Urban development is one of the crucial issues that faces the city of Buffalo, even as the city faces immense budgetary constraints that are severe enough that police and fire precincts have been closed in the last year, and now the Buffalo Common Council is considering a plan to reduce its size by three districts to save the money otherwise paid to city legislators and their staffs. (A separate controversy is the fact that under the current plan, the three Council members who will lose their seats are African-Americans, but that’s another issue.)
Like just about every other Great Lakes or Northeastern city in the last twenty or so years, Buffalo has fallen on hard times with declining population, loss of huge numbers of manufacturing jobs, and the rapid growth of urban sprawl. The difference between Buffalo and Cleveland or Baltimore or Milwaukee is that those other cities have taken concrete steps to revitalize their urban centers, frequently making creative use of dormant waterfront properties, preserving and utilizing important architectural landmarks, and creating an atmosphere of development and entrepreneurship. These are all things that Buffalo has talked about endlessly, but somehow has never gotten around to actually doing. Consider waterfront development, just for one example. Buffalo’s waterfront should be a developer’s dream, with huge swaths of land formerly used as shipping docks and whatnot in the days when Buffalo was both an important port and a manufacturing center. Development plans for the waterfront have been proposed, scrapped, reproposed, redesigned, rescrapped, discussed, put on the back burner, put on the front burner, ad infinitum. The most recent grasp at waterfront development was the announcement that Adelphia Communications would build an office tower very near the waterfront district, which theoretically would spur all manner of development to take advantage of the large numbers of Adelphia workers there. Well, that project is near dead due to Adelphia’s corporate collapse. All those “accounting anomalies” don’t just hurt workers and their families, and they don’t just hurt the stock market and the portfolios therein. They also hurt cities, especially cities like Buffalo that have been punch-drunk for a very long time now. (With all respect to our President, it seems to me that things quite frankly are “black and white” when it comes to accounting procedures.)
Most depressingly, the questions surrounding urban development — what kind of city is Buffalo, and what kind of city does Buffalo want to be — are pretty much ignored in the Buffalo mainstream media (which is mostly comprised of three television stations and the city’s one major newspaper, The Buffalo News). The only place these issues seem to come up are in the alternative press, most notably in the weeklyArtvoice, which constantly runs articles offering suggestions as to what can be done with Buffalo’s bumper crop of vacant properties, scathing critiques on Buffalo’s insistence on trying to feed at the casino-gambling trough, and lately a fascinating series of features called Good Neighbor, Bad Neighbor in which two businesses are contrasted for the appearance of their facilities and the way in which they integrate into their local surroundings. Perhaps demonstrating that businesses can be attractive is a good place to begin in starting Buffalo’s self-renewal, which has been promised to be “just around the corner” for so often that it’s hard not to wonder if it is actually a carrot on a stick that has been strapped to our own heads.