Long Story Short: A broken code?
The hole story
Over a year ago, Chason Affinity developers leveled seven to twelve (depending on which account you read) historic structures at the corner of Elmwood and Forest Avenues to begin a four-story, forty-unit building. Why the city allowed some of those structures to deteriorate until demolition could be justified is a story on its own, but the wrecking ball had its day. Now the development project is stalled, leaving the Elmwood Village (EV) with a giant gaping hole (in more ways than one). The reason for the delay is unclear, but renewed questions have surfaced about how the project was approved in the first place.
Arthur Giacalone is an attorney whose practice focuses on land use, development, and environmental law. He also pens an informative blog, With All Due Respect, that addresses enforcement failures in development-related laws. (The local news media tends to overlook these.)
It’s all in the Green Code
In an email to LSS, Giacalone asserts that the much-touted Green Code “reflects the development policy of Mayor Brown’s administration, putting the interests of major developers and whatever they want to build—or demolish—first, at the expense of existing residential and historic neighborhoods.”
Giacalone believes that “Buffalo’s Common Council, Planning Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals, to an unacceptable extent, acquiesce to the prodevelopment positions taken by Mayor Brown’s planning staff, allowing the planning staff to control environmental assessments and downplay concerns of residents.”
He adds that “The ‘Green Code’ transferred the Common Council’s power over proposed demolitions to other officials and made the demolition of ten century-old buildings at the corner of Elmwood and Forest a foregone conclusion.”
Giacalone makes a case that the Common Council has substantially abdicated its responsibility in overseeing development in Buffalo, and it continues to do so by “not consistently seeking ‘lead agency’ status on building projects to ensure that any adverse impacts—including impacts on historic resources—are fully and objectively analyzed.” When Giacalone sent a request to EV Councilmember Joel Feroleto that the Common Council seek lead agency status on the Chason Affinity project, Feroleto responded, “The Common Council already has too much on its plate.”
Who should exercise oversight?
If officials fail to provide adequate oversight, it may fall on citizens to raise hell. The Partnership for the Public Good asked Giacalone to create a handbook to assist Western New York residents in better understanding land use and zoning laws, and more effectively express concerns about proposed projects. Working with other experts, he created Land Use and Zoning Law: A Citizen’s Guide to make the job easier.
Now everyone can play a role in protecting Buffalo’s historical architecture.
In 2018, the Buffalo Preservation Board took a proactive approach to saving Buffalo’s architectural heritage. Rather than waiting for historically important buildings to face demolition, the board created a subcommittee to recommend local landmark status before buildings are endangered recommend. Twenty-two structures received this designation, preventing their owners from altering or destroying the buildings without consultation or review by the Preservation Board. The subcommittee is readying a new list of worthy structures for 2019.
Parking wars: how one person made a difference
Just over a week ago, Buffalo lawmakers approved a plan to dramatically raise downtown parking meter rates and eliminate free parking on evenings and Saturdays. Restaurant worker Reba Allen didn’t think that was a good idea, so she took action. Her efforts helped change the plan.
Allen had never initiated a petition before, but she was concerned about the impact of the new rules on businesses and employees, so she went to change.org and got one started. Within a week, her petition against the new parking plan had more than 21,000 signatures. State Senator Chris Jacobs also sent a letter urging Council members to rescind the policy.
Allen’s petition got the attention of the Common Council, who worked with Mayor Brown to amend the plan. The new plan still doubles metered parking rates to two dollars an hour during the business day, without time limits. However, free parking was restored for evenings and Saturdays, except when there are events at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Sahlen Field, Canalside, and KeyBank Center (which is much of the time). On those occasions, “event rate parking” will apply on streets around those venues, but just how drivers will know is unclear. Parking spots further away will go for two-dollars for ten hours, making parking there a better deal. The city also created 700 new on-street spaces, mostly in the Cobblestone District.
Then there’s the app
The Buffalo Roam app allows people to pay for parking at all 3,900 street-parking spots, including some that are designated “pay by app” only. The app digitally pokes users fifteen-minutes before parking expires, so they can pony up more cash and extend their time—all by phone. This will be helpful when you are waiting in the Motor Vehicle Bureau for your number to come up (which can take hours). Unfortunately, this convenience excludes people without smart phones or credit cards, raising questions of fairness. Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer Helfer says the city is responding to public feedback, and the plan is “fluid,” with additional tweaking to come.
Some like it high
It should be noted, that there are those who prefer the higher rates, and even evening and weekend parking fees. Their idea is to make bussing, biking, ride-sharing, and Metro Rail riding more desirable, and encourage people to park further away and walk. Forcing people to walk or ride a bike is good for health and neighborhood vitality, they say.
Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer says the city could spend its new parking revenues on lighting, sidewalks, and public safety.
We’ll believe that when we see it.
Success breeds taxes
Another sign that Buffalo is growing as a tourist destination is an increase in Airbnb stays in the area last year. Around 77,500 people rented in Erie County, according to the home sharing service, with a total of 140,000 people staying in the five closest Western New York counties. Airbnb visitors spent $12.3 million in the region last year, a number which has grown each of the two previous years.
Of course, anything involving the exchange of money, will eventually catch the attention of the taxman. Amherst and Buffalo are considering licensing short-term home rentals “to ensure their safety,” and Erie and Niagara counties are in talks with Airbnb to add a bed tax. A 2016 Visit Buffalo Niagara study determined that Erie County Airbnbs would generate $200,000 in revenue per year, with a bed tax. Consider it as certain as death.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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