Long Story Short: Lightbulb moments

6/4/18



illustration by JP Thimot

 

Good ideas

Buffalo has had its share of famously bad ideas over the years (I’m looking at you downtown pedestrian mall, UB North campus, Orchard Park stadium, IBM Buffalo, etc.) Long Story Short is dedicating this blog to a few good ideas that we’ve recently seen.

 

 

Stay tuned to this station

Here’s one from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA), an agency not often associated with good ideas. You may be aware that the Allen Street station of Metro Rail was closed for what seemed like forever, as they constructed a whole new building around it. The Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is linked through tunnels and bridges to other nearby medical facilities, so many people now have access to Metro Rail without having to go outside. Plus, the station is attractive and inviting. In February, they added a “grab and go” concession stand in the station, so people visiting or working at the medical center can get coffee and a bite to eat. The concept has been a hit.

 

Wave of the future?

The Allen-Medical Campus station is the last stop before riders hit the Free Fare Zone going downtown. Here’s NFTA’s good idea: they want to transform the remainder of the pay stations going north (as well as the planned DL&W Terminal at the foot of Main) into something similar to the Allen Street station. The plan is to lease the station properties to developers who would create mixed use “live-work-play” projects connected to each stop, better utilizing the existing lots while increasing ridership. Apartments, retail space, and restaurants would turn stations into destinations.

 

The NFTA sees this as a win-win proposition, with the agency and community both benefiting. This sort of thing has been done successfully in other cities across the country for years. Of course, so far, this is just an idea. Developers will have to make proposals, and financing will need to be hammered out.

 

The concept even struck a chord with Amherst town officials, who are entertaining the possibility that the struggling Boulevard Mall may one day be a mixed-use enclosed environment with a built-in Metro Rail extension. Readers may recall when Amherst opposed building a Metro Rail extension because the town didn’t want the construction mess and associated “crime.” Now that its retail centers are failing, the idea is looking better.

 

NFTA says it wants to move slow on this and see what developers come up with. It's trying to stay light on its feet and remain open to novel ideas. In fact, NFTA plans to target East Side developers and people at Canisius College and the University at Buffalo (where there are stations). So, it's saying all the right things. But—as we have seen with the Buffalo Billion—where money is involved, shit happens. So, let’s hope this good idea isn’t corrupted by greed.

 

Requests for proposals will go out in within six months.

 

 

Speaking of building things around things

According to the Buffalo News, Washington, D.C.-based developer Douglas Jemal plans to add ground-level storefronts, restaurants, and pedestrian space to Buffalo’s tallest building, One Seneca Tower. The building—which has been sitting vacant since 2013—has never been described by anyone as visually inviting. That’s why the building’s new owner plans to add retail around the ground floor to make it more welcoming. That alone is a good idea. But, opening the concourse would mean tearing down the three-story minimalist sculpture by Ronald Bladen titled Vroomb-Shh, which has been there since 1974. In fact, that’s what his advisors wanted him to do.

 

A developer working in the public interest!

Even though Jemal is a businessman who is investing $120 million dollars to revive the tower, he considers himself “more important,” a civic servant. Jemal’s good idea is to keep the sculpture and build around it, making it a focal point of the new design.

 

Bladen is an important artist, who inspired a generation of minimalists, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt. Jemal respects that, and the history behind this specific work. He’s not only keeping the sculpture; he plans to install a plaque with information about Vroomb-Shh and Bladen. The developer has even modified his plans to retain the existing trees and garden.

 

Preserving artwork and plant life cost the developer some space that the he originally intended to use for retail. But Jemal says he feels “an obligation to the community here in Buffalo.”

 

And that’s an idea we don’t hear often enough.

 

 

Good Neighbor app

One hundred techy types signed up. Over forty made it to the Open Data Portal tour. Sixteen entered the competition. Here was the challenge: create an app that benefits city residents, using information from the city’s Open Data Portal.

 

What are you talking about?

The winners of Buffalo’s first annual Civic Innovation Challenge had a really good idea. Clark Dever and Jordan Walbesser were awarded first prize for developing a smartphone app dubbed "Good Neighbor," but it might just as easily have been called the Great Equalizer.

 

“The Good Neighbor app is a living civic directory that uses open data to engage with and provide vital and up-to-date information, services, and assistance to the residents of Buffalo,” explains Walbesser. The app provides details on voter registration, housing, school enrollment, city services, and a host of other information, which is updated as the city revises its data. The best thing: it’s “capable of on-the-fly language translations to better serve our immigrant and refugee communities,” according to Walbesser. The idea is to help new residents get up to speed easily, but even longtime residents need easy access to this kind of information now and then.

 

Dever and Walbesser received a check for $5,000, and the gratitude of Mayor Byron Brown. Here’s a great little promotional video that explains how the app works. Good Neighbor will be available in the coming weeks on the android app store, and hopefully one day on Apple.

 

 

A cleaner Scajaquada

Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Senator Chris Jacobs have secured $300,000 in state funding to construct over 23,000 square feet of wetland for sediment storage, which will reduce flooding and act as a biological filtration system for the creek. The first phase of the project is now in the final stages in Forest Lawn Cemetery. This is only a first step toward cleaning this man-made disaster, the result of half-a-billion gallons of sewage and untreated stormwater that’s dumped into the creek each year. Unfortunately, for now, the dumping won’t stop. But this project will help mitigate the mess.  

 

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper worked with the Forest Lawn Heritage Foundation and the US Army Corps of Engineers to unstraighten the creek and add pollution-filtering vegetation. Besides having a cleaner creek, the cemetery will also benefit from improved bridges and abutments.

 

A final phase of this project, which incorporates a lower overflow wetland and spring-fed upper wetland, is slated to be completed this year. Then, when it rains, the overflow will pour into the lower wetland and sit there, giving it a chance to settle and filter through vegetation, returning to the creek in a cleaner state. Good idea.

 

 

A good side effect of the Republican tax bill

The federal government included a little-noticed tax incentive called the Opportunity Zone program as part of the Republican tax overhaul of 2017, and New York State has opted to participate. Here’s the idea: the program offers capital gains tax benefits to encourage investment in low-income communities. States identify their own opportunity zones, and in New York (which waited until the last minute to apply), Empire State Development teamed with regional economic development councils, and local officials to identify forty-three zones in Western New York counties. 

 

Erie County has twenty-three zones, most in South Buffalo, the West Side, and downtown around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, extending into the East Side. Old industrial sections of Lackawanna and the Tonawandas are included, along with areas around the Boulevard Mall.

 

The idea is to pry free some of the six-trillion capital gains dollars that individuals and corporations have been sitting on. If even a small amount of that money is invested, it would have a huge impact. Affordable housing, real estate, infrastructure, and transit are potential areas of investment.

 

Every good idea has its downside

There is, however, a risk that this program could inadvertently accelerate gentrification, consequently hurting those the program was meant to help. This seems most likely around the Niagara Medical Campus, which is already gentrifying its immediate East Side neighborhood. Investors looking for the biggest bang for their buck might focus on communities that have already begun to gentrify. This is no small problem, but the potential benefits are considerable.

 

 

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

 

 

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