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Picking One’s Battles: Part 1

Forget for a moment about the things that the media are telling you to be absolutely terrified about – ebola, ISIS, drought, global warming/climate change, Russia, Ukraine, flights from West Africa, genocide, etc. After all, while all of this stuff is going on, most Americans either think it’s an Obama-led plot, or are more concerned with who did what on Dancing With the “Stars”. 

Locally, our outrages are much more pedestrian in nature. 

We don’t get incensed, and we don’t do jack squat in response to a devastating report about poverty in Buffalo. Well, we do tend to moralize and lecture the victims of poverty, while others identify at least one of the root causes

But I can tell you two recent points of civic outrage that are not at all important, in the wider scheme of things. One is the Labatt ad affixed to a dilapidated grain elevator, replacing what appears to be peeling and chipping lead paint.  The other is the notion that anything that might be labeled “the indoors” be built anywhere on the Outer Harbor. 

A scan of preservationist message boards reveals that some people are simply outraged by the idea that a locally-headquartered national beer importer would so crassly deface our lovely blight. (Query: if it was PBR cans, would that be ok?) A petition has 132 signatures, is being promoted by a guy from Dutchess County, and calls this location “downtown”. The petition alleges that the Labatt cans violate up to three codes or regulations. 

The petitioners claim that Alcoholic Beverage Control Law 83.2 prohibits this display. Untrue. Any reasonable reading of that language reveals the prohibition to signs posted by a retailer on “retail licensed premises”. This location is not a retail licensed premises for on-site alcohol consumption.  A claimed second code violation alleges that the Labatt ad is illegal because it can be seen from a park with a playground in it.

The city code cited, 452-4, prohibits any alcohol advertising, “in any publicly visible location on or within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of any school premises, playground or playground area in a public park.” The 333 Ganson location is just about 1,000 feet from the boundary of Conway Park itself, which contains a playground. It is almost 1,500 feet from the “playground” or the “playground area in a public park”. 

Finally, the petitioner cites a city code having to do with “accessory signs”.  It doesn’t appear to me that the cited sign ordinance applies to a sign that is a part of the building itself, but instead deals with billboards and other types of signs that are separate and distinct from the adjoining structure.

But all of this boils down to personal taste – trying to shoehorn dubious statutory violations into the argument is a weak substitute for just saying you don’t like it; that we can do better. One person wrote that if we let this Labatt ad stay on the grain elevator, “we’re getting the city we deserve”. I honestly can’t fathom how putting a dilapidated commercial structure to commercial use poses an existential threat to Buffalo. 

You don’t have to like the ad, but unless you own the building, who cares what you or I like? 

Our second moral outrage has to do with the Outer Harbor. Every single plan for the Outer Harbor incorporates bucketloads of parkland. The problem is that in Buffalo, at that location, parkland is basically unusable much of the year, unless maybe you go fishing through holes in the ice or enjoy cross-country skiing with acute wind chills. The notion that there be something indoors on the Outer Harbor is, apparently, haram. 

The rhetoric against the ECHDC-promoted plan has been as bombastic as you’d expect it to be. The process was flawed!  Sure, there were three public hearings/meetings, and they were conducted like all of these types of meetings are – Green Code, Placemaking, One Region Forward – but this one was flawed! ECHDC’s plan will harm the ecosystem! The effort wouldn’t, of course, be complete without noted civic horror Donn Esmonde weighing in, complete with allusion to “lighter, faster, cheaper” from the Placemaking rip-off

So, what could they possibly be planning? Singapore-on-the-Lake? An endless sea of Waterfront Villages? A suburban office park surrounded by parking, like Larkinville? 

Nope, this. This is what they’re planning.  

I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of green on that rendering. Looks like Times Beach’s ecosystem is preserved. Most of the construction would be in small clusters, away from the shore.  

There are plenty of things to be outraged about in Buffalo. These two don’t seem to be among them. 

  • BufChester

    It’s Father Conway Park, not Ganson Park.

  • Mike_Chmiel

    If, however, one of the grain elevators had a large, 75 year old “Iroquois Beer” logo painted on it, I somehow doubt that anyone would be citing these obscure regulations to have it taken down.

  • The silos are wrapped in a nice shade of blue.

  • Andrew Kulyk

    Riverworks is spending millions and making an investment in a long derelict area of the waterfront and on a property that only Ontario Specialty Contracting had the wisdom and foresight to take a risk on. Labatt’s is investing $750K to help make this happen. What was once dreck and barren wasteland is coming to new life as a cool and dynamic entertainment venue, offering a template for yet more investment and more critical mass.

    The revamped blue silos look fine. This is exactly what a cool and trendy city should look like.

    Yet what’s the response from a very tiny and very angry cabal of people who seem to show up and say “no” anytime something good is proposed for this city? Start online petitions, jam social media with nonsense about sketchy ordinances, and try to fire up the masses to try and scuttle this project.

    Nice job, Buffalo.

  • Chris Ostrander

    Terrific post, as usual. I’m glad Buffalo’s self appointed public crusader, Donn Esmonde is on the case. I thoroughly enjoy all the talk about making Buffalo a world-class waterfront city but when talk of making the waterfront a true live-play area comes up we are buried under a mountain of complaints about green space and historical integrity.

  • robrobrobislike

    A couple days ago, you retweeted me when I pointed out how odd it is that nearly every development proposal includes a new housing component even though Buffalo is still losing, but now you’re making fun of people for criticizing a condo development right on top of a nature preserve? What happened?

    Further, did you find it insulting to your own intelligence to claim that said condo development won’t impact Times Beach, because its “ecosystem looks intact” on the rendering? For starters, the rendering barely shows TBNP at all. Also, it’s a drawing made by the people who want there to be condos there! What incentive would there be for ECHDC to show negative impacts to the TBNP ecosystem in the rendering they’re using to sell their plan? How would they even show any impacts in such a drawing? I don’t see one animal on that rendering. If we’re really taking this thing at face value, I would say that’s a pretty significant impact. I mean obviously we’re not meant to take it at face value, because it’s a rendering, so come on.

    Your contempt for the preservationist crowd is well established and it’s fine, I get it. Your take on the Labatt ad is on point. I mean the ad itself is tacky in my mind and definitely not my cup of tea, but whatever. But your “build ALL the things” mentality when it comes to the waterfront is just baffling. We’re at the point now where you’re making fun of people for being concerned about the environment? A computer drawing of a blotch of green is as good as a finding of no significant environmental impact? Building new housing in Buffalo is kind of stupid, except if you’re building it on the waterfront? What gives?

    • I’m not in favor of “build all the things” on the waterfront. On the contrary, I think that there’s no problem with keeping the vast majority of outer harbor land as parkland and open, green space.

      What I disagree with is the “build nothing” mentality that says you can’t stick some condos or offices or shops out there.

      You’re right about a shrinking population and the need for housing, but housing with a view of the water is different from a lot of other housing and has a built-in attraction for people. I don’t see anything in the rendering that is obviously ruining the outer harbor for people who don’t occupy a building there, and note that most of the properties depicted are on the river side of rt 5.

      When I retweet you, it means I think you make a valid or thought-provoking point. It doesn’t mean I’m going to necessarily reach the same conclusion. The buildings over by Times Beach Nature Preserve are across Fuhrmann Blvd from it. I don’t have any problem with that whatsoever.

      • Chris Ostrander

        I think that your last point is what needs to be realized by those opposing any residential development, Alan. Building residential along the river across from Canalside would capitalize on some of the best land for that exact use. It would have no impact on Times Beach as it would be across Fuhrmann Blvd (as Alan points out).

        The land is tailor made for riverfront living and it would add so much more to the entire area than the open air boat storage that currently occupies the space – both visually and economically.

  • hwhamlin

    A post by Alan with which I completely agree. Oh the humanity!
    One thing missing, though — a Tielman reference. As I recall, his sensibilities are offended by the proposed plan.

  • Bernard Lomax

    You know what I miss about living in Buffalo?

    Labatt Blue.

    You know what I don’t miss about Buffalo?

    Ugly, old buildings.

  • Stephen Paskey

    Alan: I agree with you that there are many things more worthy of outrage in Buffalo. But you’re wrong on the legality of the signs.

    (1) If you read the definitions for both “sign” and “wall sign” in the Code, it’s indisputable that the zoning rules for signs apply to any sign supported by the wall of a building, including a sign that’s either painted on the wall or in any way affixed to the wall.

    (2) For purposes of the ABC law, the key question is how you define “premises.” The RiverWorks complex consists of three separate lots in City tax records, and RiverWorks has applied for four separate on-premises liquor licenses. If the silos are on the same city lot as any one of those four locations, the sign would violate the law if the licenses are granted, even if beer isn’t actually sold in the silos themselves. To put it differently: if an on-premises retailer can’t erect a beer billboard on the same lot as a bar (and he can’t), then he certainly can’t paint a beer ad on a building that’s on the same lot and next door to the bar.

    (3) If Labatt is not sold on the “premises,” the sign would not violate the ABC law, but it would then be illegal under City zoning ordinances. If Labatt isn’t sold on the premises, the sign is a “non-accessory” sign, and it’s a clear violation of Chapter 511-104(c), which prohibits any non-accessory sign on the river or lakefront west of the thruway, the Skyway, or Fuhrman Boulevard. And depending on whether your treat the entire silos as the sign or only the logos, it would also violate either the size restrictions, or the restrictions on the size of a non-accessory sign.

    (4) Finally, you’re mistaken about the relationship between the ad and Conway Park. It’s true that the swings are 1500 feet from the silos, but there’s a baseball diamond and playing fields near the perimeter of the park, much closer to the silos. The definition of playground area includes any area “which is designated as a public play area, or which includes, but it not limited to, a baseball diamond or basketball courts.” By that definition, the diamond and the playing fields in Conway are a playground area, and the playground in Conway extends to the fence nearest the silos. If Google maps is accurate, that fence seems to be just under 1,000 feet from the silos. Moreover, at RiverFest Park, there are public facilities for kayak launching barely 250 feet from the silos, and those facilities are used by families with children. The ordinance is quite clear that facilities other than those listed may count as a “playground” area, and there’s a strong argument that the kayak launch facilities qualify.

    I’m sorry to be so long-winded, but there’s simply no way to explain it more concisely. The bottom line: we can debate whether we like the Labatt ad as a matter of taste. We can debate whether the issue is important. What’s not open to debate is whether the ad is legal: it isn’t, regardless of whether Labatt is or is not sold on the premises.