Fixing Buffalo:Click here to read more about fixing Buffalo
5 attainable goals
for a better Buffalo

By Louis Petrucci

house on Moselle
The scrawled numbers on this empty house on
Moselle tell a story of lost potential.
Photo by Jim Bush.

We all play the “what if” game. What if the jury awards my client a $24 million dollar settlement? What if my spinster great-aunt leaves me the family fortune? What if they buy my patent? What if I make the big sale? What if my book soars to the top of the New York Times best seller list? What if I win the lottery? I’ll pay off all my bills. I’ll buy a new house. I’ll set up educational trust funds for my children. I’ll move my mother into a better nursing home. I’ll buy the expensive hand-made Italian sports car I have wanted since childhood. I’ll travel around the world. I’ll establish a scholarship for students from rust belt cities at my alma mater. For most of us, the “what if” game is a harmless diversion, an exercise in priorities that we play with our friends or significant others. We still clip coupons, buy things on sale, return bottles, and hope—knowing full well the odds are slim.

The City of Buffalo plays the “what if” game, too. What if they ever build another bridge and Buffalo becomes the gateway to Canada? What if bioinformatics is the field of the twenty-first century? What if the Buffalo-Niagara airport becomes a hub for a major carrier? What if BMW decides to build an assembly plant on the East Side? What if the Queen City of the Great Lakes becomes the nation’s hottest location for architectural tourism? I wish they would all happen. Soon. But while we wait, it is time for municipal coupon clipping and civic bottle return. The City has the ability right now to make great positive strides towards the future, not by spending money, but through the better use of existing tools at our disposal: cooperation, and reform.

A need for consolidation
Four daughters and countless gray hairs ago, I started working as a building inspector. My first assignment was the West Side where I worked closely with a Council Member by the name of Joel Giambra. The area was experiencing the first wave of vacant and abandoned housing that would eventually wash over all of Buffalo. The vacancy rate for residential units in the City presently sits in the range of eighteen percent, one of the highest in the nation. Buffalo and most other Northeastern cities were struggling with the problem of housing that no one wanted. Giambra went on to win the office of City Comptroller but the problem of vacant and abandoned housing he struggled with as a Council Member had made an impression.

Joel Giambra is a rare politician who has abandoned the calm waters of stewardship to offer a new vision for Western New York. Change is risky in politics. When you hitch your political star to an idea that fundamentally changes the way in which your region functions and acts, you are taking a big chance.

I once wrote an Op-ed piece for the Buffalo News on the obstacles that regionalism faced. Volunteer versus paid fire departments, sheriffs versus police, and consolidation of school districts, and public works projects were the main points. The article was the source of numerous letters to the editor stating how obstructionist this line of reasoning was. To mention school consolidation was to be guilty of fear-mongering. A friend who works in the Giambra administration told me that when the City and County were consolidated, I would be the first person fired. The joke rang a little too true to be funny. Consolidation of the various local municipalities is not Giambra’s first attempt to make government work better.

Article 19-A:
Most City Comptrollers don’t dirty their hands with nuts and bolts operations of City government. They are worried about bond ratings, budgets, and if Albany will spin up the State funding a little early. Giambra was different. He saw how vacant and abandoned housing was affecting the City and found a solution in Auburn, NY.

Andrew Lalonde received his undergraduate degree from UB. He was familiar with Buffalo and served at the time as Corporation Counsel for the City of Auburn. Like Buffalo, Auburn was faced with a problem of vacant housing. To add urgency and importance to the problem, one of the houses in question was historically significant. Mr. Lalonde found a relatively unknown section of State law that addressed the situation. The law passed in 1973 is Article 19-A of the Real Property Actions and Procedures Law of the Sate of New York, “Special Proceedings to Convey Title to an Abandoned Dwelling to City, Town or Village.” The provision was a tool given to municipalities to address this situation and Auburn had employed it successfully.

As part of his presentation Mr. Lalonde presented each of us with a copy of Heritage News Volume 6 Number 1 January 1994. The title jumped off the page for all in attendance, “Legal Alternative to Demolition—Little Known State Law Proves Beneficial for Preservationists.” The article, written by Mr. Lalonde, begins with a paragraph that could be the credo of preservationists everywhere.

old Lake Hotel
The old Lake Hotel on Georgia has attracted the
interest of potential buyers, but remains in City Real
Estate Dept limbo.
Photo by Jim Bush.

“Preservationists have long been frustrated by historic properties left vacant and/or abandoned by individuals. Their actions, intentional or otherwise, have doomed the historic integrity of the property. Municipal officials, even when supportive of the goals of preservationists, have also been frustrated by the few tools available to them to conquer these situations. Ultimately, too many valuable historic properties have been lost to destruction or modifications which have destroyed the historic fabric of the structure.”

The property in question was known as the Tucker House. Built in the late 1830’s by Captain William Swain, the house was one of the City of Auburn’s oldest structures. Captain Swain’s tales of the sea faring adventures served as the inspiration for the Captain Ahab character in Moby Dick.

Another quote from Heritage News:
“In 1992, the structure had been vacant for approximately fifteen years. The property was badly damaged from exposure and several fires that had damaged its framework. The owner was not readily reachable, and had no apparent desire to dispose of the property. The property had been deemed a hazard by the City’s Code Office, and it had been recommended for demolition. Structurally, the building was at a point that if immediate steps were not taken to stabilize it, it would soon be lost. The ultimate future of the building pitted preservationists who sought to keep the house against those who deemed the property lost, and who perceived that the only alternative was demolition.”

Substitute anyone of a half dozen addresses in the City of Buffalo for the Tucker House and the synopsis of the situation is hauntingly similar. The article continued:

“The City (of Auburn) was in a quandary as to how to resolve the future of the house. The owner was not readily accessible, and offered no hope of reconstructing the home on his own. The City was not able to pursue seizure of the building for delinquent taxes, as the property owner had remained current with all her property taxes. Condemnation and/or demolition were the only alternatives deemed viable at the time. Even if the City (of Auburn) were to pursue these legal avenues, the costs it faced to either stabilize and/or demolish the structure were projected to be at least $50,00. Full reconstruction was estimated (at a minimum) in the six figure dollar range.”

The Tucker House story has a happy ending. After the City of Auburn took title to the house, they were able to find two gentlemen from Syracuse who were willing to rehab the property. The story for the City of Buffalo differs. Joel Giambra was elected County Executive and Article 19-A lost its champion. While the statute is limited to abandoned private and multiple dwellings, as City of Buffalo law, it could prove highly effective.

With over 5,000 properties currently in the City inventory, Buffalo was looking to dispose of its properties, not acquire more. Consequently, Buffalo has never employed the state statute once. Rochester has. Throwing out the baby with the proverbial bathwater, Buffalo missed the opportunity to seize any of our abandoned historic properties threatened with demolition.

Article 19-A could also be incredibly force in stabilizing streets and neighborhoods. Instead of waiting for two or more years for a property to go to auction and in the interim suffer all the casualties of vacancy: deterioration, theft, vandalism, criminal activity, arson, incurred cost of city services, etc., the property could be taken by the City and turned over to an interested party or community based organization. Too often, by the time the property reaches the auction block any residual value from architectural elements to working mechanical systems to copper pipes and storm windows have been stolen or damaged by the weather.

Seizing properties would not work on every block in Buffalo but it could make a huge difference on a stable street with a single vacant house. It could prevent a good block from veering down the road of urban plight.

Buffalo's desolate waterfront.
Photo by Jim Bush.

Making property transfers easier
Capital is a coward. Money turns tail and runs at the slightest problem. It avoids confrontation like a codependent. Place the slightest obstacle in front of a consumer and you have lost them, which makes the present policy for selling properties by the City baffling. The process in a nutshell is as follows: send a letter of interest to purchase, demonstrate to the City that you have the wherewithal to purchase the property and renovate, and pay the City’s asking price. If you disagree with the City’s asking price, you must hire an appraiser to ascertain the value of the property and then present that to the City. It is a NYS law that was intended to protect the public’s interest by ensuring that a friend of the administration could not purchase City assets for pennies on the dollar. The reality of the situation is that people do not want to spend money to bid on a property that they might not be able to acquire. Their dollars turn tail and run.

In the 1994-95 City Budget under the property sold without auction category: number of improved properties closed - 0. Number of vacant lots closed - 2.

In the 1995-96 City Budget: number of improved properties closed - 8. Number of vacant lots - 29.

In the 1996-97 City Budget: number of improved properties closed - 0. Number of vacant lots closed - 4.

Selling vacant homes in some of Buffalo’s troubled areas is a tough job. The prices are so low that you would have to pay a realtor to list them. The following synopsis of the Division of Real Estate in the 2001-02 City budget is a microcosm of the problems facing all departments in City Hall.

“Due to a substantial increase in activity (in) the last eighteen months the Division of Real Estate has been unable to respond in an efficient & timely manner to hundreds of requests. In the past two years, we have lost one director’s position, two full time and one part time clerical position. This has caused severe backlog in clerical, sales, acquisition, and management functions. With over 432 requests, we have only finalized forty-two sales and homesteads. There are over 264 active sales and homesteads in progress. Lack of staff has caused undue delays in responding to these requests.”

The City is a poor landlord. It does not have enough staff or equipment to do all that is requested. The best plan of action is for the City to dispose of as many of these properties as possible. Asking prospective buyers to pay money to hire an appraiser, and then wait because the City is understaffed is not the policy most (sane) major retailers would adopt. The problem of scale also enters into the equation. Does anyone want to pay an appraiser three hundred dollars to put a bid on a lot that is worth five hundred?

Yet, there is an increasing interest in the acquisition of city owned properties. The law requiring the services of an appraiser is a state law and would have to be modified in Albany by placing an exemption for sales under $25,000, freeing properties of lesser value for a timely sale. This simple change would be a huge step in disposing of the 5,000 odd properties under the City’s purview.

Working with municipal unions—it is possible
This year Buffalo was awarded a community exchange grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for city officials and other interested players to meet with their Pittsburgh counterparts and find out how they operate. On the final day of the exchange, there was a meeting, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy took questions, one of which was the big one about municipalities and their various labor unions.

Murphy said that in the beginning, it was difficult. Pittsburgh faced budget deficits and the City was forced to lay off employees. Murphy was not a popular man during this time but one thing he did accomplish was to get all of Pittsburgh’s city unions to the table to agree to a single health care policy. The coordinated plan saved the City $8 million a year. Eventually, Murphy was able to hire back some people, give small raises, and still save the City money.

Pittsburgh is a larger city than Buffalo, but imagine if all the city unions were to agree to a single health plan. The savings could re-hire laid off police officers or keep fire houses open or close next years projected budget gap. Each union would have to be willing to relinquish a modicum of sovereignty. The City would have to establish trust and persuade everyone to sit at the same table. No small task for a City with our history of labor/management conflict, but a simple agreement could have a major impact on Buffalo’s finances.

Forget the silver bullet—for once and for all
We have placed our hopes and dreams in the idea that one big project will save Buffalo. Employment will drop precipitously. Home sales and prices will rise. The wind off Lake Erie won’t blow as cold. “Buffalo’s Billion Dollar Waterfront - A dozen plans and projects are starting to come together in a major reshaping of the city along its shoreline” is the title of an article written by Buffalo News Staff Reporter Mike Vogel for the Sunday, August 9th, 1998 edition. The piece lists all of the projects happening on the waterfront: $127 million Marine Midland Arena, $11 million hydroponics green house, a new public promenade along the riverside of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western rail and ship terminal, $27.1 Inner Harbor project, $211 million to build a new bridge over the Niagara River, and another $325 million to be spent on a new convention center and the relocation of the Buffalo Zoo. Four years later, some projects are completed. Some we are waiting on. Others have been dispatched to the dustbin of history. Would any of them have made our lives appreciably better?

The article quoted Luke Rich, regional director for the state's economic development agency, “It’s getting done. You can really change a city’s image.” The cartoon character Popeye had a character named Wimpy who had a famous line; “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” But Wimpy never says which Tuesday he is going to pay you. Next Tuesday is presumed—but it could be next week, next month, next year, or next decade. The City of Buffalo is waiting for next Tuesday.

The time has come to shift our development focus to smaller projects. Small business generates the overwhelming majority of jobs in this country, not large firms. Look at the success of Elmwood Avenue. Is it because there are major anchor stores and acres of free parking? No. It is because Elmwood offers a series of unique shops and restaurants in architecturally interesting buildings (Wilson Farms aside) and has the support of the surrounding community. When one of these businesses fails, and yes, businesses do fail, it is only a one thread in the fabric. Hopefully another business comes along to fill the void. When you invest, you are always told to diversify your portfolio by spreading the risk among a variety of businesses and industries. The same holds true for our commercial development.

The City of Buffalo has the tools to solve our problems. We tend to forget that they are sitting in the box. The time has come to dust a few off.

Lou Petrucci is Chief Housing Inspector for the City of Buffalo.

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