Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An open letter to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation

Yes, as ususal I haven't posted in awhile. But recent events here in Buffalo have brought me and many other community activists out of hiding. As a result of public and political outcry, today (November 16, 2010) the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) has extended the public comment period for for the Inner Harbor project by two weeks, so this post is even more topical. The following letter is only a slightly edited version of the one I sent to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, submitted as my official public comments on the project.


Buffalo’s Inner Harbor project suffers from a failure of strategy, and therefore a failure of leadership. My intent, therefore, is to write to you today not to lecture as an expert (for I do not claim to know all of the answers) but yet to make a sincere and ultimately convincing argument for a shift of strategy.

The principles that I argue for are not new, and not radical. They are solidly justified by decades of real-world evidence in many other cities throughout the nation. These principles have been espoused by the local and national organizations I’ve been involved with over the years, particularly the New Millennium Group. They are advocated and endorsed by many of the most successful developers, political leaders, and public policy experts across the country and the world. These principles work. And they have the advantage of being largely common sense.

In short, any development such the Inner Harbor should serve several fundamental goals:

  • the project should be based on a broad consensus—a community vision—in order to minimize opposition and maximize support;
  • the public money and other investments in the project should be used to create or improve public infrastructure, not to “bribe” selected private investors or developers; and
  • the public investment should foster a robust private market for investment so that the project generates a tax base and is sustainable—and does not rely primarily on continued public subsidies.

Fortunately for us in Buffalo and Western New York, in most other places the bar of leadership is set relatively low. Across the nation, mediocrity still reigns. While there have been many more failures than successes, at least there are now many decades of strong evidence both of what works and what doesn’t.

There is, however, a growing list of cities that have successfully and sustainably transformed themselves, the result of real leadership in those communities. Our civic role models should be those cities and regions that are demonstrating competent leadership and tangible results. These cities are our actual competition, and we would do best to consider them so. Perhaps most importantly, it must be considered that while the success of these places is often credited (and rightly so) to certain visionary political or business leaders, it always involves an active, engaged citizenry. Always.

Certainly, we in Buffalo do not want to be part of the mediocre majority. We deserve far better than that. It is surprising, therefore, how willing many of our local leaders are to imitate obvious failure and ignore obvious success.

Images from the 2004 Master Plan

Today, the big lesson from other places is that planning and development must be done in an open, transparent manner. Building public consensus is not optional—indeed, it must be the very foundation of any project. This is the best, and perhaps only, way of getting a project done quickly and successfully. This is especially true when the project involves public money, is directed by a government agency, and concerns a culturally and historically significant site. Such is the case with Buffalo’s Inner Harbor.

Building consensus (or “buy-in”) ensures that the project has the necessary public support—and therefore political support—to be started, sustained, completed, and to successfully grow and evolve over time. To do otherwise is a recipe for failure, inviting project-killing protests and lawsuits, tepid or wavering political support, and an environment of uncertainty that stymies private investment.

Images from recent ECHDC plans

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation was forced by a public lawsuit, and the resulting 2004 Master Plan, to take many of the community’s concerns into account. But since then, the project has slowly started to revert to the “urban theme park” notions of pre-2004. The 2004 Master Plan continually emphasizes the historic nature of the site, the use of authentic materials and architectural styles, the finely-grained urban fabric, and the preservation of historic streets, curbing, sidewalks, and other infrastructure. It is obvious to many that the tone and intent of the Master Plan has been undermined, and the trust of the public has again been lost.

Furthermore, the legally-required “public process” that the ECHDC engaged has been disingenuous at best. It seems as if the ECHDC is merely interested in following the lowest legally-allowable route so as to avoid another lawsuit. The process is certainly nowhere near the best-practices seen elsewhere, and nowhere near what we deserve as a community. Taking one’s turn at a hearing with hundreds of other people—getting three minutes at a microphone—is not public input, and is ultimately a waste of time for all involved. Simply repeating this same mistake tens or even hundreds of times, and calling it “extensive public input,” does not an effective public process make.

Successful leaders elsewhere know this. Fortunately, if the ECHDC were willing, there are some great models to follow and some excellent national expertise we could tap to bring that same success here. And it can be done quickly—in months, not years. Which is, of course, the whole point.

The second big lesson over the last few decades is that “big box,” automobile-based projects do not work in an urban setting. This type of development does not create the authenticity or vitality that people want. The old, tired, and failed “urban theme park” strategy that the ECHDC is pursuing is a textbook recipe for failure. This will likely result in a one-dimensional district that is nearly as devoid of life as the vacant land it replaces—with the exception that it will require continued massive public subsidy for operation and maintenance. The Bass Pro debacle was merely the first and most visible evidence of that fundamentally flawed approach.

But the ECHDC seems so far down its chosen road that, even in the face of such abject failure, the temptation is to continue pursuing the same flawed strategy.

This is inexcusable. However, it is certainly understandable. It’s tough to admit systemic mistakes. There is the inevitable pride and ego involved. Leaders can be stubbornly, and emotionally, tied to an idea. And because the necessary consensus wasn’t achieved, project leaders start to see the public as an impediment to progress, rather than as an essential partner along the path to success.

Perhaps most critically, potential private investment in this project has been killed by all of the uncertainty and unpredictability. Apparently, this has reinforced the notion amongst project leaders that the waterfront in Downtown Buffalo is essentially valueless, and that no developers or investors will be interested unless the ECHDC bribes them with incentives (Bass Pro) or gives away the entire development rights (for the grand sum of $10) to a single firm whose only experience is in building suburban strip-malls (Benderson).

This has seemed to create a self-fulfilling attitude amongst project leaders that they are alone in trying to make this project work—beset on all sides by obstructionism, weak political partners, and a “dead” downtown development market—and therefore must stubbornly continue to press on, torpedoes be damned.

Yet the so-called obstructionism, toxic politics, and valueless land are precisely the product of the process itself. Citizens (and even politicians) are assets—but only if you treat them that way. This land—waterfront land, within downtown, on an historically significant site, for goodness sake—has tremendous intrinsic value that is being artificially depressed by a myopic and self-destructive process.

So, to summarize, here is a short prescription of the steps needed to maximize the chances for success:

  1. Plan it. Create a vision based on broad consensus;
  2. Zone it. Encode the vision into a simple, predictable set of legal rules that is easy developers to follow, and easy for anyone to understand;
  3. Plat it. Subdivide the district into small lots, according to the vision and the zoning, and concentrate on what a government entity does best: building the public infrastructure such as the streets, curbs, bridges, trees, lighting, signage, benches, etc. Lay-out and embellish any other public spaces. Help to build/finance civic structures (such as museums or monuments) that will anchor and honor the site;
  4. Sell it. After the vision is encoded and the public infrastructure is underway, don’t give all the land away to a single developer; let many developers actually pay into the project. This spreads-out the risk and adds real value to the project—and the revenue will likely pay for much of the public investment. No investor needs to be bribed, and no developer is deterred by flagrant favoritism.

Up to this point, the ECHDC’s approach has been entirely the opposite of this prescription. For evidence of the ineffectiveness of this, simply look at the current situation: a long-delayed project (over a decade now in the making) beset by lawsuits, protests, political uncertainty, and financial unpredictability, with frustration and cynicism on all sides.

No matter how strong the temptation is to continue doing the wrong thing, the ECHDC must find a way to honestly reevaluate its strategy. To do this would be the very definition of leadership.

We owe as much—not just to ourselves or even to the grand legacy with which we’ve been entrusted, but to future generations. Our children and grandchildren won’t have a say in this project, but they will have something to say of us. Let them not say that we made the same old mistakes.

Most sincerely and respectfully,

Joe the Planner

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sprawl and the r-word: The Sequel

My previous post was picked-up by Buffalo Rising and provoked more comments than I've seen in a while. Among them, there seems to be a lot of confusion between the terms 'suburbanization,' 'sprawl,' and 'growth.' These words are related, but not interchangeable. If one wants to have an intelligent discussion about the subject, the distinctions between the terms are important. Perhaps the following will provide a little clarity: I present a sequel post, collected from my comments here and on Buffalo Rising:

The word suburbanization generally refers to development outside of, and often geographically separated from, the population of a central city, but still socially and economically dependent on it. Suburban development is typically (but not always) less dense, diverse, and self-sufficient than its urban counterpart.

However, contrary to popular belief, suburbanization was not strictly a post-WWII penomenon. There was some suburbanization before WWII, but it paled in scale to what came afterward. Also, the vast majority of pre-WWII sprawl was not automobile-based, so 'sprawl' was not the large problem in the way that we now know it. (Incidentally, most pre-WWII suburbs were known as 'streetcar suburbs,' a term you may have heard of.)

Locally, it took until the 1930s to fully urbanize the 42 square miles within the city limits of Buffalo, so until then there was not a whole lot of pressure to develop much further out. Furthermore, pre-WWII development in the Buffalo area was driven generally by population growth, so it could be accurately referred to as 'growth.' Real growth, if you will. On the other hand, most post-WWII development in this area was (and continues to be) low-density, automobile-based, and not driven by population growth. So it's not real growth. Because of this, the type of sprawl we have here is considered, perhaps, the purest type of sprawl, and has arguably resulted in its worst effects.

A few commenters mentioned the fact that there are fewer people per household today than in 1950, so naturally there are more households today for the same number of people. Yes, household size is smaller today, but this still doesn't account for the increase in housing units. Strictly by the numbers one commenter provided, from 1950-2000, housing construction outpaced shrinking household size in the Buffalo area by 119%.

While not as stark as the statistics for urbanized area, these numbers only add to the already bad news. Shrinking household size doesn't aquit the many defenders of sprawl that come out of the woodwork to remark on this topic; the numbers only magnify the already obvious problem.

For a real eye-opener, I direct you to the Brookings Institution study, Vacating the City: An Analysis of New Homes vs. Household Growth. Figure 1, reproduced from that report, tells the somber tale (see graphic at right). The Buffalo area had by far the worst numbers of any of the 70 metro areas studied: "While the Buffalo area had household growth of only 1.5 percent for the entire decade of the 1990s, almost four units of housing were built for each additional household."

Wow. As if that wasn't bad enough, the comparisons with other areas indicate the extent of our perverse lead. When measuring building permits and household change from 1990–2000, Metro Buffalo was first (worst) at 289%, followed by Pittsburgh, PA (191%); Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Hazleton, PA (153%); Youngstown-Warren, OH (134%); and Dayton-Springfield, OH (121%).

An intelligent discussion

Now that we've got all that straightened out, here's the 'intelligent discussion' part alluded to earlier: Metro Buffalo hasn't really grown in about a half century. The area has, however, sprawled. The fact remains that if Metro Buffalo had not sprawled starting after WWII, or only sprawled a little, we wouldn't have the redundant infrastructure, extra government, soaring costs, and poverty/blight issues we have today. We'd have had the necessary concentration of people, ideas, and resources to weather deindustrialization and the other economic and social changes that befell the Rust Belt. We'd be much better off than we are today.

Unfortunately, we can't change the past. But we can learn from it. Today, recognizing and understanding the overall causes of sprawl as we do, we'd be stupid not to do something about it. This is not to denigrate anyone's individual choices. This problem is far bigger than any single person. This has to do with larger economic, governmental, and cultural systems that have driven large-scale trends over decades of time.

The bottom line is that the system as it stands is rigged; it is incentivized for sprawl. In large part, the system was set-up to produce the exact outcomes we see today. The system will continue to produce the same result if nothing is done to change it.

However, the system we've got was not the result of some absurd government conspiracy. Most of the policies in land-use, transportation, finance, and governance that drive the current system were intended to solve the legitimate problems of an earlier time. They were created in a day when urban and economic problems were quite different and the automobile was seen (naively) as the sole savior of our transportation troubles.

Today we've got new problems, many of which were ironically caused by the old policies. These new problems require a new set of solutions. Transportation policy, land-use laws, and governmental structures will all have to change. And they will change; we'll be compelled at some crisis point to do so. But how big does the crisis have to get? And will the problem at that point be too big—and the resources too scarce—to fix?

So, the real question is this: As a region, are we able to recognize the new reality and adjust quickly and wisely? Perhaps if we all begin to understand the subject better we can actually start having an intelligent public discussion. Thus far, however, we haven't shown much of an ability to form any kind of coherent consensus.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sprawl and the r-word, a Buffalo-Niagara case study

A short prologue: I apologize that I had to take an extended hiatus—some personal matters intruded. Although I did say from the beginning of this blog that I'd emphasize quality over quantity, this is certainly not what I had in mind! I'm not sure how triumphant my return will be, but hopefully for those that read this, the wait will be worth it.

Sprawl is a word familiar to most people, but few can tell you exactly what it means. Even experts don't always agree on a precise definition.

The term itself is somewhat ambiguous, and often divisive. This is especially true when the word is preceded by the modifiers suburban or urban, which is commonly the case. Then the term is really loaded. Political discussion of the topic regularly provokes the already contentious relationships between cities and suburbs. This needlessly causes communities that should be cooperating to take sides against each other.

Here in the Buffalo-Niagara region, only one other word is as divisive: regionalism. Yeah, I said it. First the s-word, and now the r-word. Good thing I'm not a politician, because my career would probably have just ended. The r-word, as I shall call it from now on, became a four-letter word in this area just shy of a decade ago, after a certain County Executive decided to make city-county consolidation his focus. He got pretty far, too, before allegations of political corruption, a county bankruptcy, and public dissension finally killed the idea. Too bad.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The intent of this post is to provide some conceptual clarity regarding the concept of sprawl, both nationally and locally. I'll also be explaining what sprawl and the r-word have to do with one another, and why this is fundamentally important to the future of everyone in the Buffalo-Niagara region. As usual, I'll do this by providing a big-picture narrative combined with some statistics and visuals.

A case study for sprawl

No matter what the wording, sprawl refers to the spreading-out of a population of people and its effects—effects that are often harmful to our individual lives and counterproductive to our shared goals. Of course, sprawl is not unique to us in Western New York, or even to the United States. It occurs everywhere throughout the world in varying forms, but we Americans arguably lay claim to inventing a most peculiar and pernicious strain of it. This has resulted in the virtual trashing of our traditional cites and towns, along with the paving-over of agricultural lands and other countryside that surrounds them.

But the argument against sprawl is not simply an aesthetic one; some of the most debilitating effects are social, cultural, and economic. You might wish to check out my previous post for a provoking take on sprawl as a national phenomenon.

As it turns out, the Buffalo Metro area is a nearly ideal case for the study of sprawl and its effects. This is for two main reasons: (1) the region has well-established pre-World War II, pre-automobile cities and towns, and (2) the metro population has essentially remained unchanged since the end of WWII.

Yep, you read that right. Buffalo's metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don't realize this. Buffalo hasn't shrunk; it's just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there's been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population.

Same number of people, three times the stuff

What does this mean? Put simply, the same number of people spread over an area over three times larger means there is three times the amount of stuff that the same number of people have to pay for.

Most visibly, that's over three times the infrastructure costs: three times the roads, power lines, water lines, sewer systems, gas service, schools, fire stations, police, etc. This stuff doesn't get magically built and maintained on its own; the money has to come from somewhere. And it does: it comes out of all of our pockets directly or indirectly through higher local, county, and state taxes and fees; through the personal requirement to own and maintain one or more automobiles; through the wasted time and money of longer commutes to/from work, shopping, and entertainment; and from chauffeuring the kids back and forth to hockey practice or piano lessons.

All of this extra space we occupy has precisely the effects you'd predict. We in Erie and Niagara Counties now drive 53% more miles per year than we did in 1980. Nationally, the effects are even more stark: from 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%—about five times faster than the growth in population. Americans spend four times as much on transportation as Europeans. It costs over $7,000 per year to maintain a single car. And, if you can believe it, the average American household today makes 14 individual car trips per day. (An interesting study found that if only one car trip per day were eliminated, this would result in an annual savings of about $1,100 per household.)

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer—both individually and collectively. Over the last 60 years, we've been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services. There is less disposable income at all levels, and little capital left in society to invest in new business and new forms of wealth creation.

The cycle goes like this: We spread out and build more stuff. Costs go up. Taxes go up. Services get cut. Institutions languish. The quality of everyone's life diminishes. Citizens complain about the corruption and inefficiency of government. And it repeats in a vicious cycle.

That's not the only cost. In this zero-sum game, every winner in the region creates one or more losers. As we've subsidized new development in the region, older neighborhoods have suffered. Every new house built on a greenfield means a house somewhere else blighted, abandoned, or demolished. Every new square-foot of retail space devalues or destroys a square-foot elsewhere. Poverty and crime grow like a cancer, which are huge economic drags on the region. Without the resources for proper maintenance, older roads, bridges, sewers, and other infrastructure deteriorate. And that cycle repeats itself, too.

The result is we're less able to compete against other, growing, lower-taxed areas. We have a hard time attracting new people or new investment because we're continually burdening ourselves with new costs that add no real value to our region.

In fact, it's not too much to say that virtually all the so-called 'growth' that we've seen here in the last half-century has been an illusion. Sure, it kinda looked like real growth—new roads, new homes, new strip malls, new schools—but because there has been no increase in population, it's really a rigged shell game. For the last three generations, we've spent the greater part of our collective regional wealth moving about a third of our population further and further out into the countryside.

"So what?" you say? "People voted with their feet." But if you think this has been solely a matter of consumer choice, a free-market phenomenon, think again. It is well documented that sprawl is driven mainly by destructive public policy, bad planning, and a lack of municipal coordination (again, read my previous post).

There is another significant cost to the low-density, auto-oriented living arrangement we've constructed. Vitality, be it economic, cultural, or otherwise, requires a critical mass. If too many elements of the economy and society are spread too thin across the landscape, then even a million people can't create a healthy, dynamic economy, let alone pay for the required infrastructure. Economic and social capital don't work if spread too thin. Markets don't work if too many ingredients are isolated from each other.

The result? We end up exactly in the type of situation we find ourselves today. Surprised, anyone?

The big picture

At this point, all of this blather about strip malls, taxes, and blight might have you a bit glassy-eyed. It's often easy to get lost among the details, so sometimes it helps to step back and look at the big picture.

Specifically, I'm referring to the picture below, which may help bring the issue of sprawl into even sharper focus. This map tells the story of our region's problems perhaps more clearly than any of the reams of reports issuing from governments or universities or foundations. The diagram also suggests a obvious solution to our regional problems.

Shown on the map at left is the extent of urbanized area in Metro Buffalo in 1950 and 2000 (yellow and red, respectively). The wording of the official U.S. Census Bureau definition is a little tricky, but for these purposes urbanized area refers to just about any census block within Erie and Niagara Counties that has a population density greater than 1,000 people per square mile.

What does this simple measure mean? Well, a high-ish population density of 1,000 or more implies an urban or suburban settlement—and all of the infrastructure required to support it; namely, roads, sewers, electric, schools, police, etc. All that stuff we covered above. So as the map shows, we've now got over three times the amount of stuff to maintain for the same amount of people we had in 1950.

If this isn't a shocking call to action, I don't know what is. This shows the vital critical mass of people and money and ideas diffused and squandered. This shows our region bleeding to death.

In simplest terms, this is sprawl. This is arguably our area's essential problem, summarized neatly in a single picture. And bear in mind that this is only a snapshot of a ongoing trend. When the 2010 figures are released, there is sure to be a bunch more red on this map.

The r-word

What's the solution? Well, in a word: the r-word. Some people call it regional government (which for me is way too close to the r-word). Others call it metropolitan government or inter-municipal coordination. Whatever the term, it refers to a layer of governance and planning at the regional scale, so that all of the region's resources can be coordinated effectively.

Currently, there are 64 separate municipalities in Buffalo-Niagara, with virtually no coordination or cooperation between them. Towns poach development from each other. Villages plan independently of their surrounding towns. Developers know the game, and play government entities against one another for public subsidy. There is duplication of services and unnecessary waste. And no one is steering the big ship.

In short, we spend most of our time fighting one another instead of working to compete effectively against other regions—many of which already have their metro-government acts together. If we want things to change, we can't keep doing what we've always done. More of the same old self-inflicted harm won't turn things around.

There is hope, however. The city-county merger almost came to a vote before county bankruptcy, a control board, and the events of 9/11 put a stop to it. Metro Buffalo already includes respected regional government entities that address certain cross-jurisdictional functions, including an excellent metro transportation system (NFTA) and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

Also, it must be noted, most other regions have leadership that's just as slow and incompetent as ours seems to be. Nationally, the bar isn't set that high.

Suffice it to say that, as a region, it is our choice to work together. Or not. We have it within our power to shape our own future, but only if we see that all of us—all the cities, towns, and villages in this thing we call Buffalo-Niagara—are in this together.

The metropolitan area is the only meaningful social and economic unit that exists in this region. We share the same history, culture, climate, sports teams, and cultural assets—and we all ultimately share the same fate. Perhaps, after decades of declining fortunes, we've forgotten this fact. Fear has made our politics dysfunctional and turned our leaders into insular cowards. Decades of tough times will do that.

The good news is this: some of the groundwork is already laid. The good ideas are out there. Most people in this area would agree that we need to change how we do things, and a significant number would advocate a regional approach to governance.

But we must choose to govern not based on fear, but on the faith in our ability to shape our future. And each new day hands us the same choice.