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Long Story Short: Fresh starts


illustration by JP Thimot


Happy New Year from the Bills

Eventually all things fall into place. And now, the improbable has happened. The force was with us. The Bills are in the playoffs for the first time since January 2000. It was the end of a long dry spell, at the very end of the year, which could have been the end of the season.


The details:

Unless you've been in a media-free cave, this is old news by now. But for those with only a passing interest, or who had reservations at Russell's Steaks during the game, here’s what went down: First, and most critical, the Bills squished the fish (slang for beating longtime rivals, the Miami Dolphins). The score was 22-16. But just winning their final game wasn’t enough to break the seventeen-year dry spell of failing to get into the playoffs. Other teams had to do their jobs. The Bills needed either a Baltimore Ravens loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, or both the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers had to lose their games. The Chargers and Titans won, so it was up to the Bengals.


Cincinnati started strong, but in the final quarter, the Ravens came back and were ahead in the final minutes of the game. All they had to do was stop the Bengals on a fourth and long. But Tyler Boyd made the catch and ran for a touchdown. The Bengals (and the Bills) win!


The takeaway: 

For Bills fans, which at times seems like everyone in the state, it was a long wait. But don’t be dreaming of the Super Bowl just yet. With a 9 - 7 record, the Bills might not last long in the play-offs. But for now, fans are savoring the moment.



Happy Sewage Year, Niagara Falls!

One of the first stories Long Story Short covered was the black blob of smelly sewage discharge that surrounded Niagara Falls’ Maid of the Mist at the height of tourist season. Turns out, the culprit was carbon filter residue that the Water Board routinely releases into the river due to an antiquated sewage system. Well, that’s all about to change.


The details:

Since our original report, the sewage release has been rebranded a malfunction, and the Water Board was fined $50,000 dollars for the mishap. But last week, in an end-of-the-year holiday gift to Niagara Falls, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul announced that Governor Andrew Cuomo is recommending $20 million for the “first phase” of sewer plant upgrades. There will be not one but two engineering studies spread out over fifteen months to determine how best to spend the twenty-mil. And that’s just the down payment on an eventual complete fix.


The long-term goal is to convert the plant from a carbon treatment system to a biological one, but no one knows how much that will cost. Inevitably, taxpayers will foot some of the bill. Ironically, the plant is only forty years old, and the carbon treatment system was chosen at the time because it was the most effective way to treat chemical plant discharge. But much of the region’s chemical industry, which left a legacy of environmental hazards such as Love Canal, has packed up and left town. So it’s time to start over. Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos tried to put a positive spin on the eventual cost to taxpayers, saying, “This is a hardship to the community in some ways, but it's also a community that has a tremendous amount to gain economically."


The takeaway:

It’s safe to say that if the Water Board had not experienced this attention-getting “malfunction,” there would be no $20 million-dollar jump start to modernize the antiquated system. While sewage treatment plants are necessities, they’re not the kind of things that raise property values, so suggesting there is a potential economic gain to the community is a bit of a stretch. We are, however, stewards of the Niagara River, and that comes with certain responsibilities.



Out with the old, in with the eww

The day after Christmas, the Elmwood Village saw the start of demolition on eleven Elmwood Avenue structures, primarily Victorian-era houses, to make way for a four-story, forty-unit condominium project built by Chason Affinity. Some are calling it progress. They are captivated by the shiny new big box building and the added population density it will bring to the neighborhood. Many others are disheartened by what they see as the beginning of the end for the Elmwood Village as we know it.  


The details:

Some of the houses on the southeastern corner of Elmwood at Forest, were terribly rundown through neglect. Which prompts the question: why doesn’t Buffalo enforce its building codes, and prevent owners from allowing prime properties to deteriorate? And why should the owners be rewarded with huge profits when they sell their rundown properties to deep-pocket developers?


There have been some great development successes in Buffalo. Howard Zemsky took a rundown factory in a neglected neighborhood, and transformed it, bringing new life to an area now known as Larkinville. Sam Savarino did a similar thing in Buffalo’s Cobblestone district, turning the once bleak part of town into a thriving living and entertainment center. These projects involved the restoration and reuse of existing structures, not the demolition of historic buildings.


What’s happening on Elmwood is different. Most of the street between Forest and North is made up of two-story Victorian houses with storefronts. There are some larger two-story buildings, and the rare three-story historic structure. The quaint charm of the neighborhood is what has made it one of the most desirable parts of the city, with skyrocketing property values. Tripadvisor rates it as a five star “walkable urban neighborhood.” The American Planning Association selected Elmwood Village as one of 10 Great Neighborhoods in America for its vitality, broad spectrum of cultural and social assets, and its commitment to maintaining high community standards while solving real problems. They have this to say: “Helping make the neighborhood attractive and comfortable to pedestrians is the Elmwood Village Association, which has established design guidelines for the area to ensure new development does not detract from the existing architecture and character.” Note that putting constraints on development is considered a good thing by independent experts.


Buffalo’s Green Code was supposed to ensure that new structures “do not detract from the existing architecture and character” of the Elmwood Village. But the Chason Affinity development violates the Green Code in several significant ways. It exceeds the three-story height limit, it exceeds maximum frontage limits, and it exceeds the allowable number of lots that can be combined. It also violates rules against stacked apartment units on main thoroughfares, and breaks various other codes. The design would fit in nicely downtown, amid office buildings and franchise restaurants, but its enormous scale is out of character for the Elmwood Village.


There is a lawsuit to stop the development plan pending an appeal, but no stay was granted while awaiting the decision. Now the best that can be hoped for by opponents are changes to the building design.


The takeaway:

It's reasonable to grant small Green Code variances to projects that maintain the spirit and intent of the law. But deep-pocket developers seem to have their way with Buffalo’s Planning and Zoning Boards, causing one to wonder—are laws only for the little guys?  



Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow—somewhere else

Buffalo has a national reputation as the snow capitol of the world, based largely on rare, often-spectacular storms that can paralyze the city. The reality, though, is that the urban center itself is usually spared the worst winter weather, due partly to the warming effect of Lake Erie. Heck, Buffalo doesn’t even make the top ten snowiest, coldest, or windiest cities in the nation. The only month that the average high temperature dips below freezing is January, and even then it’s just a single degree below. Now, maybe after the attention-grabbing blizzard our neighbors to the south experienced last week, Erie, Pennsylvania will be known as snow central.


The details:

On Christmas day, thirty-four inches of the white stuff dropped onto Erie, more than four times the Christmas record for the city. But it didn’t stop there. Over the next few days the snowfall total reached sixty-five inches, roughly the height of my wife. Meanwhile, here in Buffalo, we’ve had bitter cold, like the rest of the eastern two-thirds of the nation, but moderate snow. Yes, the southern tier got dumped-on, and the Bills were buried under seventeen inches of snow during the Colts game. But Buffalo itself? Meh. That’s due to the narrow southern band that lake effect snow usually follows. Looking at the city from the lake, the heavy snow usually goes wide right. Takes some of the sting out of that phrase, doesn’t it?


The Erie storm has broken all kinds of records, dating to 1893: heaviest Christmas snowfall, two-day snowfall, three-day snowfall, seven-day snowfall, and, in just thirty-six hours, it beat its own thirteen-day Erie snowfall record! It has also snagged the coveted snowiest single month record, and already exceeded its average winter snowfall for the year. The National Guard has been called, and Erie’s mayor is asking citizens to shelter in place, though he failed to suggest buying  six-packs.


The takeaway:

Will Buffalo lose its reputation as the Queen City of terrible winters? Unlikely. But we can hope.



Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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