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

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