previous blog discussed issues concerning the Diocese of Buffalo’s handling of matters involving abuse of children and others by members of the clergy. I made a point about the need for a process involving police and the justice system in the investigations of such issues.
  • Following the publication of that post a reader of the blog pointed out something that I was not aware of, which clarifies procedures of the Diocese in such matters. “For the past 16 years the Diocese has reported all prosecutable allegations of abuse directly to the District Attorney with jurisdiction over the offense regardless if the allegation was credible or not. This was done pursuant to a compact drafted by … [diocesan representatives] and the prosecutors and signed by Bishop Mansell in 2003. This has been communicated to the media on numerous occasions but never highlighted in broadcast or print media… In addition, whenever a report of abuse is made to the victim assistance coordinator, she advises and encourages the victim to report to law enforcement.  This too has been communicated to the media.  Don’t you think that fair and objective reporting should delineate those facts?” Speaking just for Politics and Other Stuff, the answer to that question is yes – and done.
  • The local Democratic primaries turned out as expected, but nonetheless it was a very successful election for Democratic headquarters with victories in Erie County Legislature District 1 (Howard Johnson); District 2 (April Baskin); and District 3 (Lisa Chimera); The Buffalo Common Council in the Lovejoy District (Brian Bollman); the Fillmore District (Mitchell Nowakowski); the Masten District (Ulysees Wingo); and the University District (Rasheed Wyatt).
  • Turnout was in the low teens, not much better than the numbers for school board elections.
  • The 2019 election year in Buffalo has effectively ended with the Common Council primaries. There are no contests to speak of in the City, which will likely mean incredibly low voter turnout in the biggest Democratic enrollment municipality in the county.
  • Which brings up something to think about: it has been suggested that turnout for Buffalo school board elections could be improved if those elections were held in November with other city general elections. The thing is, elections for city offices are almost nonexistent in November. To the extent there are any real races that happens in primaries. So the only real benefit of November school board elections is to save the cost of running May school board elections every three or five years. Generally speaking, voter turnout in the City of Buffalo is pathetic. November elections will not improve turnout for school board races in any significant way.
  • Which brings up this thought: in the interest of countywide candidates, why isn’t there some Democratic crash program to bring up turnout in Buffalo?
  • There was sure a lot of fuss among the local Democrats and Republicans and their minor party affiliates having to fend off minor party write-in and obscure candidate challenges to the preferred candidates of the D’s and R’s. Does everyone need to be reminded that politics ain’t beanbag?
  • There will be three State Supreme Court seats up for election this year in the 8th Judicial District. Incumbents Gerald Whelan, Diane Devlin and Deborah Haendiges are candidates for re-election. There apparently is still no agreement about cross endorsements for Whelan and Haendiges. A possible third Democratic candidate, Amherst Town Justice Kara Buscaglia, is making the rounds of political events, she says, at the suggestion of Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner. The judicial conventions to select the candidates will occur during the second week of August.
  • As Nick Langworthy moves on to the State Party Chairmanship, speculation continues about his potential replacement as Erie County Chairman. Names included in the mix include: Ray Walter, attorney and former State Assemblyman; Deputy County Comptroller Brian Fiume; Water Authority Secretary Joe Burns; and Erin Baker, regional director of the Assembly Minority Leader, and wife of Nick Langworthy. All are allies of Nick, but the edge there would go to Erin.
  • Erin was a work-study student in the Colleges Relations Department at Canisius College when I worked there. Her talent and experience really make her a good choice for chairwoman, nepotism aside.
  • Lynne Dixon’s campaign is bragging about the poll they commissioned that reports a neck-and-neck race against County Executive Mark Poloncarz. The Investigative Post has done a nice job of exposing that for the push-poll that it is. Its demographics breakdown is suspect. It is the type of poll that you would want if you could just make up the numbers.
  • Dixon had more than $200,000 in the bank as of May 20th. That should cover those pesky bills from Big Dog Strategies and her other consultants for a few months. Her next financial filing is due on July 5th.
  • For Dixon and all other candidates and political committees there are also financial filings due on July 15. Those will help focus the county executive election and the three or four County Legislature races that are competitive.
  • The presidential debates went off reasonably well, and they are likely to help focus things better in the not too distant future.
  • The biggest boosts from the events, in this humble blog’s estimation, went to Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, and Amy Klobuchar.
  • Harris was incredibly effective in getting at frontrunner Joe Biden on his history concerning civil rights issues. He can recover, but he is fighting a bit up-hill now.
  • As Bernie Sanders’ campaign loses steam he seems to be expanding on more aggressive, costly and not-so-well thought out proposals, the most recent being wiping out all student loan debt. Elizabeth Warren appears to be ready to pass Bernie in national polling. His problem is that there is too much competition for the liberal/progressive vote.
  • This blog has certainly taken a verbal shot or two at Congressman Chris Collins on his Trump cheerleading and his legal problems. But a recent note in the Long Story Short blog pointed out something that shows that Chris has a practical side on a major issue. He has filed a bill (HR 2801) that has the purpose of providing “temporary resident status and employment authorization for certain non-seasonal agricultural workers.” Undoubtedly the bill has been filed on behalf of the many farmers in the 27th Congressional District. Collins’ current status as a member of the House, which includes having been barred by Republicans from committee assignments, limits the likelihood of any bill of his moving forward.
  • Has anyone heard or seen anything of the whereabouts of the state’s new Public Financing of State Elections Commission – the one that will set up public campaign financing in the state and might end fusion voting? Please pass it on.

An updating survey

This blog asked a series of polling questions last month, one of which was to determine support for 2020 presidential candidates. Here were the results:

  • Joe Biden            32.2%
  • Elizabeth Warren   19.8%
  • Donald Trump   11.6%
  • Pete Buttigieg   9%
  • Kamala Harris     9%
  • Beto O’Rourke  3.3%
  • Kristen Gillibrand; Amy Klobuchar; none of the above    2.5%
  • Michael Bennet; Bernie Sanders                    1.7%
  • Cory Booker; John Hickenlooper; Tim Ryan; Bill Weld; Andrew Yang     0.8%
  • Bill deBlasio; Steve Bullock; Julian Castro; John Delaney; Tulsi Gabbard; Mike Gravel; Jay Inslee; Wayne Messam; Seth Moulton; Howard Schultz; Eric Swalwell; Marianne Williamsson    0%

The survey was random and in no way scientific but it did give a glimpse of where things stood among the readers of this blog. With the first set of Democratic debates now over, I thought it would be interesting to re-survey the presidential question. So here it is:

Ink by the barrel, facts by the byte, progress by the bit — contrasting views of Buffalo’s budget

Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner and former Buffalo Comptroller Mark J. F. Schroeder has never been a shrinking violet. Whether he was taking on a political challenge or belting out an incredible version of a classic Italian song, he’s always put his heart into it.

And that was the case last year when he, still the Comptroller, published a very strong, hard-hitting analysis of Mayor Byron Brown’s 2018-19 city budget. In a detailed review, Schroeder laid out the argument for the proposition that the city’s finances were in trouble. Continue reading

What’s happening (and not happening) with the 2019 elections in Buffalo?

The year 2019 really seems like a strange one in local politics. The state Election Law changes, which shifted the political calendar, seem to make everything a bit off kilter.

A June primary schedule is not new in New York. Such was the case for many years until the early 1970’s, when Albany changed things to set up a September primary. That, of course, means that practically no one involved in local politics today has any history about the rhythm of what an early summer primary means. Continue reading