Blue Cross: Unhealthy in More Ways than One—Isolated site, poor design, and stealthy land acquisition
By Tim Tielman and Chris Hawley
Here’s one that deserves to go down in flames: The new headquarters for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York, the local nonprofit medical insurer, on 15 acres of land behind City Hall. It is a local parlor game to rue development mistakes of the past. Yet, with Blue Cross, we are going to be saddled with a project that breaks all the rules of citymaking. We’ll pay for the pleasure, too. The deal includes, for starters, a $10,000,000 federal tax benefit, a taxpayer-funded $14,000,000 state environmental clean up that a private owner was obligated to pay, a probable city payback for a $16,000,000 parking ramp, and the selling of a 6.5 acre public parcel of land assessed at $3,500,000 to a private the developer for $1. All this merely to move a local company from one city neighborhood to another. It is a conceit that, knowing the folly of past developments, we will not repeat them.
Blue Cross says the project will enhance the city’s tax base, boost the economy, and otherwise help downtown. Politicians parrot this, the media parrot it., and the business establishment parrots it. Yet, the project will do none of these things. The list of bad policy is long, and will exacerbate the conditions which afflict downtown particularly and the city and the county in general. To wit:
• The development documents call for the city to permanently abandon Court Street west of Fire Department headquarters. Part of Joseph Ellicott’s vision as he laid out the city was to have three of his famous radial streets connect to the water. All of those historic routes (Genesee, Erie, and Court) were cut off in the Urban Renewal era of the 50’s and 60’s. Each can be restored. Legal abandonment makes it harder.
• The project site is isolated. at least five blocks from any streetfront retail (about 2,000 feet), and seven blocks from Lafayette Square, the closest concentration of commercial activity. This is much too far to induce retail sales.
• In a region with mass transit in a downward spiral of service cuts and declining ridership, we are exchanging a headquarters building located on five bus routes and Metrorail, for one that is four blocks from the nearest bus stop.
• As designed, Blue Cross could fit on any number of vacant parcels within one block of Main Street that would benefit the public much more. The misplaced inducements act as disincentives for close-in development. This land is much more useful for housing, and the city is forfeiting it.
• Over 50% of downtown land is devoted to parking, including several underutilized public parking ramps, yet a 1600-car, $16,000,000 ramp is to be built expressly for this building’s employees, likely at city expense.
• Over 10 acres of public land, unnecessary for the program, is being given to developer Duke Realty, of Indianapolis, for $2. That is enough land for six M&T Plaza-Robert Adam parking ramp complexes. This stealthy land acquisition distorts the property market and will act as a lifeblood-sucking leech on the downtown core for decades.
• The shape and placement of the buildings is such to lead one to believe the encroachments on BURA land are done to trigger some kind of funding or tax abatement for the developer, and fees for BURA. Everything necessary can fit on private Gasworks parcel (flanked by parcels A & B, right).
• Urbanistically, the building and its public areas are sited so as to discourage pedestrian activity, forfeiting the opportunities presented by the corner of 7th and Court streets. Architecturally, it will be a cheap, tawdry, and altogether unavoidable monstrosity that destroys the architectural and historical presence of John Selkirk’s landmarked Gasworks façade of 1859. Shame on our public agencies, and shame on Blue Cross.