During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last month, County Executive Mark Poloncarz angered a lot of people when he Tweeted about how much nicer Charlotte’s convention center is, compared to Buffalo’s. Jim Fink ripped Poloncarz in Business First, but now admits he was wrong – he thought Poloncarz was comparing our convention center to the Time Warner Center.
It’s time to start talking about a new convention center in Buffalo. Why? Back in March the city lost a convention which would have had a $1.6 million economic impact. The reason given:
“Your Convention Center did not meet the expectations of the site selection committee and did not measure up to the level of convention centers visited in the other cities,” she wrote. “There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.
“Our attendees place a high value on the ability to access bars, restaurants, shopping and other entertainment options within walking distance.”
This is why blind, uncritical Buffalove is harmful. Downtown is a mess, made worse by bad planning, bad administration, bad policies, and multiple layers of regulation. Here’s a quick look at the convention center’s immediate surroundings:
There’s absolutely nothing appealing for a casual convention-goer who doesn’t much care about architecture or the realness or authenticity about a place. Our downtown is a disgrace, and the convention center looks like someone took the Sedita City Court building and laid it on its side. The convention center is a brutalist monstrosity that blocks off Genesee Street, resembles a German Normandy bunker, and goes out of its horrible way to make downtown look even uglier and less inviting – less human.
Here’s Charlotte’s convention center:
It’s not perfect, but it’s not a Stalinist apartment block, either.
It’s absolutely time to start talking again about improving downtown – which has been happening slowly, in fits and starts. We need a plan for smart parking and land value taxation to de-incentivize lazy maintenance of our sea of surface parking lots. We also need a new, attractive convention center that can attract business and visitors, and be a showpiece for a new Buffalo. One that’s welcoming.
Perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone and demolish the existing convention center, make that land ready for development – on two parcels, re-establishing that stretch of Genesee Street. The convention center could be located perhaps on the site of the current Adams Mark, which should also be demolished. Perhaps we could demolish them both on the same day and hold the biggest fricking celebration Buffalo ever had.
The last time Buffalo looked into a new convention center was 1999. Poloncarz told Fink,
“If we needed one in 1999, we definitely need one now,” he said. “Maybe, it’s time to open that debate again.”
He notes that a new convention center in Niagara Falls, ON has had a $110 million impact on that city already.
So, I’ll revisit my original idea, which has been actually picking up supporters and steam. It was most recently echoed by Rocco Termini in an interview with Investigative Post’s Jim Heaney.
Termini: That’s a small segment of what is out there. We need to develop the whole concept of the Toronto market. I’m going to be in Toronto over the weekend talking about this very thing.
Heaney: What’s your thought on how to capitalize?
Termini: I think what we need to do is form a sales tax free zone downtown. We need to take over the first floor of every building downtown and we need to put in there an outlet mall type, high-end retail. And then you will get people coming into Buffalo from Toronto. And then they’ll go to the restaurants, they’ll stay at the hotels, they’ll make a day of it. I just called for a hotel room in Toronto and Trump Tower is $750 a night. You can come and stay at probably a better room at the Lafayette for $149, so a person from Toronto can come down to Buffalo, have dinner, shop all day, and stay in a hotel here.
Heaney: Doesn’t that put local existing merchants at a disadvantage all of a sudden? “I’m selling, the guy downtown is selling; I’ve got to collect a sales tax he doesn’t.” Aren’t you in a stealing from Peter to pay Paul scenario?
Termini: Not really. They’re getting a small fraction of the people coming from Canada. And don’t forget, they already have an advantage. They have expressways going right to their malls; they have free parking, something that we’ve paid for as city residents for many years. And now it’s time for the city to get what they deserve and they deserve a chance to get restarted. Nothing else has worked. We talked about so many things to bring retail back to downtown and nothing has worked. I think this will work because people travel to the Indian reservation to save $5 on a carton of cigarettes and they’ll spend $6 worth of gasoline. But when people think they’re getting a deal they will come.
The central business district is a wasteland. We’re now talking about creating a new little shopping district at the foot of Main Street out of whole cloth. But even if we build it, how do you ensure that they come, and that it’s sustainable? Just being there for when hockey or lacrosse games get out isn’t enough. Just being there in nice weather isn’t enough. It has to be something people want to come to, and people want to return to.
In an economically depressed and shrinking town where entrepreneurship is sorely needed – especially among disadvantaged populations – we can turn downtown Buffalo into something attractive not by centrally planning a waterfront, or doing a 2011 version of what really amounts to 50s era urban renewal. Two votes and a stroke of a pen is all that’s needed.
The area outlined in red ought to be designated a special economic zone. And yes, I use that term specifically to liken it to what China has done to help build and modernize its industry.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be opposed to all of Erie and Niagara Counties being designated special economic zones, but for the purposes of this argument, I’m just focusing on what should be Buffalo’s downtown commercial core.
There are myriad problems with downtown and planning that need to be addressed – above all, modernization and coordination of parking that is relegated to ramps and underground lots. Every parcel within that red zone that isn’t built on should be shovel-ready land. The zoning code should require parking for new development to be adequate and hidden. This means extra cost, but the benefits of locating to the special economic zone means lower taxes and streamlined regulatory processes.
Within the zone, the county and state would waive their respective sales taxes. That means businesses outside the zone would still have to charge 8.75% on purchases, while businesses within the zone would be tax-free. It’d be like all of downtown being a duty-free shop.
No, it’s not fair to merchants outside the zone. But life isn’t fair. Furthermore, most of the merchants in Buffalo and outside the zone serve the surrounding residents and will still be patronized out of sheer convenience. Furthermore, the influx of people and businesses attracted by the SEZ will ultimately help those businesses thrive, as well.
Development would still be subject to Buffalo’s zoning and planning bureaucracies, but the rules would be simplified and permits & approval would be harmonized and streamlined. Property taxes would be reduced or eliminated, depending on the parcel. However, properties would be assessed not based on what they are (e.g., empty lots), but on what their value ought rightly be if developed.
By turning the central business district into a tax-free special economic zone, you give people 8.75 reasons to do business and conduct commerce in downtown Buffalo over anywhere else. Creation of a waterfront district while ignoring the decline and blight of the rest of downtown seems to me to be counterintuitive.
By executing a plan such as this, zoning the waterfront districts, and having the ECHDC or state spend public money solely on the improvement and installation of necessary infrastructure, transfer of title for all parcels to one single entity to speed development, institution of a design and zoning plan that cannot be deviated from, and – most importantly – remediating the environmental nightmares under the soil throughout ECHDC’s mandated districts, we can then auction the parcels off to qualified buyers.
That is how downtowns revive organically – through private initiative and private money. Government can do its job and merely provide the private sector with the proper environment to do business and build. It doesn’t get faster, quicker, or cheaper than that.