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Subsidizing Suburbia

Poloncarz, ECC abandon Buffalo

Coming in the fall of 2013, Erie Community College will offer no—zero—courses in advanced manufacturing, electrical engineering, clinical laboratory technology, health information technology, or bio-manufacturing at its City Campus. The downtown campus is 1.4 miles away from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where the State of New York is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a project whose backers offer the hope of putting trainees in those disciplines to work, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year in operating subsidies and tax breaks for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Kaleida Health, the Catholic Health System, and other entities that are in the health-sciences research or health-service field.

Instead, Erie Community College will segregate all its training for what many hope will be the new regional economy not in its transportation hub, nor in its population center, but rather will do so exclusively at a place 12.4 miles away that is served, intermittently during the day and not at all after 8:20pm, by buses that take an hour to get from downtown and as much as two hours to get to or from the Galleria Mall.

The leader of Erie County government, Mark Poloncarz, was on hand twice in May to endorse ECC’s decision to locate its core workforce-training and “new economy” programs in geography that is impossible to get to for those without either a car or lots of time. The county executive plans to ask Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature for matching funds to build a $30 million structure for training aspiring workers in science, technology, and math—the so-called “STEM” disciplines—as if the accessibility of the campus, the demographic trend of the region, the state’s new law on smart growth, and the inexorable, unavoidable consequences of further suburban sprawl just don’t matter in Buffalo like they matter every other place under the sun.

Poloncarz, the Erie Community College board of trustees, and the silent or supine elected officials of Western New York are once again endorsing suburbia, sprawl, and segregation. The question is: Will Albany go along?

Segregation by design

There will be 93 sections of courses in biology offered at the North Campus of ECC, compared to 56 sections at the City Campus and 80 at the South Campus. Offerings in business administration are similarly fractured in ECC’s uniquely expensive and isolating three-campus system: There are 60 sections offered at the North Campus, 38 at City, 49 at South.

It’s that fracturing of programs, in aging buildings that a decade ago were found to be in need either of extensive repair or outright replacement, that led to a three-year planning effort to come up with an alternative, which is to consolidate the three campuses into one downtown campus. Acting on that recommendation, Erie County in 2004 and 2005 acquired two city blocks and worked with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on acquiring the current NFTA bus depot at Church and Oak Streets so that a new, consolidated campus could connect the Central Library, the 2002 Public Safety Campus, the Flickinger Aquatic Center, and the award-winning adaptive re-use of the old post office that currently houses the City Campus of ECC.

Capital cost of the project in 2005: $160 million. Capital cost of maintaining the three-campus system: the same. Economic consequence of keeping the old rather than investing in the new: more of the same decline, waste, urban abandonment, energy inefficiency, and regional depopulation.

The consolidation plan enjoys a consensus economic analysis. The theory, endorsed by neoclassical economists like Harvard’s Ed Glaeser and by Keynesians alike, is that concentrating higher-education and worker-training inputs in the urban core strengthens not only the urban economy but also the regional economy. The phenomenon known as “labor-market pooling,” which helps both workers and the economy overall by enhancing options and bargaining power right at the city’s core, is seen by urbanists of every ideological persuasion as a measurable benefit. The agglomeration effect—where adjacency of training facilities, workplaces, play-places, and services—is especially enhanced where transportation is quicker and easier.

In Buffalo’s case, a key driver for the plan was the existence of a 40,000-strong downtown workforce, plus the promise of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus bringing Kaleida’s widely dispersed workforce into a centralized location alongside Roswell Park and the proposed new home of the State University of New York at Buffalo’s medical school, both connected by a network of roads and public transportation options—including walkable streets—to bridge the 1.4 miles from downtown to High Street.

The reason there is a city at all, and now a medical corridor, is because this theory tests out in reality. The ECC consolidation plan made sense, and still does, because the economic fundamentals of this sprawled-out, depopulating region remain the same: too much expensive suburban infrastructure serving too few users; 1960s and 1970s buildings that can be replaced more cost-effectively with structures, either existing or new, that will have lower lifetime operation, energy, and maintenance costs; plus the positive impact of taking advantage of the geography of the urban core at a time when it is simply too expensive—a drag on the regional economy—to remain dispersed.

Instead, the politics of racism and suburban parochialism stepped in to doom implementation of the plan. Governor George Pataki’s Republican appointees to the Erie Community College board fight to this day for sprawl, racial segregation, and isolation of the poor and displaced workers of the urban core and the first-ring suburbs. The Democratic appointees go along in an unbreakable culture of cluelessness. Then, of course, there is Buffalo’s special brand of cluelessness—in which no candidate for mayor ever fights for a critical input, opting instead to beg Albany for more of Albany’s endless handouts for entertainment-oriented projects rather than for infrastructure that could enhance the workforce, disrupt concentrated poverty, or amplify the impact of other public inputs.

Time and travel

If a worker with a part-time job as a retail clerk at the Walden Galleria Mall wants to take any of the evening courses that are offered only at ECC North, and that worker is unlucky enough not to have access to a car, the contrast between the North Campus and the City Campus—which is at the crossroads of the region—becomes very stark.

The North Campus of ECC is 12.4 miles from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Google Maps indicates that public transportation up Main Street from the medical campus to ECC North takes 57 minutes—when it is available. Public transportation from the medical campus to the downtown campus of ECC takes 14 minutes, or, because it is only 1.4 miles away, 27 minutes by foot.

Based on federal and state data on workforce characteristics, an ECC student who might want to improve his or her job prospects in medical technology, advanced manufacturing, or in any of the fields that may hire at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus probably works today (if s/he works at all) in the largest single sector of the Western New York economy: in retail.

Retail happens to be the lowest-paying sector. Many retail workers do not own cars or homes. Growth sectors that pay more include the many positions in the healthcare field that the State of New York is investing in creating as it puts public wealth not only into the medical corridor, but into healthcare-training programs at ECMC and at the City Campus of the University. A stated goal of New York’s economic-development efforts is to help elevate household incomes by equipping displaced and under-employed workers—many of whom are now in the retail sector—with health-sciences skills.

Getting yourself from the Galleria to ECC North for your 6pm class in a science, technology, or math class means taking one of two buses at 4:51pm. You will have to transfer along the way: You’ll have to wait from 5:06 pm until 5:24 pm at the bus stop at Union Road and North Park Avenue, but you’ll get to ECC North by 5:34 pm. It’s a 43-minute trip. If you miss that fast bus and have to take the other one, bad luck: The trip will take two transfers and get you there by 5:55 pm, a 64-minute trip. If you miss the 4:51 buses, you just won’t make your 6pm class.

But getting back is another story altogether. If your 6pm class gets out at 7:30pm, the good news is that you’ll only have to wait until 8:20pm to get public transportation back to the Galleria. The bad news is that it will take either one hour and 35 minutes or one hour and 56 minutes.

But if you take the class in Advanced Manufacturing at the North Campus, which runs from 7pm to 9pm, you will have to spend the night in Amherst, because the last bus leaves at 8:20pm.

This Galleria scenario is reality, as the single largest concentration of ECC students comes from the Town of Cheektowaga. Were the car-free Cheektowaga students headed downtown to the City Campus for their classes—and then on to the medical corridor for the job opportunities that the State of New York hopes will grow there—the scenario is quite different. From the Galleria, travel time is 38 minutes. From Harlem and Walden, travel time to downtown is 30 minutes at 8pm, and 40 minutes if you left downtown at 10:30 pm, because even if you stayed late after class, or went to a movie (or a job) downtown, you could still get to the Galleria by 11:10pm.

Ignoring the new law

Albany’s practice in Buffalo is to toss money this way, but not to attend to the policy fundamentals.

Thus we have a Niagara Greenway Commission that was set up to take $8 million a year of Niagara Power Project relicensing money for the specific purpose of creating a linear park along the banks of the Niagara River. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent over the past eight years, but we have no linear park.

Likewise, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has spent well over $150 million of that fund, and has subsidized new office space at a time when almost two million square feet of excess office space will be on the market by 2014, with no results so far except the relocation of existing firms, concerts, and hot-dog vendors, and far less than zero of any private investment. Albany spends the money, but Albany has so far shown zero concern with results beyond the immediate payout to vendors.

That’s what Erie Community College is now doing—despite new laws that are supposed to prevent this kind of waste.

The most important new law, which was co-sponsored in 2010 by former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (now the governor’s point man for upstate economic development), is known as the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act. The idea of the law is pretty straightforward: Public funds should stop subsidizing expensive sprawl that exacerbates economic decline in previously settled areas, like central cities (e.g., Buffalo).

Any new plan to spend New York State money on public buildings is supposed to pass a test, a sort of extra level of scrutiny under the existing state Environmental Quality Review Act, called the Smart Growth Impact Assessment. The form an applicant has to fill out asks questions like this: Is the project in a city or a village, or in an “area of concentrated and mixed land use that serves as a center for various activities?”

Item 7 on the questionnaire is especially pointed: “Does the project foster mixed land uses and compact development, downtown revitalization, brownfield redevelopment, the enhancement of beauty in public spaces, the diversity and affordability of housing in proximity to places of employment, recreation and commercial development and/or the integration of all income and age groups?”

And then there is Item 12 on the Smart Growth Impact Statement form: “Does the project promote sustainability by strengthening existing and creating new communities which reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do not compromise the needs of future generations?”

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, has just endorsed a project that commands students to drive cars, which produces more greenhouse-gas emissions per capita than does taking public transportation; that undermines urban redevelopment, segregates by race and by income; and that is located far from any housing or mixed-use development.

Costs and benefits?

Not far from us, there is a different scenario being played out.

A new penny of sales tax, plus fees on developers and a higher gasoline tax, are among the recommendations of a brand-new report on how to fund the next 20 years’ worth of light rail, inter-city commuter rail, streetcars, and highways in a community that is not very far from Buffalo, New York. The total hit on a typical family in this near-away land will be $477 a year, or about $40 a month. Predictably, the editorial pages, the chambers of commerce, the city and regional politicians, and the policy wonks, too, are all weighing in, saying, mostly, that it’s all gotta get done—because what they’re also saying is that the proposed pricetag of $40 a month is a good deal compared to the $1,600 a year ($133 a month) cost of enduring ever-longer commute times and ever-greater congestion.

In the Toronto area, that nearby community where arithmetic seems to matter, the cost of doing the wrong thing gets counted up and added into the analysis. But here in New York State, it remains to be seen whether the new law will be followed. Indeed, there is also now a federally funded regional transportation planning effort and a very inclusive economic-development effort, too, that endeavors to address the long-term economic consequences of keeping the current Poloncarz-endorsed paradigm of sprawl, urban abandonment, and segregation by race and income.

Opposition to the Poloncarz-ECC suburban plan may yet be voiced. At press time, voices in the board membership of Buffalo Place, the downtown business-improvement district, were rising in opposition. Private conversations with state and regional legislators were occurring. Former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra has already threatened a lawsuit on “environmental justice” grounds. But getting a new policy mindset here will require more than a lawsuit about a single new building. It’ll take something like a paradigm change, here and in Albany, wherein the consequences of public investment will be weighed before the money gets spent. Money isn’t the obstacle: Mindset is.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and 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 at

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