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Moratorium: No More New-Builds

Yesterday I was talking to a couple friends from City Hall about the Stevens family, who want to purchase a slew of city-owned lots on Wilson Street for an urban farm. The city’s economic development chief, Brian Reilly, has said he won’t approve the purchase of those lots because he hopes that someone might want to develop them—specifically, to build new houses there. (Reilly suggested that Habitat for Humanity already had their eyes on the lot, although Chris Byrd at In Da Buff learned yesterday from Stevens that Habitat would he happy to change their plans to accommodate an urban farm.) Though there are thousands of city-owned vacant lots, Reilly said it’s difficult to string together so many adjacent parcels as exist on Wilson.

That seems like nonsense to me, and my two friends from City Hall—both of whom live nearby the proposed farm—agreed.”It’s really an alley street,” one guy said. “It’s not really not the best place for a new housing development.”

“Why would anyone want to build houses there?” said the other guy. “Why are we building houses at all when we have 20,000 vacant housing units in this city? Can we just stop and figure out what it is we’re doing?”

I considered that: a moratorium on new-builds in the city until such time as we have a comprehensive housing plan. Who are we building new houses for? I don’t believe that anyone chooses the suburbs over the city because they like the houses out there better. Everyone I know who makes that move does it for better schools, and despite the housing. For low-income families stuck in substandard housing, a better answer than subsidized new-builds might be to improve the housing stock we have; there’s rehab money going unspent by our neighborhood housing agencies, and there’s more money than ever coming down the pike for weatherization and rehab grants and loans thanks to the federal stimulus package.

New in-fill housing  is a part of any housing strategy, though I would argue that throwing up new-builds on a street like Wilson would be wasteful, another example of the scattershot, developer-driven approach that yields suburban-style houses that often are vacant and near worthless just 15 years after their construction. (I would also argue that we should not subsidize market-rate or above housing at all; those who can afford a $200,000 house don’t need any help.) Our city planners need to pick neighborhoods for new housing carefully, building on strengths, and ask developers to adhere to design standards consistent with existing houses, lots sizes, and uses. In neighborhoods that aren’t marked for in-fill—and I don’t see why that barren stretch of Wilson Street should be—we ought to be open to creative uses for vacant lots.

In the meantime, maybe we ought to stop building new houses in the city until we’ve figured out what we’re doing. Because if our city government is considering blocking the sale of city-owned lots to a family of farmers because maybe someday someone will build some houses—likely with public subsidy, many of which will likely be vacant and crumbling in 15 years, possibly in need of demolition, if past housing projects are any measure—then our city government is nuts. Make them do some soil studies, to be sure there’s nothing toxic buried there. Then give them the land for a dollar per lot plus closing fees.

  • Not a genius just a gardener

    Drive down Wilson Street and see if you agree with Reilly. The east side of the blockface is lined with garages. Putting houses on the west side facing the garages is a silly idea, even if there was housing there before. THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF LOTS IN THE CITY MR. REILLY AND MAYOR BROWN.

    There is, however, a shortage of foresightful planning and bureaucrats with the rare combination of brains and cahones.

  • Very reasonable argument here, Geoff.

  • 02

    We fought the same thing here in the University Heights. Bonnie Russell and Mayor Brown wanted to stuff abandoned railroad land with apartments and a few $200,000 houses. This, in an area with a 25% vacancy rate.

    The neighborhood had other ideas and had been working a rails to trails project there for years. The rails to trails project is funded ($2.6 million federal dollars) and shovel ready, but sits empty, a magnet for dumping and crime.

    Brown said he could build a bike trail for this amount, but it didn’t appear on any list of shovel ready site for an infusion of stimulus dollars. We can’t figure out if we’re being punished for going up against Brown, or he actually thinks that there will be funding for housing developments again in his life time.

  • maybe the farmers could distribute their produce in the broadway market. maybe they would need some extra help(employees) to raise crops, plow, weed, harvest. maybe the local help would look out for the neighborhood because they are proud and committed to what is going on thanks to their personal contribution. am i envisioning an urban type csa? just maybe, it could turn out to be an awesome area/neighborhood in what some folks consider “a hood.” just maybe…

  • Emma

    when I heard mayor brown’s response, I nearly choked. wait, someone has the desire, the ability and the savvy to apply to create an urban farm? I am remembering the gardens that giuliani tried to wipe out when folks in the city turned empty lots into community gardens, regardless of who owned the land. so we’re going to deny the very useful, beautiful, community-enhancing and positive use of land in the hopes that somebody is going to buy the land and do what with it? how much wasted space do we have in Buffalo? How many boarded up houses need reconstruction? Pardon me, but how can you be “for” urban farming and yet deny the right to build an urban farm? So the solution to a recession– community ownership and beautification, is again being told “F-U?” Can we have a progressive mayor please? pretty please? PLEASE?

  • Lita

    Think of the East Side as a pond screaming for someone to throw a pebble into it. The ripple effect of this project would be profound and is the sort of investment and inspiration, not to mention innovation, that our city could use right now. That it is being initiated by some “plain folk” rather than the usual cast of characters, is refreshing to say the least. When there are creative risk-takers willing to make changes in the city, our leaders should be right behind them with pom poms and megaphones. Until then, there will be more of the same here. buffalhohum.

  • John Q Blogger

    The corn sweetner diet that harms inner city residents is tied to corporate welfare in Buffalo.

    In this age we live in we need to become less dependent on foreign oil and enhance consumption of fresh and healthy food. To cut the cost of shipping food and grow it closer to the consumer is smart planning for the health and freedom of our city and country.

    A wise leader would jump to accommodate this urban farming pioneering effort. The age of the Industrial Revolution is over in Buffalo.

    The City of Buffalo is harming the neighborhoods by disenfranchising and harming the home stock in Buffalo by pouring money into real estate interests to build expensive homes and condos for the gentry classes. Absentee landlords are block busting and home stock is not being kept up to housing ordinance standards because there are insufficient numbers of inspectors and/or special deals for connected property owners.

  • A Political Move

    I know – this is Mayor Brown’s idea of political suicide. Wait, maybe he’ll look for a fall guy.

    Watch out Reilly !!

  • Donna Cayote

    Buffalaughable Definitions:
    Buffalo City Hall – Political Patronage Dump, Place where Brain Dead People come to pretend to work and then collect pay checks, Biggest depository of Political Crimes against citizens in the USA, Ground Zero for the Buffalo Laughing Club – members meet out front, point up at the building and laugh our heads off.

  • Mr. Justice

    Brownie needs to go!!!!!

  • Mayor Brown is doing some great work, including smart reform of the city’s zoning ordinance. It may be reasonable to take a step back and ask the tough questions on whether the city’s demolition and housing construction policies are effective and, if not, how they could become more effective. Good urban design is easy, and in the case of the Belmont/NRP project it would require only a small shift in direction: conform to existing lot lines, respect prevailing setbacks, and match the character and urban form of the historic building stock nearby.

    I don’t find the anti-Brown, knee-jerk responses to be very constructive on issues that are really urban planning-centered in nature, not political. It represents a misguided effort to tear down, but where is the effort to build up?

  • Mr. Justice

    It is very political what town do you live in? Especially Brownie, look at the Deli owners, and the treatment by the Brown Administration. Peter Cutler and his hit and run and get away, slap on the wrist, and his son breaking that women’s car, than the women gets punished on the job for complaining, and oh yeah administration inspired police investigations of critics of the mayor. Lets not forgot the updates in traffic zoning laws with cameras, oops the same cameras that caught Brownie’s kid.

  • I’ve posted about this and connected this to another community garden project that’s being uprooted for similar reasons.

    Today I walked Wilson Street and just posted this.

    Innovate, urban and environmentally sensitive designed infill houses are always welcome. A moratorium on the construction and photoshopping of these ‘vinyl victorians’ into architecturally sensitive street scapes that don’t respect the possible future density of this city should be stopped. Yesterday.

  • JD

    Any of you live on the East Side? Dump money into existing housing? Build to match the existing style? Give me a break. These houses are falling apart, even the occupied ones. And the East Side is not exactly “Arts & Crafts”. I am glad the mayor is finally getting the abandoned ones torn down. At least I no longer have to look out at burned out hulks on the front and side of the house I live in. As to the urban farm, I wouldn’t want to be next to it if it were going to be using fertilizer. We are talking about acres of land, not just a victory garden. It could get pretty rank. Also, how would the run off be dealt with? What about the wildlife it would attract? We don’t need a new attraction for rodents. These are legitimate sanitary and health concerns that would need to be addressed. I’m not against new ideas, I just think they need to be well thought out. Farming is done in rural areas for a reason. As to new housing, I think a limited amount could be supported. People will not move into Buffalo for 100 year old shacks. Things have changed a lot since these neighborhoods were laid out. We are not a growing city. There is no need to be so densely built. Lot sizes could easily be doubled for new housing. I don’t think we need McMansions, but a modest yard would be nice. Planning should be a priority.

  • Bufflow

    Chris, I realize you’re a planner and that sort of stuff is your life passion but “building up” is simply not an option in one of the most devastated areas a shrinking city with 20,000 vacant housing units.

    You planner types tend to obsess with all the great things that work in places like NYC, Seattle, San Fran, ect. and foolishly try to apply it to dying cities like Buffalo.

    “Planning” should cater to our city’s real needs, not playing SimCity with phantom new fantasy developments. Snazzy smart Codes are good at shoring up neighborhoods where people want to live and invest in but certainly won’t spark demand in places most people want to stay as far away from as possible. Have you driven around the Broadway-Fillmore area lately? That place is a mess and new housing is really the last thing it needs.

    I find it funny in your statement “match the character and urban form of the historic building stock nearby.”, you ignore the context of what created this neighborhood in the first place, namely cheap and abundant houses for boatloads of immigrants packing into a vibrant, growing city. Having a pedantic obsession with buildings often makes one ignore the more important element behind what makes cities work—its people.

  • Laura K

    I agree with Bufflow that good cities are people driven, rather than building driven. But what brings people to a city? It’s the site. In the case of Buffalo, it was the junction of land and water transport, and suitable land to build out on. I also agree that suburban new builds are not the answer, but a moratorium? I dont think so. I run one of those housing agencies that pours rehab money into the area – almost $400,000 this year, folks. And we’ll keep going until we’ve fixed up every eligible house in South Buffalo.
    We have a wealth of affordable, attractive houses – and the largest number of older wood-frame buildings in the country. No wonder we need to buff them up some. Many of the homes were built so well that they will continue to stand the test of time. Some were slapped up for cheap worker housing, and are deteriorating quickly. People get older, incomes get smaller, but our programs help keep structures safe and sound so that grandma can live out her life at home, and the house is fit for the next generation.
    But what’s wrong with some new builds? After all, even a rehabbed wood frame is probably not wired for today’s needs, and we’ve learned a thing or two about energy efficiency and green building. Also, our old, small lots don’t leave a lot of room for a yard.
    I for one would love to lure some new and well-heeled homebuyers with some fitting construction with modern amenities. Those are the folks that can help us revive our commercial strips, and can give new energy to a neighborhood. Washington Market would not exist without all those downtown loft dwellers.
    So I say keep up the rehab projects, everybody, and keep our options open.

  • Laura K is on to the right track. What’s attracting people to cities and what did attract folks to ours 100 years ago are different things nowadays. Today, it has more to do with the lifestyle advantages of cities – which greatly includes intangible things like character, sense of place, walkability. The increasing mobility and choice of creative people is heightened, which is why, in places like Midtown Buffalo, it is so vitally important to play to the neighborhood’s strengths.

    Oh, by the way, what I mean by building up, not tearing down, was a commentary on the tenor of the public dialog, not literally on tearing down things and building new. A few too many folks like to complain about a mayor that is doing some really great things; I think it’s better to focus on ideas, which are the true currency that will push the city forward.

    Of course, protecting our existing quality housing stock is vital. In Midtown, actually, middle-class housing prevailed – Ada Place is composed of quality-made Queen Anne’s, not shotgun cottages. By negating the character of the street and not focusing efforts instead on reinforcing that character or, namely, rehabbing the existing housing there, economic opportunities are lost and the neighborhood’s strengths are weakened.

    Having a pedantic obsession with buildings – and quality urbanism – has helped revive many a declining city and neighborhood. It’s not the only answer, but it’s hard to imagine a future where this economic resource is being squandered.

  • AICPplanner

    It took me almost a week to stop laughing after I read this pathetic blog. People don’t like the housing in the suburbs. Absolutely looney. Let’s examine the outdated junk in the city closely. 1) no closets, 2) 1 1/2 bath on average, 3) roof design issues that result in failure, 4) limited usable living space, 5) no garages, 6) lead paint, 7)attic / basement asbestos, 8) outdated wiring, plumbing, furnace, windows, etc (i.e. not energy star rated), 9) etc… etc….

    We can go on to describe the lack of yards, shopping, neighborhood amenities, etc… This is a joke and irresponsible journalism.

    Of course the biggest impediment to living in the city is the school system. A complete and utter barrier to living in Buffalo (along with the mess in City Hall).

    One thing to salvage out of this story is the lack of a housing plan in the city, especially an affordable rental housing plan. Most people in Buffalo rent and the pajority of them live in substandard housing. Buffalo needs to send an army of inspectors out to condem and board up ALL substandard rental units and assist the renter who are being abused and discriminated against in finding safe and sanitary housing to rent. The city could knock down all of the unsound housing and replace it with manufatured housing of the FEMA variety. That would result in an instant improvement in the quality of housing in the city. Decent, safe, and affordable. Of course most manufactured housing is more expensive than the average house in Buffalo, but that is a reflection of the state of disrepair the city is in.

    On the farming issue. The city should allow for commercial farming in the city. It could be a real job creating industry in the area (production, transport, etc…). But the scale of farming would have to be much larger than the current neo-con boot-strap proposals out there. Community gardens and 2 acre farms are a joke. They do not produce jobs or address the nutrition, food access issues in the city. That type of farming is just a way for wealthy people in the city to tell the poor that they are responsible for their food insecurity. It essentially tells the poor to grow their own food or starve. The US is not a society based on subsistance farming. The city should require farms to be a minimum of 40 acres. There is lots of potential to demo and reclaim land for commercial farming in Buffalo. We can start with the golf course on Delaware Park and next to the VA. Great farm land there. Then clear some plots of land on the East Side.

  • huh?

    Two comments up somebody said Mayor Brown is doing “really great things”. What are those? Overall hasn’t he been a disaster? Who other than himself and people who owe their jobs to him seriously think he’s done really great things? He takes credit for a lot of thing that would have happened anyway like New Era, Labatt, the Avant, and even Price Rite.

    Just within the past year look at all that’s been stupid……

    – Pitts hotel choice after BURA misled Ciminelli about proposal flexibility, and not even listening to the other proposal. Clear political favoritism.

    – Red light cameras

    – Unbelievably insisting Wilson Street be left empty for future residential instead of farming.

    – Having the Police Dept hold onto Mr. Ali’s personal belongings (no matter what one’s opinion of Ali is).

    – The scandal misusing HUD funding and not keeping track of it.

    – Refusal to give requested basic public information to the Common Council and reporters filing FOIL requests.

    – Not listening to the I.T. Department chief and having him quit.

    – Mess of snowplowing this winter because new workers weren’t proactively trained.

    I’m sure that’s leaving out a lot over the past year. There’s almost too many failures to keep track of.

  • Yuri Hreshchyshyn

    The East Buffalo Good Neighbors Planning Alliance- Broadway Fillmore Neighborhood Plan identifies Wilson street as a potential linear park from Martin Luther King Park to William Street. An addendum of the Plan, accepted by the City after months of review, precisely graphs the green space along Wilson St., as well as on Paderewski. An urban farm is consistent with this plan; housing is not. Fillmore Avenue was identified by Olmsted as a parkway; due to commercial growth his plan was not implemented. Wilson St., essentially an alley behind Fillmore Avenue properties provides the alternative greenway to connect the Parade to parks south. Residents in housing on Strauss St. and west can only benefit from this amenity. This Mayor, who once supported improvements to MLK Park should know better. The administration’s response is ill-advised and not consistent with its own precepts. The Good Neighbors Planning Alliance is a program of the Office of Strategic Planning structured to provide citizen input into the development of the City Strategic Plan. It has provided planners valuable local insight otherwise unavailable, enriching the City’s database; allowing for better decision making. Possibly this time. -YuriHreshchyshyn