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Buffalo's Economic Rebirth Provides a Dubious Lesson for Upstate New York
by Arthur J. Giacalone
The Boom, Busted
We’re told that Buffalo is experiencing an “economic rebirth” and “building boom” not seen in decades. These self-serving pronouncements are premature and overblown, whether made by the local press, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, or Howard Zemsky, CEO of the Empire State Development Corp.
As a veteran reporter recently noted, while Buffalo was in the midst of its “building boom” last summer, the Queen City had 4 construction cranes piercing the sky; Toronto had 154.
More troubling than the Cuomo administration’s hyperbole is the campaign suggesting that the governor’s “Buffalo Billion” tactics should be used as a role model for all of upstate New York. According to Mr. Zemsky, communities need to “learn the lesson of the Buffalo Billion” and transform their economies to be self-sustaining through “real investments that actually create jobs.”
Unfortunately, the true lesson that the public should take from Buffalo’s so-called “economic rebirth” is profoundly troubling and anything but exemplary.
Western New York’s “building boom” rests on a dubious foundation. Three symbols of Buffalo’s “turnaround”—RiverBend’s Innovation Hub at the Outer Harbor, Uniland Development/Delaware North’s mixed-use tower at 250 Delaware Avenue, and the Pegulas’ HarborCenter project on the former Webster Block—share two troubling traits: The government decision-makers “fast-tracked” the approval process and circumvented the State law meant to protect the environment and provide the public with a meaningful opportunity for input, SEQRA. And each project has been the recipient of large sums of taxpayer money and “corporate welfare.”
The most prominent example of an economic development process that should not be replicated is the Innovation Hub at RiverBend, the beneficiary of $225 million of the so-called Buffalo Billion. To ensure a quick, pre-election start to the centerpiece of Mr. Cuomo’s redevelopment campaign, construction proceeded on the 90-acre, nearly 1 million square-foot manufacturing and R&D project without preparation of an environment impact statement. Recklessly ignored was SEQRA’s presumption that a comprehensive environmental study is required whenever a facility such as RiverBend involves alteration of 10 or more acres of land or construction of 240,000 square feet of buildings.
The Cuomo Administration’s disregarded its role as steward of our environment despite the RiverBend project’s location along the Buffalo River’s highly sensitive “Area of Concern” [AOC], one of the most toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes region. Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, the current AOC coordinator, diplomatically expressed the following concern last May when identifying potential policy “barriers” to accomplishing the goals of the Buffalo River’s Remedial Action Plan [RAP]:
Redevelopment planned along the Buffalo River corridor needs to be better integrated at all planning levels with the restoration investments made through the RAP process to date. This will ensure that adequate site-level policies and protections are in place for long-term RAP delisting goals.
Clearly, neither the environment, nor New York’s taxpayers, can afford to use the Buffalo Billion as a role model.
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