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Long Story Short: Assessments up, Skyway down, let's Play



A taxing situation

Time to discuss everyone’s favorite subject: taxes—specifically, property taxes. By now, Buffalo homeowners should have received updated assessments in the mail. Many have gone up dramatically, and this is now a source of widespread irritability. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to ensuring that increased, unaffordable taxes do not result in home displacement. 


When homeowners see that their assessments have increased dramatically, the impulse is to assume it’s a government money-grab, a huge citywide tax increase. But it’s not.


Our house is a very, very, very fine house

For years, I’ve told people how my wife and I bought our trendy Elmwood Village house many years ago for $22,400. This was when the “village” was known as the Elmwood Strip, and parts of it were still considered “iffy.” Our house was a few doors away from the dreaded Richmond Avenue dividing line between the “good” neighborhood and the much riskier far West Side. Of course, the far West Side is now one of the hottest investment communities in town.


When I tell people about the original cost of our house, they usually react by saying something like, “Boy, you made out; your house must be worth (some large amount) now” My response is always the same: “Yeah, but we only benefit if we sell it; until then, we just pay higher taxes.”


Like it or not, property taxes are based on the value of your house. When that value goes up, taxes go up. And property values have been going up in Buffalo, especially in select neighborhoods. This is a real concern for those already living close to their fiscal limits. It’s a concern that will persist, as property values continue to skyrocket in certain Buffalo neighborhoods. But for most people, the increase is more annoyance than crisis, a cause for economic belt tightening.


So, the reassessment really is a money grab, right?

No, it most definitely is not. That might be hard to accept, but New York State has a property tax cap for municipalities; the total amount collected cannot increase by more than two percent a year, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.  According to Jason Sheil, the Commissioner of Tax and Assessment, this year’s total property tax increase in Buffalo is zero percent. That’s right, the city isn’t taking in any more money as a result of the new assessments. What they are attempting to do is make assessments fairer, by assessing properties more accurately. This means people living in neighborhoods that have become hot—like mine did years ago—will pay more. Others will pay less.


The real problem 

Unfortunately, it’s been many years since the city did a complete property reassessment. So instead of gradual increases each year or two, many people see dramatic jumps now. However, increases in assessed value do not automatically translate to higher taxes, or at least not increases in the same proportions. For instance, some assessments doubled, while actual tax bills went up thirty percent. Sticker shock is a bad feeling, but another way of looking at it is that for the years you were underassessed, you paid less than your share. It’s also important to note that these assessments are subject to a review process and can be revised.


Final thought

Of course, there’s another way of looking at property assessment increases. They are the “reward” for being pioneers in an “iffy” neighborhood, the ones who came in and improved properties, making them more desirable for others who followed. You took the chances, poured in money and sweat equity, or maybe just hung in there through decades of government neglect. Then the neighborhood catches on (or they build a medical corridor nearby), and you are suddenly faced with a high tax bill you can’t afford. It’s the city’s way of saying thanks for being such a good steward of your property.  



Half a Skyway is better than none

Six months ago, after years of discussion about the cost and desirability of removing Buffalo’s 1950s-era downtown Skyway, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced one of his signature short-timeline competitions to determine the fate of the airborne highway. Submissions for Aim for the Sky poured in from all over the country, including designs by nationally prominent urban planners, all vying for the $100,000 top prize. Second and third place winners receive $50,000 and $25,000. On Monday, September 16, the finalists were named and on Tuesday the winners were announced.


Call it a compromise

And the $100,000 goes to … City of Lights, a design which neither leaves in place nor fully removes the Skyway. The plan eliminates about half of the elevated road, and its accompanying access ramps, from Church to Prime Streets, opening twelve undeveloped acres of land around downtown and Canalside.


Under the plan, what’s left of the Skyway would be converted into a SkyPark, with scenic views, pedestrian and bicycle lanes, and shade structures. A new bridge from Michigan Avenue to the Outer Harbor would also be built. SkyPark will soar over the Buffalo River and Ship Canal. Each end will have a newly-built iconic structure: a glass and steel vase-shaped tower on one side and a building meant to look like stylized grain elevators on the other. These will contain a variety of amenities.


Will it actually happen?

“Is the Skyway going to come down? Yes, yes," says Governor Cuomo, "I believe it will happen because of what has happened already, and what is happening in Buffalo right now. We just have to keep it going." Um, sure, whatever. The price tag is $600 million. Cuomo pledged $10 million toward the cost of an environmental study, which will take about two years. He also committed twenty percent of the overall project cost, with the federal government picking up most of the remainder.


Ultimately, this massive undertaking is estimated to take ten years from start to completion. Projects such as these tend to go through numerous revisions over their course, so it’s anyone’s guess how much of the current design will survive. 


The verdict

Some people hate the winning design. Others worry about the delays they will encounter on their daily commute to the Southtowns when the Skyway is gone. Some love the Skyway as it is, and others would rather see it removed completely. If people weren’t unhappy about a development project, it wouldn’t be Buffalo.



Anne Muntges at Indigo

There’s a lot of reasons artists draw. Some do it as preparation for a painting or sculpture. Others make drawings as finished works of art. Anne Muntges does that and more. For her, drawing appears to be a way of grappling with the world around her. The artist was born in Denver, moved to Kansas City for undergraduate work, then earned an MFA from the University at Buffalo. From here she moved to Brooklyn, but recently returned from a year-long residency in New Mexico. Now she’s briefly in Buffalo again, with an exhibition at Indigo Art aptly titled For the Moment.


Muntges was recently cited in artnet’news for her installation in the Portal Fair on Governor’s Island. The work in that exhibition would be familiar to local gallery visitors. The artist creates space with furniture and other household items, all of which are painted white, then meticulously hatched in ink or paint, so they look like three-dimensional drawings.


A record of existence

The work at Indigo—on display until October 11—comes from two newer series, the first of which also employs household objects. Catalogue of Ownership comprises hundreds of drawings of everything the artist owns. Muntges’ obsession with drawing extends to an apparent compulsion to quantify her existence. Each object is meticulously rendered in color, right down to her underwear. Collectively they fill three walls in the gallery..


Focusing outward

The second series on display is titled Urban Landscapes. Muntges photographs environments where people leave evidence of their existence. Then she digitally corrupts the photos, and it’s the resulting degraded images that becomes her subject matter. The processed images have strong elements of geometric abstraction, distancing viewers from the real-world source, while providing a skewed glimpse into everyday life. Allentown’s next First Friday gallery walk—on October 4—provides a great opportunity to check out this work at Indigo.



A PLAY/GROUND for the senses

If you missed PLAY/GROUND last year, we get it. After all, it was the first go-round for the weekend-long extravaganza of site-specific art installations and performances. And perhaps a former high school in Medina seemed like a long way to go to see art, when there are so many great exhibitions in Buffalo. Maybe you had no idea what to expect from the event, with its focus on the experiential, immersive, and ambitious.


Like we said, we get it.


Don’t make the same mistake twice!

Here’s a story that illustrates the unique nature of the aptly titled event: last year, I attended the Friday night adult preview party and enjoyed the experience so much that I brought my four-year-old granddaughter back the following day. Four hours later, I literally had to drag her out. She dug her heels in and begged to stay longer!


It’s an experience

Artists from Canada, Illinois, Ohio, and all over New York State, chosen by the three curators that comprise Resource:Art, have been working on installations that will occupy the classrooms, stairwells, locker rooms, janitor closets, and even bathrooms of the vacant school. The entire second floor will be transformed into a multisensory art experience. To get an idea of what to expect, you can view a brief video from last year’s event here, along with a couple previews of this year’s event. To learn more about the next weekend’s event, check out the program here.  


A sculptural installation by Tom Holt and Quincy Koczka will feature ten performing skateboarders. Chicago artist, Claire Ashley, will install a twenty-six-foot-tall inflatable sculpture. Brockport artist Nate Hodge has been transforming a huge room into an abstract painting for weeks. Buffalo artist Colleen Toledano has worked equally long on what might be described as a two-tier environment, granting viewers a peek into a groovy parallel dimension. There’s much more, and full disclosure: after experiencing this event last year, I wanted to be part of it, so this year I have something dreamy in store for visitors. Stop and say hi.


The details: Friday

PLAY/GROUND opens Friday, September 27, 7–11 pm. General Admission Tickets are $35 in advance and $45 at the door. There are also ticket options that include a shuttle ride to and from Medina, leaving from Hotel Henry at 6 p.m. The hotel, a sponsor of the inaugural edition of PLAY/GROUND, is on board again, and hosts a cocktail party prior to the shuttle departure. Hotel Henry is also the exclusive location to purchase a physical ticket in Buffalo. Torn Space Theater + FLATSITTER are performing at the Friday event, with food and drinks including small bites prepared by Chef Lionel Hydel of the soon to open Harvest Restaurant, associated with Bents Opera House in Medina.


Saturday and Sunday

The show continues the following two days, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; admission is $10 ($5 for students with ID and members of either Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center or Rochester Contemporary Art Center). This is when to bring the kids Children 12 and under are free. This includes family friendly activities in the gymnasium and live music curated and presented by Revolution Gallery in the Auditorium.


Why just one weekend?

That is the question. Aside from the fact that this much energy cannot be sustained for very long, the curators feel that something so momentous existing for such a short time makes it all the more powerful. If you miss it again, this time there’s no excuse.



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


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