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Downtown Block Threatened by County Move


Pic & Cap 4:3 template 1The Administration of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is about to cost downtown Buffalo 437 jobs and all the economic and social consequences that entails. The Buffalo News on August 13 reported an announcement by a deputy county press secretary that the county is moving the Department of Social Services employees from their long-time home at one of the most equitably accessible locations in Erie County to the out-of-the-way and failed Appletree Mall on Union Road at Bennett Road in Cheektowaga.

Prior to 1985, the mall was known as the Como Park Mall, and struggled almost from the day it opened due to poor location.

Among the consequences is that the move will virtually empty out the historic Hens & Kelly Building at Main and Mohawk streets, depriving it of a $6,000,000 rent stream over five years. Instead, the county proposes to ship $9,000,000 over five years to an out-of-state owner for space in an old mall nine miles away.

The move will require Social services employees going to Family Court at Niagara and West Eagle streets to drive almost 20 miles roundtrip, rather than walk the two blocks from their existing building. Presumably, the new vehicle demand and time will be costs absorbed by taxpayers. 

The lease was rubber-stamped by the County Legislature.

Destroying foot traffic destroys neighborhoods

Foot traffic —pedestrians, walkers, people roaming freely on the streets —is the lifeblood of cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

Think: go along a street and you see no one on the sidewalks (even though there may be a number of cars, maybe with you in one, driving down the street). You perceive the neighborhood as dead, dull, the city inert. Another street or square has some people striding about, some strolling, some sitting, sometimes individually, often in small groups. People talking, exchanging information. It is a lively scene.

Each of those people on the lively scene is engaged in what geographers and others who study such things calls a trip. Walk from your bus stop to your office: that’s a trip. Walk out of the office to run an errand: that’s a trip. Walk out and back for lunch: that’s two trips. Each trip is an opportunity to bump into someone, buy something you need or something you want, get some exercise, some fresh air, some change in perspective, see different things and other people. In a given day, a downtown office worker is making a minimum, lets say, of four walking trips: into the building from some mode of transport (foot, bike, transit, car, jetpack), out of the building for lunch (there are those who eat at their desks, yes, and, unfortunately, those who eat in building cafeterias—which is why some cities are actually banning cafeterias in new construction in certain zones to encourage local foot traffic), back to the building after lunch, and, at the end of the day, back to some mode of transport.

In a work week, one office worker would generate 20 trips, in a year 1,000. Minimum.

That is in an urban environment, of course. Some place that we like to call “walkable,” and that everybody says they like and want other people to like. It is a very efficient set-up. A virtuous spiral wherein each additional person on the street serves to attract others and businesses that feed off that volume. In our example, we have 437 workers in the Hens & Kelly Building in the 500-Block Historic District. Not including those who might visit them in the course of the day (they are workers for the county Department of Social Services, which includes family and child services and other divisions, which have a direct public service component, so the building gets more visitors than another similar building might)

That office population, then, generates 437,000 walking trips per year. That has a lot of impact, and removing them from the equation downtown will be felt in the neighboring blocks, no question. And these jobs will not be easily replaced, observing what has been the case in Buffalo for 60 years.

Walkers are the lifeblood of cities, towns, neighborhoods

Imagine a village of with 437 adults with jobs. One day, someone announces that all the workplaces will be moved nine miles away to a windowless former mall set back from the road behind a huge, always-nearly-empty parking lot. What do you think will happen to the street life of the village, its businesses, and public life? And it matters where these jobs are.

As a physicist moonlighting in economic geography notably said, density makes us smarter. 437 people isolated in a failed-mall-bunker-of-an-office-park are much less productive to society than those same people when part of a larger population in face-to-face proximity, mixing right out the door. Having those people move out of the neighborhood makes everyone remaining less productive, their lives less rich. Downtown Buffalo becomes less “smart.”

And this is just looking at the economic perspective. There are many others which I touched on that deserve to be explored before the county makes a mistake that will create permanent harm to downtown Buffalo. We all talk about smart growth, politicians most of all.

This move by the county is about as dumb as you can get.

 A Neighborhood-killer

Meanwhile, the 500-Block Historic District, of which the Hens & Kelly Building is part, will suffer the loss of foot traffic and patronage 437 employees and their visitors bring. It is not a small number: If 90 per cent of employees go out for lunch, that's 2000 lunches per week, or 100,000 lunches per year, of business lost. That can make or break a couple of restaurants. Stressing tenants stresses buildings. Stressing buildings stresses neighborhoods.

A fully occupied Hens & Kelly Building may generate close to 1800 pedestrian trips in and out of the building per weekday, or close to 450,000 weekday trips per year. Each trip is an opportunity for a store, restaurant, or vendor to make a sale, or two people to bump into each other and exchange greetings or information. That is the lifeblood of cities, and removing these jobs from Main & Mohawk is sucking that blood dry.

The Hens & Kelly Building was designed by prominent local architects Bley & Lyman in 1924. The firm also designed the old Federal Courthouse, the Bank of Buffalo, Berger's Department Store, and The Saturn Club. The building is owned by Carl Paladino's Ellicott Development (he's an anti-preservationist, racist, and a former Republican candidate for Governor, so there is that). Appletree is managed and leased by McGuire Development, whose chairman is Frank McGuire, for 50 years a local and statewide Democratic donor and power broker. Mark Poloncarz is a Democrat. So there is that.

Appletree:Como pic & cap 1The Poloncarz Administration says the reasons for the move were leaks and poor maintenance (the News helpfully headlined the story "400 social services workers are leaving their leaky downtown offices."). Why the county would not pay for the improvements and maintenance it says it needs, but was not, apparently, covered in the lease, while it is ready, willing, and able to fork over 58% more in rent in Cheektowaga, is unknown.

Appletree/Como Mall failed in part because of its inconvenient location for eastern-suburb drivers, let alone transit users or the general population.  It has long been known as Appletree Business Park, owned by an out-of-state company. 

1960's decision-making

Reading the News article was like reading a News article from the 1960s, replete with references to decrepit downtown buildings, the lure of "free" parking in the suburbs, blithe disregard for anyone who does not drive, ignorance of the political subtext, and no speculation as to the consequences of the move for downtown. For good measure, only the county's PR flack and a representative of McGuire Development were quoted.

It was hard to see where a press release may have ended and statements of supposed facts were reported. This is how downtown was killed in the 1960's. Take this paragraph: “Officials say that's better for both the department's employees and the clients it serves. The new site in the onetime mall at Union and Bennett roads gives the agency a centralized location within the county that is easily accessible by car and Metro Bus. And there's plenty of free parking, in contrast to downtown Buffalo.” This seems not only to call for verification from department employees and clients, but clarity as whether “ a centralized location within the county that is easily accessible by car and Metro Bus” is opinion or reported fact.

Further, there’s that “free parking” notion. Is there anyone who thinks the cost of parking is not covered in the rent, paid for by county taxpayers, whether they use the facility or not, and whether they even have a car. It is a public subsidy for drivers who use the facility, unlike paid parking downtown, which is paid only by those who chose to drive to the facility and use it. Downtown parking is cheap and plentiful, too. In 5 years of working on Lafayette Square, your correspondent, when he chose to drive, never had to park more than one-and-a-half blocks away. Curbside parking in whole swaths of downtown is $1 an hour. For clients of Social Services, it is less than taking pubic transit. The closest parking garage charges $87 for a monthly pass, or less than 50 cents an hour for a full-time employee.

Inaccessible by public transit

As for being “accessible” by Metro Bus, that is misleading. According to NFTA schedules, there are only 31 arrivals and departures on one route (the William Street, with a 40-minute ride to downtown and an average wait of 15 minutes during the day, and with the closest connecting bus route being Bailey Avenue). That is terrible bus service.

Isochrones for Appletree  downtown 1Meanwhile, there are over 1,700 arrivals and departures by bus in downtown Buffalo daily from all areas of the county, plus an addition 92 arrivals and departures by Metrorail directly out the door between 9:00AM and 5:00PM). As the public transit-time map shows, the area accessible by a 30-minute journey (a key metric in travel) by bus to Appletree is miniscule, particularly compared with the accessible area of the Hens & Kelly location, as shown in the accompanying illustration. This is before consideration is taken of frequency of service and ability to connect. Moving Social Services beyond the reach of the NFTA makes public transit less appealing and would reinforce a downward spiral in transit ridership and increase net NFTA expenses.

Transportation expert Jarrett Walker says: "If you are a building a place that you want people to use transit to get to, it must be located somewhere that transit can serve efficiently."  Erie County is doing the opposite. The NFTA, which recently admitted to being stumped as to why transit ridership was declining over the years, can stop wondering: it is because of moves like this, and building—even within downtown Buffalo (think Blue Cross/Blue Shield)—distant from efficient transit. The NFTA is being negligent in one aspect of its public service, and that is weighing in forcibly and in public about transit impacts on all public and private projects. Silence is consent.

Not "central" at all

Drive time 1But, you say, the decision was made by someone with regard only for drivers? The News quotes the county PR flack: "Sometimes there’s a misconception that downtown Buffalo is central to Erie County, but that’s not true for everyone," said Daniel Meyer, deputy press secretary for the county. "We think it’s going to help out with easier access for our clients and for our employees.” Really, Danny? Where’d you get your geography degree? Looking at driving time for the two locations, as shown in the accompanying maps generated by Trulia, downtown clearly wins on accessibility for the majority of city and suburban drivers.

The proposed removal of over 430 jobs from the heart of downtown is a bad deal for historic preservation, downtown building owners, downtown businesses, employees, clients, and taxpayers.

Who is it a good deal for?

Want to express your opinion on whether the county should keep the 437 Social Services employees and it main office downtown or ship them to Cheektowaga? Here are some contacts: Buffalo News Editor: [email protected]

County Executive Mark Poloncarz: [email protected], 716-858-8500

County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams: [email protected], 716-842-0490

County Legislature Majority Leader April N.M. Baskin: [email protected], 716-895- 1849