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Long Story Short: An inconvenient drive-thru



Let them drink coffee

It’s a story that plays out in various ways around the city every year. It involves deep-pocket developers and a city dizzy with renewed building growth after sixty years of stagnation. To members of the public who want to play a role, trying to do so can feel like spitting into the wind.


In the spirit of our blog masthead, we’re paring the intricacies of this story down, cutting sub-plots, shaving details. But it’s complicated.


Franchise for a historic district

Ellicott Development wants to build a Tim Horton’s Coffee and Bake Shop on a vacant lot on 474 Michigan Avenue at the corner of William Street, near where Little Harlem Hotel burned down twenty years ago. The company appeared before Buffalo’s Zoning Board and requested a use variance for a drive-thru, which is prohibited there under Buffalo’s nationally acclaimed Uniform Ordinance Development (aka Green Code). The original proposal included five curb cuts to accommodate deliveries, parking, and drive-thru service. The curb cuts were in a space of 132 feet, on a street largely comprised of parking lots and entrances.


About 100 homeowners live adjacent to this section of the Michigan Avenue African American Corridor, known as Copper Town. The Copper Town Block Club (CTBC) objected to the multiple curb cuts and general lack of information about the project. Buffalo’s growth-crazed Zoning Board has a reputation for rolling over and granting variances for every project big developers propose, but in a rare move, this time it didn’t. Variance denied. Ellicott took it to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), and lost. That should have been the end of it.


The petition

Ellicott filed an Article 78 petition to the City of Buffalo, claiming that the ZBA failed to follow its own procedures. The court—with help from the City of Buffalo law department—overturned the ZBA’s denial. It was the city suing the city. The CTBC members’ papers outline how this action misapplied the city’s zoning law, but with the city not fighting for its own ZBA's action, no one was on deck to take up the cause. By the time the CTBC hired a lawyer, the window to fight the judicial misapplication closed. “The court didn’t find on the merits of the variance request,” says Gail Wells, president of CTBC. “They overturned the denial on a technicality.”


The Planning Board

Ellicott then brought its proposal before Buffalo’s Planning Board. The CTBC again voiced concerns at the public meeting. Buffalo’s Comprehensive Plan calls for traffic calming measures, pedestrian and bicycle amenities, and streetscape improvements. The size of the lot of the proposed Tim Horton’s doesn’t allow for any of this, but does include dumpsters, a drive-thru, apartment parking, and delivery access.


“They say they get something like 17,000 drivers down this corridor every day, says Wells, “so you can see why they want a drive-thru there.” But residents want a walkable community, safe for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. “We have so many individuals that walk;” explains Wells. “They park their cars and walk downtown to get to work or the library. And there are accidents—horrendous accidents (image above). We have accidents where cars are flipped over; one car ran into a bus stop. And there are entrances to two major expressways up on Michigan, Elm, and Oak.” “Treacherous” is how Wells describes the road.  


A patronizing approach

 “Ellicott Development came to our meetings with a site plan that you needed a magnifying glass to read,” Wells reports. “They don’t make it easy. They want to talk about things that are mainly ornamental: the size of the lights; how do you like the siding? All we keep saying is ‘Tell us about the drive-thru.’ So, they pull that up on the PowerPoint, and say, ‘We’re sorry you can’t see it.’ They don’t have copies to hand out, just a PowerPoint nobody can read. No explanations as to how traffic flows, how it merges with street traffic.


At the Planning Board meeting, Ellicott’s Director of Development, Tom Fox, stated that “It would take voodoo” to get Copper Town residents to support their project. But there’s nothing magical about providing the public with a clear preview of the building plans, as provided by the law.


A lack of gratitude?

Buffalo’s East Side was neglected for so many decades, that developers seem to think anything proposed east of Main Street will be greeted by a desperate community with gratitude. “This property has been vacant for decades,” says an Ellicott representative. The reason for this lack of progress “has nothing to do with us,” Wells responds in an open letter to developers, “Eastside residents are painfully aware of the redlining, disinvestment, abandonment, gentrification, and speculation that has happened and continues to happen.”


Despite opposition from the community, the Planning Board approved Ellicott’s amended proposal on March 25.


Copper Town strikes back

After securing legal assistance, the CTBC took a page from Ellicott’s playbook and filed its own Article 78. The CTBC petition states that the Planning Board did not follow its own procedures, skipping vital steps relating to public transparency. “I think we shocked Ellicott,” Wells says, “because I don’t think that in the history of Buffalo a block club has gone to court and challenged a developer…at least not on the East Side.”


Wells believes less affluent communities are too often at the mercy of developers. “They contact us at the last minute, and they come with incomplete plans,” she says, “They have support from politicians, and whoever else, and we just kind of roll over and play dead.”


Not this time.


Fighting for a voice

To write this article it was necessary to consult a lawyer. Why? Because Buffalo’s law department and Planning Board have implemented an intricate and ambiguous development process that’s a challenge for laypeople to understand. Attorneys working for developers know the ins and outs of the process and use its complexity to their advantage. This marginalizes public input.


Developers are not community service organizations. They’re businesses seeking profits. Zoning and planning boards serve as buffers against unchecked capitalism. They ostensibly represent the public. Too bad Buffalo doesn’t have a community-friendly process, because the existing bureaucratic labyrinth limits public recourse. Not every block club can hire a lawyer to enforce laws intended to protect the public. Whether or not the CTBC wins in court, they’re fighting to ensure that communities receive accurate and complete information in a timely manner, so when they give input, it matters.


A chance to get involved

There will be a CTBC meeting tomorrow, July 30th, 6 p.m. at Compass East, 425 Michigan, on the corner of Michigan and Clinton, in the Community Room.


The court hearing for the Article 78 petition is scheduled for August 1, at 9 a.m., in Erie County Court, 25 Delaware Avenue, second floor, Part 15. A press conference will be held at the courthouse immediately following the hearing. CTBC members hope for a strong turnout.



Book signing and pussy fur

Artist, writer, and political activist Diane Bush, left Buffalo to resettle in Las Vegas in 1997. That move was largely an effort to avoid snow. But prior to this, in the early 1970s, Bush fled the US to the UK to avoid harassment from the F.B.I. for anti-war activities. Beginning at age eighteen, and extending over nearly a dozen years, she documented British life and culture, working alongside Magnum photographer, Martin Parr, in Yorkshire, as well as Joseph Kouldelka and Chris Steele-Perkins in London. Her work was exhibited in several seminal exhibitions.


Last year, the founder of the UK photo collective, EXIT, suggested she show her pictures to the editor and owner of Café Royal Book, Craig Atkinson. The result was Brits, England in the 1970s, the first in a series of zine–style published books. Since then, two more volumes have been added, More Brits and Even More Brits. “I expect there will be a fourth and final volume next year,” says Bush.


Images for the books were gleaned from thousands taken during her time in England. The books, which are now in the collections of TATE, The Museum of Modern Art, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and others, are available in limited edition runs of 250.

Bush will be in Buffalo for a brief artist talk with other artists, on August 3 between noon to 2 p.m. at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. She will also have books available to sign. That same day she’ll move to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center for another signing—exact time to be announced. Contact the museum for details.


Bush on view at Hallwalls

If you visit the Hallwalls annual members’ exhibition, you’ll have the added opportunity to see an artwork by Bush that’s turning heads. The mixed media piece is part of a collaboration between Bush and husband Steven Baskin titled Make a Merkin Great Again. “We are both proud parents of a beautiful and long-haired tuxedo cat, named Mookie,” says Bush, “I have been collecting her brushed hair for a long time, especially ever since I discovered that her hair spun into yarn very easily—a trick I learned while living in Scotland with all that wool dangling from hedgerows and fences.”


Bush asked Baskin how she could use the pussy fur, and his spontaneous answer became the project title. The proposed title necessitated some research into merkin history for Bush. Then she got busy weaving pussy fur into pubic wigs. “My contributions were the patriotically colored ribbons to add a jingoistic flavor,” says Bush, “I also came up with the idea to mount them in commercially available veteran flag frames, spray painted red, white, and blue.”


“The goal is to make thirty to fifty of the mixed media works, that can all be butted together into one large square piece, worthy of a major exhibition,” says Bush. One of these is on display now at Hallwalls.


Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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