Long Story Short: Spectator sports
The name of the game
Say you’re playing Monopoly, and you already have Pennsylvania and North Carolina Avenues, and you want Pacific Avenue to get all the greens, but another player has it. Would you pay seven times the listed value of the property? Not likely—unless you’re going to aggressively build.
Riddle me this, Batman
Why would R&B of Delavan LLC pay more than seven times the value ($1.2 million for property assessed at $170,000) for a single-story Elmwood Avenue building with a troubled retail and restaurant track record? Answer: because the 1915 structure at 929 Elmwood Avenue was the gap in a four-tooth real estate smile, spreading from Evans Bank at Delavan Avenue to the Starbucks at 933 Elmwood. And along with it comes the full fifty-car parking lot in the back, catnip for developers. The newly minted R&B of Delavan LLC is controlled by Ronald and Barbara Lucchino, who recently transferred the three contiguous buildings they already own—925, 927, and 933—to the same company.
Based on past instances where blocks of connecting property in the Elmwood Village were acquired, local development watchers fear that this is the prelude to a familiar demolish-and-rebuild scheme. Several small buildings are purchased, then raised to build a single façade behemoth (what one Facebook commentator colorfully refers to as a “metal/plastic paneled multi-story mixed-use crud factory”).
Of the four adjoining Elmwood buildings, only 929 has historical significance, but all are appropriately sized for the human scale of the neighborhood. A huge retail and apartment building would be out of character, but it’s happened more than once since developers began running roughshod over communities, with assistance from Buffalo’s Zoning and Planning Boards.
Here’s the move
Developers have this process down pat. They buy buildings well above market price, then they propose to tear them down and build something much larger, explaining to the Planning and Zoning Boards that they need several variances from Buffalo’s Comprehensive Plan and Green Code to build bigger and taller. Why? Because—get this—the project won’t be fiscally viable otherwise. And why is that, you ask? Because they overpaid for the property. And so, the boards—who represent the citizens of Buffalo—roll over and allow developers to have their way. It’s the con that just keeps on working.
By all accounts, the Lucchinos have been good landlords, taking care of their properties and treating tenants fairly. Maybe they believe they can more effectively manage 933 Elmwood than others have, benefiting the community. They might just be the good guys in this city-wide game of Monopoly. If so, it would be great if they would announce their intentions so Green Code watchers and community preservationists breathe a sigh of relief.
Cloudy skies ahead
For those waiting in anticipation of the promised production ramp-up of solar roofing panels, and the thousands of accompanying jobs supposedly coming to SolarCity, it’s not looking good. Several recent reports have cast doubt on the likelihood that Elon Musk will meet his much-delayed goals anytime soon, including a long, detailed article in Vanity Fair with the colorful title of “He’s Full of Shit”: How Elon Musk Fooled Investors, Bilked Taxpayers, and Gambled Tesla to Save SolarCity.
Musk, who accepted $750 million of Governor Cuomo’s famed Buffalo Billion to operate the waterfront factory, is mired in debt and his Tesla car division is not the purring economic engine it was once expected to be. SolarCity itself is a perpetual debt machine. In 2016 alone, it burned through $659 million. For those wanting to fully understand the history and impact of the moribund factory, the Vanity Fair story goes into great detail.
Musk dazzled Cuomo and others with his plan to build the “largest manufacturing facility of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.” Apparently, the eccentric CEO talks a great game. But it didn’t take long for gathering dark clouds to block the sunny projections. The article details the dire economic condition of the company, and Musk himself comes off as a tad unglued, with a fondness for making flamboyant statements without follow-through. Some people flat-out call him a liar and say his prototype solar shingles are fake.
Though Musk continues to announce that technical problems to solar panel construction have been solved, and it’s just a matter of time before they start cranking out product—they have not, and it is not. The prototypes they have produced have not performed well and installation has been shoddy. Horror stories abound. Walmart is suing the company for roofs that have caught fire. The company once controlled two-thirds of the residential solar roof installation market; now it’s less than seven percent. And the cost per watt of the solar modules being produced here is projected to be twenty cents above the rest of the industry.
Musk convinced his board (after a few tries) to purchase SolarCity for $5 billion, and there is now a lawsuit claiming that the CEO improperly controlled the board at the time. This is disputed by Musk. Some see this purchase as the moment when the Tesla took a downward turn from which it won’t recover.
The New York job promise
It turns out that state officials have quietly issued ten contract amendments diminishing the requirements SolarCity must meet in exchange for the one dollar lease on the waterfront factory. The 1,460 “high-tech jobs” and 2,000 installment and sales jobs, morphed into generic jobs. An agreement to employ 900 workers within two years became 500, and the timeline was extended to ten years—when the lease ends. (Tesla argues that the company is now responsible for all 5,000 jobs, instead of being able to fulfill them through suppliers.) Dave Robinson, an editor at the Buffalo News, puts it this way: “For $750 million, we’re getting jobs that pay two dollars an hour more than Aldi’s.” The Vanity Fair story ties in the SolarCity bid rigging scandal, which favored the governor’s campaign donors. Cuomo’s office has declined to comment.
Tesla says the low-paying Buffalo jobs are competitive, which may say as much about the state of our “renaissance” as it does about Tesla. It accuses Vanity Fair of presenting a “one-sided view with cherry-picked sourcing aimed at feeding into the fear, uncertainty, and doubt being circulated about Tesla every day by those looking to gain from Tesla’s losses.” (In other words, fake news.)
But Tesla wouldn’t allow the Vanity Fair reporter to tour the factory, and, according to insiders, earlier media events have been staged and scripted. Musk continues to make ever-grander proclamations about the eventual success of the factory, and Tesla in general. By next year they will be producing self-driving cars, he says, with a fleet of one million “robotaxies.” He claims to have developed a brain interface for merging humans with artificial intelligence. And he wants to build an underground “hyperloop” to move passengers between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore in fifteen minutes.
According to the agreement with New York, next April an annual fine of $41.2 million begins against Tesla if it isn’t employing 1,460 people in Buffalo. Admitting failure “would open the company to significant liability in the ongoing lawsuit over the acquisition,” says the article.
One unnamed New York lobbyist states, “Everyone in Albany has accepted that the Buffalo plant is a ‘disaster’—a poster child for why government giveaways to big companies don’t work.” Cuomo says he’s pleased with the progress.
While reading this story, I was reminded again and again of another will-known businessman, who overreached, while hyperbolically and compulsively lying about his success and the state of his wealth, while applying the cult of personality to business—then government. Perhaps there is a presidential run in Musk’s future.
Happy birthday #1101000417500044
My birthday was two weeks ago. I don’t post the date on Facebook or anywhere else on social media, because I’m not cheered by superficial birthday wishes, particularly ones initiated by an algorithm: “Hello person Bruce Adams barely knows; today is his birthday. He’d like nothing more than to receive dozens of identical two-word messages from people he never hears from the rest of the year.”
Which is why I was a bit shocked when, at exactly 12:01 AM on that particular day, I opened the world’s most popular search engine to look for a synonym for “reference point,” the familiar Google letters were capped by little flames. Incredulously, I hovered the curser over the logo and up popped the words “Happy Birthday, Bruce!” Really? Google is wishing me a happy birthday? I mean, I get that it knows the date; I use it for banking, medical appointments, surveys, and such, but Google is the message carrier, not the recipient. It’s like the US post office sending a letter saying, “Glad to see you’re getting that colonoscopy; have fun.”
I know what you did last summer on your birthday
With this, Google takes on the qualities of a sociopathic stalker attempting to rattle users with subtle hints about what it knows. The candle-letters even had shifty little eyes that darted back and forth. It’s one thing to send unsolicited shoe ads for weeks after you search for footwear on Amazon, but this is Google just leering, figuratively muttering in a menacing voice, “I know when you were born, Bruce. Bet you wonder what else I know.”
Despite the appearance of digitized sociability, this isn’t a smart move by Google. The megacorporation has people concerned enough about the personal information it compiles on each of us. Not me. Not normally. But Google miscalculated by generating this unnecessary automated birthday wish. Does it really care whether the special day I share with approximately 3,205,400 other Google users, is happy? I’m just one of 1.7 billion Googlers it keeps track of. Users already know we’re dealing with a data collector powerful enough to tell when a woman is pregnant before she announces it; we don’t need little reminders that Big Google is watching. Birthday wishes should come from people who care about you, not casual Facebook acquaintances and certainly not algorithms.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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