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Empty Parcels, Emptying Cities

Must every upstate city die before New York State adopts regional land-use policy?

31 Riley Street in Buffalo- an example of the city's hollowed-out East Side.

The scariest story in Buffalo originates in Omaha, Nebraska. That’s where Buffalo News owner Warren Buffet lives. That’s where Buffalo News publisher Stan Lipsey hails from. The scary news for Buffalo is that Omaha, Nebraska, is thriving as a regional economic hub city in part because Omaha has a regional government.

How did that happen? Not through a grueling referendum, nor through the crusade of a reform politician, but calmly, and routinely over many years, because Nebraska state law allows cities to annex adjacent towns.

Omaha—which has had suburban sprawl like every other urban region in America—grew in area and in tax base as it sprawled. No suburban town could offload costs onto an old city. Suburbs couldn’t poach or pirate or steal businesses or residents or taxpayers.

So when Omaha’s civic leadership decided to reclaim the decayed and unpretty parts of downtown, and to create arts-friendly space and a cultural core and a new business-friendly environment, the private sector had a reasonable assurance that the regional tax base would support the effort. Philanthropic effort was consistent with public policy, and voila—Omaha is actually now greater than it was. Not bad for a city of about 450,000 that has really, really hot summers and really, really cold (seriously cold) winters.

I’ve been to Omaha. It’s far from everything except Strategic Air Command headquarters, i.e., the place from which, in the Cold War, our military’s top brass intended to direct global thermonuclear war.

One might expect that major Omaha-based investors might use their influence in Buffalo to make the rules that have rescued Omaha into a topic of discussion here in one of the Great Lakes states’ poorest cities.

Instead, the Omaha boys sell papers in Buffalo by pitting politicians against each other. A proposed state law that could deal with the horrible, crippling problem of vacancies and derelict properties—a problem that is common to most Great Lakes cities that are governed separately from their suburbs—is, in the Buffalo News, framed as a fight between Mayor Byron Brown and Assemblymember Sam Hoyt.

A question of definitions

Mayor Byron Brown doesn’t want to lose control of redevelopment authority over vacant and derelict properties for which the city government is responsible.

That sounds like a reasonable position—except that, as Artvoice revealed several months ago, neither of Brown’s first two development commissioners dealt with the problem adequately. Instead, a group of suburbanites worked with a nongovernmental organization and some experts from Virginia State to produce the Blueprint Buffalo plan for vacant parcels “in the city and suburbs [emphasis added] of Buffalo.”

Note the “city and suburbs” part of that statement. Abandoned, derelict, and vacant properties are a problem in Amherst, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, and elsewhere, not just in poor sections of Buffalo.

Mayor Brown is, Mayor Masiello was, and Mayor Fill-in-the-Blank will be stuck inside the box the State of New York puts mayors in. Only state legislation that regionalizes the approach to a regional problem will un-box mayors.

Brown’s problem is deep-rooted in Rust Belt politics—and elsewhere.

Everybody except the mayor of Buffalo, the law, and Harvard economists knows that “Buffalo” does not mean the 42.5 square miles within the city’s boundaries. “Buffalo” means the whole urban region. The economy here, and in every other metro area everywhere, is regional. The fact that the State of New York collects sales taxes on a countywide basis—county by county rather than town by town or city by city—indicates that there is some recognition of this reality even in Albany.

But one part of New York State’s way of doing things—where consolidation is legal but rare despite readily available legal tools and financial incentives— makes smart people say stupid things about Buffalo, as if Buffalo consists only of the 42.5 square miles ruled by a mayor.

Take Edward Glaeser, the brilliant Harvard economist who last year wrote a profoundly inaccurate article for the ideological rant-rag called City Journal. In that article, he said that Buffalo should be allowed to die. When Glaeser came to town earlier this year, he said, “Aw shucks, I didn’t really mean that,” and proceeded to explain that what he’d really meant was that civic and political leaders here should stop trying to invest in great big capital projects, and should instead make sure that the people here got educated as well as possible.

Our polite fellow citizens let him off easy, but should not have. Glaeser and many other economists at elite institutions are as stuck with the definition of Buffalo as Byron Brown is.

Omaha used to be 42 square miles, too.

Then Omaha’s population grew, so Omaha annexed the adjoining towns and villages.


Because, in the words of an Omaha leader, “We didn’t want to become like St. Louis or Kansas City.” He could have said “or Buffalo,” because St. Louis, Kansas City, and Buffalo all share the experience of remaining within old boundaries despite the regional reality of their economic and population expansion.

So were this same Harvard economist to write up Omaha, that economist would be dealing with the reality that Omaha today encompasses the city, the suburbs, the downtown, the slums, the railyards, the Chapin Parkway, the Spaulding Lake, and the Massachusetts Avenue—because it’s all legally, cartographically, and politically one place.

Byron Brown’s problem with the new state legislation on abandoned properties would not be a problem were he mayor of Omaha, or Indianapolis, or Hamilton, or Louisville.

Meanwhile, Governor Patterson should, and is expected to, sign the bill that will make landbanking and derelict-and-vacant parcels a matter of regional rather than local concern.

The emptying of Buffalo

In 1996, when Joel Giambra, Kevin Gaughan, Donn Esmonde, and I first met former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk at a community meeting in Rochester, he was travelling through Rust Belt cities promoting his book, Cities Without Suburbs. Rusk’s thesis was pro-annexation. He was adamant that the problems of old Great Lakes cities could never be solved without addressing this question that dogs us to this day: the fragmentation of our regions into “little boxes” called towns and cities, each of which has its own politicians pursuing inside-the-box land-use planning.

Rusk has since come to Buffalo many times. He and his colleagues at the Gamaliel Foundation have worked with church groups and citizen networks in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and elsewhere—most recently in New Jersey—helping with projects that once had the assistance of a young community organizer named Barack Obama.

Since 1996, the problem of the “little boxes” in this state has become even more acute. Population has spread ever outward from the urban centers of every upstate city. The problem of abandoned and vacant properties has grown like a mold.

That’s why the 2006 report called Blueprint Buffalo, with its plan for vacant parcels “in the city and suburbs [emphasis added] of Buffalo,” got such widespread support. It was commissioned by suburbanites and by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and paid for by the national foundation, after City Hall dropped the ball. (You can find the study here:

Identifying the problem was only the first task. The big task—changing land-use planning from a “little box” power to a regional process—will require major work. The people who are best situated to do that work happen to be in the Erie County Legislature, where since 2007, draft legislation to create a county-wide land-use planning board has been sitting.

It is all ready to go. The legislature just has to hold hearings and then take a vote, if it can escape from the foolish distraction of the latest call for penny-saving downsizing. (Hint: The governance issue facing this region isn’t the size of the Erie County Legislature. The issue is the independent land-use planning authority of of suburban towns.)

But meanwhile, as Buffalo and Cheektowaga and the other areas struggle with ever-increasing vacancies, abandonments, and decrepitude. Omaha has long since figured this out. Even Harvard Professor Glaeser, who advises a regional Boston-area multi-municipality working group in something called the Rappaport Project, seems to have figured this out—where he works, if not in the places he writes about.

But what comes next in Buffalo?

Next: Making old Buffalo and old Cheektowaga attractive, defensible, and affordable—versus what the politically connected developers want city and town governments to use your money to buy.

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