During the winter of 2014, at roughly the same time, two projects laying claim to the future were unveiled in Buffalo, New York. One was Buffalo State College’s proposal to offer the world’s first PhD program in Creativity Studies. The other was a state plan to build facilities for two “green” manufacturers of LED lights and solar panels on the former site of Republic Steel.
As with so many things American, the arc of these endeavors had been opened in 1967. Buffalo State’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, founded in that peak year of hippie bliss, has steadily ascended, enjoying an especially fertile period of “growth and development” during the Reagan-Bush era. That fateful year was also the one in which Republic Steel suffered its first lashing blow: the Adirondack iron ore mine that had fatted its furnaces for three decades stripped out and closed. By the early 1980s, the U.S. steel industry had collapsed.
Buffalo fell so far and so hard.
While the Creativity Studies program blossomed and flourished, eventually seeding academic “leadership” centers throughout the country (nay, the world), Buffalo itself fell into catastrophic, and sadly uncreative, decline. Between 1950, when the population stood at 580,000, and 2000, the city lost about half its residents, hollowing out entire neighborhoods and large parts of downtown. (Locals rejoiced when the estimated 2012 census showed that the exodus had slowed to a trickle.) Deindustrialization and outsourcing account for much of the disaster. But so does metro Buffalo’s ever-widening loop of suburban sprawl, set in motion by mid-twentieth-century subsidized housing and commercial property policies that amounted to de facto affirmative action for second-generation white immigrants. By 2000, Buffalo’s metro footprint had expanded to three times its 1950 size, but the population remained relatively constant. This meant (among other things) that the same number of people supported three times the infrastructure—including schools, roads, sewer and water lines, and police and fire protection—in a fiscally reckless, politically divisive, agriculturally improvident pattern known as “sprawl without growth.”
It was feckless enough to underwrite sprawling, car-dependent development in metro regions with growing populations—say, Houston. But subsidizing sprawl in older industrial cities whose urban cores and tax coffers were fast emptying—while encroaching on prime working farmland, no less—was unconscionable. And the insidious, self-cannibalizing development pattern in Buffalo, according to sprawl expert David Rusk, was “about the worst.”
Buffalo was superlative in another way: it fell so far and so hard. In 1901 it reportedly had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the land, with sufficient prosperity to host a grand Pan-American Exposition—one of the first such spectacles to be illuminated by electric light. Unlike most of the other cities strewn along the Rust Belt, which mainly grew with the rise of railroads, steel, and the auto industry, Buffalo had a diversified economy that buffered it from shocks suffered by any one industry. What’s more, the city’s reliable supply of cheap hydroelectric power harvested from Niagara Falls made it unusually attractive to big manufacturing firms. The local grid was a central reason that Republic Steel, and the unionized high-wage work force that came along with it, found Buffalo such an accommodating place—that, and the city’s unique status as a gateway port linking the robust markets along the eastern half of the United States to the booming export trade of the Midwest.
In the 1820s, Buffalo shot into the industrial era as the western terminus of the Erie Canal, when Detroit and Chicago were still fur-trapping military outposts. For 140 years, it was a crucial transfer point for Midwest grain shipments to New York and beyond, conducted with whipping speed by the world’s first grain elevators, which were constructed in 1842. By 1931, thirty-eight steel-reinforced concrete grain silos rose over the Buffalo River skyline, and their austere, functional design captured the fancy of architects seeking to define the modern urban aesthetic, from Louis Sullivan to Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, and Eliel Saarinen.
Other industries soon sprouted up alongside the city’s grain colossus: furniture making, breweries, iron, rubber, chemical processing, automotive manufacture, aircraft production, and above all, steel. But just as the first signs of automobile-fueled development appeared beyond the streetcar suburbs, a wave of corporate consolidations and buyouts of locally owned firms in the 1920s put the city at the mercy of high-flying Wall Street traders. After the bubble burst, the Queen City’s urban fabric began to fray. Unemployment in the Depression years was more than 30 percent, and absentee corporate barons began selling off older buildings to make way for off-street parking and street widening.
As with other industrial cities, World War II was exceptionally kind to Buffalo, which received $5 billion in federal contracts for armaments, artillery, tanks and armed vehicles, rations, and—most lucratively—fighter planes. The city weathered the postwar recession unusually well too. In 1951, Fortune ran a glowing cover story called “Made in Buffalo” devoted to “the industrial diversity of a great city.”
The Luceian hype proved to be short-lived, however. As the city’s postindustrial decline took hold, the troubles besetting Buffalo followed a glumly familiar postwar script. First, enormous infusions of federal dollars for highway building leached jobs and revenue away from the heart of Buffalo. At the same time, the city’s second-generation population of white immigrants decamped for the suburban fringes, marooning newly arrived Southern blacks in the revenue-starved urban center, which was already being called by the euphemistic code phrase “the inner city.” Finally, under the open-shop economic geography created by the antiunion Taft-Hartley law, many of Buffalo’s established industries began to relocate to “right to work” states in the South and West.
Compounding all this slow-rolling devastation—shared by cities throughout the industrial Northeast and Midwest—was a far more immediate calamity very specific to Buffalo, one that effectively flattened the city’s status as the transport gateway to America’s inland grain empire. The construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s did an end run around the city, sending grain traffic through Canada and eventually enriching the Port of Montreal. Simultaneously, regional grain processors fell under the thrall of now-familiar corporate brands such as ADM, Cargill, Kellogg, General Mills, and Pillsbury. These grain moguls had zero loyalty to the city’s fate and no reason to fight either the Saint Lawrence Seaway or the new federal freight rate changes that favored shipping by rail.
Binged and Purged
“Disinvestment” has a clinical and abstract ring, as do its component parts: the flight of capital and policy support, the decline of public services, and the falling tax base. But the careworn face of central Buffalo shows us what disinvestment looks like: blocks of abandoned factory and commercial buildings; acres of urban prairie punctuated by the occasional house in ramshackle disrepair; the exhausted mien of the urban poor; and oceans of parking lots, parking structures, and highway rights-of-way that have supplanted magnificent hotels, churches, theaters, and department stores, not to mention the fin de siècle Romanesque Erie County Savings Bank and a signature Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Viewed through another prism, though, Buffalo’s blasted American vistas also have the look of consumer culture—of disposability on a grand and tragic scale. Lay this imagery side by side with the kaleidoscopic pastiche of postwar commercial abundance—a Barbie doll here, a Levittown there, a Hostess Ho Ho or shag rug over there—or with the unvarying office-park-housing-and-retail-plex that has for decades consumed the agricultural landscape, and you have a dystopian vision of an inert culture of convenience chasing its own tail into the void. It’s a slapdash homage to a rapidly vanishing era: a time when the federal subsidies were rich, the land was cheap, and the cost of diapers, kitchen clocks, and other gewgaws for the working poor plummeted, thanks to the same financial interests who shipped their jobs overseas. The hollowing out of Buffalo stands as testament to the binge mentality of American consumerism every bit as much as the new super Walmarts dotting the exurban frontier.
And in a place like Buffalo, the careless ransacking of the physical world is all the more heartbreaking in view of the city’s abundance of “gifts from the past,” in the words of historian Mark Goldman. As Frederick Law Olmsted put it, Buffalo was “the best planned city in America, if not the world.” Twenty years ago, while living sixty miles down the Thruway in Rochester, I paid a visit to Buffalo with two friends—an artist and a writer, both from Manhattan—who were eager to take in the city’s aesthetic treasures: an exquisite terracotta-adorned Louis Sullivan skyscraper, a pair of graceful Frank Lloyd Wright prairie houses, an abandoned, spooky H. H. Richardson insane asylum, the world-class Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and the Art Deco City Hall building, a phallic triumph that redoubtable New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable hailed as “one of the country’s largest and finest Style Moderne public buildings” (and whose architect described it as expressing “the masculinity, power, and purposeful energy of an industrial community”). These and other treasures are traversed by a system of parks and parkways, designed by Olmsted to extend Joseph Ellicott’s elegant 1804 radial-and-grid street plan. The term “Rust Belt” had only recently entered common parlance, and smaller, declining cities like Buffalo were just starting to go dark on the urban-cultural map as the newly revived and fashionable stars of New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., began to ascend.
That more than a few of these gifts remain is testament to the stubborn work of Buffalo’s preservationist movement. The Preservation Coalition of Erie County took shape in 1981, after a downtown demolition spree in the 1970s almost felled Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, a masterpiece of modern architecture. Among other projects, the group arranged to have nineteen downtown blocks designated a historic district.
The hollowing out of Buffalo wasn’t simply a Borg-like
convergence of world-historic trends; it was also
the result of retrograde political leadership.
There’s also the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture, which as its name suggests, takes a far more capacious approach to preservation. Where the Preservation Coalition focused on individual buildings, homes, and parkland and worked closely with local elites, the Campaign for Greater Buffalo included the city’s industrial heritage and a broader swath of the citizenry in its crusades. In 1990 the group’s cofounder, Tim Tielman, published a guide to Buffalo’s industrial waterfront, and more recently he has organized bus tours of the city’s legacy manufacturing sites. Tielman, who proudly owns the “obstructionist” label so often hurled at him, has led successful fights against yet another $300 million downtown convention center (which he called the “Urban Death Star”) and a waterfront Bass Pro hunting-and-fishing retail emporium funded with taxpayer subsidies arranged through the “cunning of the governmental-development complex,” as he told the alt-weekly Artvoice. “Blocking the self-serving schemes of the local kakistocracy is simply coincidental to a democratic process of building a better city, which is positively constructionist. Constructive change for the public benefit is our goal. . . . In short, we have to preserve and rebuild the urban ecosystems that made Buffalo a successful, useful place to manufacture things and ideas and nurture citizens.”
Note that Tielman does not once pander to the present vogue in urban-revival theory by using the word “creative”—even though Buffalo is an internationally recognized center of modern art, poetry, and historical architecture. The city is still home to remnants of its steel, automaking, chemical, aeronautics, and flour milling industries. And its citizens have retained a strong productive ethos, reflected not only in the city’s beleaguered industrial core, but also in the sensibilities of its preservation and urban-planning activists. As manufacturing began to show signs of returning to American shores in 2012, Richard Florida—the country’s great bard of the “creative class,” which he sees as the panacea for all our urban ills—leapt at the chance to show that his hackneyed ideas were still relevant to post-meltdown America. In the face of “reindustrialization,” he declared, we need to bring about a full-blown “creative culture” that embraces the “talent and creativity” of workers.
Well, no. What we need is a culture of production of the sort sustained in Buffalo, one which is based on making and exporting substantial material goods, and which values competence, applied knowledge, an ethic of repair, and basic fair play. Part and parcel of this ethos is a recognition of limits—to sprawl, to consumption, and (yes) to the shiny dream of untrammeled creativity as a just-add-water fix to our structural woes. A key part of productive culture, after all, is the stoic recognition that you don’t always get to “do what you love” and that “talent and creativity,” consumption and innovation, should be suborned to some higher “constructivist” civic purpose.
Unseating the Kakistocracy
“This is illegal,” City of Buffalo urban planner Chris Hawley is telling a crowd of some fifty people while pointing to a PowerPoint image of sidewalk café patrons innocently sipping coffee with friends. And so are “the corner tavern and the corner store, which are staples of Buffalo.” What is legal, he explains, is the cookie-cutter suburban template for development: single-use buildings, minimum parking requirements and building setbacks, big-box stores, residential turf grass instead of garden-style landscaping.
It is March 2013, and I have just met Hawley while serving on a speaking panel together. The black-bespectacled, buzz-cropped thirty-one-year-old’s crisp, rapid manner of speaking lends urgency to his subject: Buffalo’s new zoning ordinance, a.k.a. the Green Code. “It’s what I work on all day, all night, and all weekend,” he says cheerfully. By this point, five thousand Buffalo residents had already weighed in on the draft’s evolution over the three years since the project, funded by a HUD Sustainable Communities grant, had been announced.
The Green Code will wash away the sins of the city’s original zoning ordinance, passed in 1953 on the eve of the great overlapping binges of urban renewal and highway building. The postwar code, built on the principle of separate land uses (or “Euclid” zoning, after the 1926 Supreme Court case authorizing the practice), hastened the demolition of small storefronts to make way for large, single-use structures—towers, stadiums, convention centers, and, of course, parking garages. And with one’s daily rounds—work, home, school, shopping, entertainment—now separated, it became virtually impossible to get around by foot. Euclid zoning was a most splendid welcome-to-the-world gift to the automotive age.
The new code is “form-based,” meaning that it restores the arrangement and integrated uses of various building types, scales, and heights to allow for lively, walkable, nonalienating streets of the sort that worked just fine in cities across the world for time immemorial. Form-based planning is one of the central tenets of the “New Urbanist” planning movement, which designs for compact “good urbanism” in place of “disaggregated,” car-centric sprawl. Buffalo’s form-based code is dubbed “green” in part because it would free people from car servility and, in a particularly bold move, proposes to eliminate minimum parking requirements for new building. But it’s also green because it promotes multi-use recycling of Buffalo’s urban core. Under the new code, people will be able to use historic buildings for a variety of purposes—on the principle that the “greenest” building is the one that already exists. The code also provides direction on energy-efficiency retrofits, rain gardens and wetlands, renewable energy installations, brownfields reuse, and tree canopy restoration. Taking its cues from what remains of Ellicott’s well-designed grid-and-radial pattern, the new code connects downtown and city neighborhoods to single-use districts, such as college campuses and medical centers, via pedestrian, bicycle, and transit corridors.
Just as important to its sustainable aims, the Green Code seeks to wrest control from what Tielman calls the kakistocracy—the elites’ battalions of legal, finance, and real estate professionals—by making itself intelligible to the masses. Where the 1953 code is a 1,500-page document of mystifying, text-heavy legalese, the Green Code has slimmed down to 350 pages of accessible, plainspoken language matched by simple diagrams and illustrations. It also streamlines the permitting process, that great bogey of the enterprising soul. In his 2013 talk, Hawley described the gantlet of horrors a restaurant owner has to run under the current code to place a simple sandwich-board chalk sign on the sidewalk. After paying a $75 application fee, she needs permission from the commissioners of inspection services and public works, and then must post a $5,000 performance bond to the city controller, protecting the city from liability. At this point, the sign display requires approval from the Common Council. “And then, after you go through all that, the permit lasts for thirty days and you have to go through the process all over again,” Hawley said. “So removing barriers and making things easier is an important part of what we’re doing.”
Re-Centering the City
The New Urbanism, which came together as the Congress for the New Urbanism in the early 1990s, could just as aptly have been called “restorational” urbanism, for it sought to repair the damage inflicted on urban form by suburbanization, with its modernist architectural conceits, auto-based transportation planning, and biased financing incentives, and to restore the urban-rural divide. At the time, postmodern “discourse” was ascendant, with its calls for boundary transgression, non-linear “epistemes,” and radical subjectivity. The subversive novelty of it all might have played well in university humanities programs—at least for a while—but in the built environment of actual places, postmodern “disruption” offered little to the critical imagination but dislocation and a mood of ironic detachment. By contrast, it still focuses the mind when New Urbanist James Howard Kunstler proclaims that “if our grandparents could see what we did to our cities, they would think it was immoral and insane.”
Although rarely credited for it, the New Urbanists stood athwart this baleful intellectual legacy of the disoriented 1980s. The movement’s impassioned defense of the “public realm” articulated the concept in concrete terms, rescuing it from the theoretical abstractions, however persuasive, explored by Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, J.G.A. Pocock, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Sennett. From the movement’s inception, the New Urbanists argued for the public realm as a historically layered place, a palpable locale, spatially defined by streets and building types, where the common life unfolds independently of the commercial market or the state. Champions of New Urbanism unabashedly called for the restoration of public-private boundaries and the reclamation of the “urban edge,” along with all the old-fashioned virtues that went with it: beauty, character, and economically diverse development patterns. The movement’s meticulous attention to pedestrian-level detail also unobtrusively advanced elusive public goods such as contemplation and sociability, thus winning back time lost to automobile commuting and the relentless efficiencies of economic privatization.
New Urbanism has had plenty of critics over the years. It has been attacked, fairly, for building suburban subdivisions on greenfields (i.e., open land) without public transit access, and for turning out cookie-cutter “neotraditional” designs in the name of resurrecting local vernacular architecture. It also can adopt the architecture profession’s lazy argot of market conquest with discomfiting ease, bandying loose and beguiling visions of a frictionless “postindustrial” future. In concrete terms, such unexamined shibboleths have graced us with the movement’s flagship community of Celebration, Florida—a placid and bland Disney-owned paean to walkability that’s designed more to be admired in the pages of planning-porn journals than to be put to use by engaged communities of citizens and workers.
Less fairly, “landscape urbanists” who prize ecological “horizonality” charge that the movement’s vision of well-ordered, walkable streetscapes is nostalgic, bourgeois, hierarchical in its design aesthetic, and way too attached to the “urban-rural binary.” More recently, neoliberal advocates of the market-driven global metropolis have campaigned vigorously against place-based federal investment policies, such as the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose aptly named 2011 book Triumph of the City set the terms for contemporary debate about urban growth in the global economy, argued in an influential 2007 piece published in the conservative Manhattan Institute’s policy quarterly City Journal that previous “spending aimed at resurrecting Buffalo as a place . . . was destined to fail.” It is more “humane,” he claimed, to pursue “people-based policies” that subsidize the “disadvantaged” and equip them with the education needed to take up residence in “warmer, more pleasant, more productive” cities. In a spectacularly ill-timed pre-crash reverie, Glaeser went on to laud the market-based urban pulse of “innovation following innovation” of the sort devised by New York City’s financial sector, with its “mortgage-backed securities and hedge funds.” Why, Glaeser asks, should “smart entrepreneurs” in cities like New York be taxed to support place-making in failing cities like Buffalo?
But now that the financial wizards of Wall Street aren’t looking all that smart, it’s long past time to take a fresh look at New Urbanist place-making in Buffalo, since it relies neither on the paper machinations of the finance world nor the vacuous rhetoric of the creative class and its courtiers. At the very least, New Urbanism’s admirably concrete and embedded approach to place-making has captured the loyalty of Buffalo’s urbanist insurgents. Armed with the simple and practical ethos of New Urbanist planning, they are slowly bringing their fellow Buffalonians around to the view that sixty years of modernist, suburbia-promoting planning was a historical aberration; and as a corollary, they are now fighting to restore good urban form as part of a larger low-carbon economic development strategy.
Particularly striking is the critical mass formed by young, post-boomer Buffalo activists committed to embedding “good urbanism” in a sustainable green economy. I met Chris Hawley through Bernice Radle, an upbeat yet deadly serious twenty-nine-year-old who helms Buffalo’s Young Preservationists and who has racked up an impressive track record of restoring old houses in the shadow of the wrecking ball. Active in the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, Radle aspires to be Buffalo’s mayor one day, and married her beau last July at the feet of the city’s remaining grain elevators—now dubbed Silo City.
Thirty-nine-year-old Aaron Bartley, a graduate of Harvard Law School (where he worked with janitors to organize the successful Harvard Living Wage Campaign) returned to his hometown in 2004 to join an urban farming project. The following year, he cofounded People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo). PUSH organizes, Saul Alinsky style, in the low-income West Side; its mission is to rehab the neighborhood’s historic houses while safeguarding their affordability. Along the way, Bartley’s group also shows residents how to repair and weatherize their homes, helps find financing for small businesses, and coordinates an award-winning Green Development Zone committed to renewable energy and urban agriculture. Thirty-one-year-old Franchelle Hart, of SEIU 1199 and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, was hired in June to head Open Buffalo, a new economic justice outfit jointly brokered by PUSH, Partnership for the Public Good, and other equity-minded groups and funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Nearly all have a flair for plugging Buffalo’s rehabilitation—and setbacks—in real time, notably the New Millennium Group’s Chuck Banas, who has blogged as Joe the Planner; David Torke, who runs the preservation and photography blog fixBuffalo, focusing on the city’s devastated, predominantly African American East Side; Iraq war Army veteran and urban planner Nate Neuman, who maintains an active presence on social media; and Newell Nussbaumer, who edits the ten-year-old BuffaloRising.com, a site that covers the city’s “rebirth,” focusing on locally owned businesses and grassroots projects.“It’s like living in Sim City. You can really see the changes, and the rewards that come along with hard work,” he said in a recent interview. “We have the ability to create our own city . . . how often does that happen?”
Of course, all this unbridled civic optimism still hinges on ratification of the Green Code. In honor of the city’s painstaking restoration efforts—and in a none-too-subtle nod to the previous month’s release of the long-debated Green Code for public comment—the Congress for the New Urbanism held its annual convention, themed “The Resilient Community,” in Buffalo in early June.
Cracking the Code
For all these public shows of good will, Buffalo’s emerging New Urbanist revival will still have to clear a major hurdle: the taming of the city’s sprawl-addicted business establishment. After all, the systemic hollowing out of Buffalo wasn’t simply a Borg-like convergence of world-historic trends such as the flight of manufacturing overseas and of white people to the suburbs; it was also the result of unusually retrograde political leadership.
The first round of federally funded urban renewal disasters in the late 1950s through the 1960s sent a circumferential highway through the city’s outer neighborhoods, displaced two thousand African Americans in one neighborhood alone, and mowed down hundreds of large and small downtown buildings that harbored at least as many independent businesses. This orgy of annihilation made way for, among other enormities, a superblock “complex” called Main Place Tower and Mall; the generic designation perfectly captured the bland, placeless affect of the compound.
But many worse things were lying in wait. The second round of urban devastation, which ran roughly from the late 1970s through the end of the 1990s, made Main Place Tower and Mall seem like a Jane Jacobs poster project. Over this two-decade stretch, Buffalo lost proportionately more manufacturing jobs (31 percent) and suffered greater wage drops than any other city in the country. This was also the heyday of that great Reagan-era experiment in hardy bootstrapping entrepreneurship known as the “new federalism,” which reconfigured federal funding mechanisms into state block grants and public-private partnerships. The idea was to leverage federal financing as a come-on to private-sector investors, who now seized on every available incentive to build cheaply constructed high-margin-and-low-density boondoggles masquerading as market-savvy urban renewal.
Presiding over it all in Buffalo were two multi-term Democratic machine politicians, mayors endorsed by the Conservative and Right to Life Parties, who handed out patronage like lollipops and hired hacks in the planning department who knew nothing about urban design or economic development and gave away the store to favored beneficiaries. There was Buffalo’s largest real estate developer and parking lot baron, 2010 Tea Party Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. Like so many other heroic foes of the public sector, Paladino got good and rich in the husk of postindustrial Buffalo at taxpayers’ expense, building 160 Rite Aids out on the heavily subsidized suburban frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania and drawing liberally from state Empire Zone economic development funding to renovate his downtown office buildings—producing little to no new business development. There was Ralph C. Wilson, owner of the already profitable Buffalo Bills, who like nearly every other sports mogul in the land got himself a new stadium and high corporate skybox ticket prices, despite the team’s dim record of playing in four Super Bowls in a row and losing every time. There was Seneca Nation CEO “Skip” Harper, who got himself a pair of casinos, also lavishly subsidized by government grants. The civic troughs were out, and the region’s boodlers were feeding heartily. By 2003 the city, and later Erie County, were so deeply in the red that the state placed them under the authority of fiscal control boards.
When I asked Chris Hawley how on earth the Green Code—a document steeped in civic participation and the principles of long-range, low-carbon planning—emerged from this sludge, he pointed improbably to one man: Robert Shibley. The dean of SUNY Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, Shibley established the school’s Urban Design Project in 1990 and spent the next sixteen years working to usher through a Comprehensive Plan for Buffalo’s “development priorities.” By the time the plan had been formally approved in 2006, he’d gradually enlisted the old-school mayor’s support, together with a growing segment of the local business community. Aside from the watchwords “fix the basics, build on assets,” three of the plan’s features stand out: its full-throated anticipation of climate change, its commitment to sprawl-curbing “smart growth” (the regional land-use corollary to New Urbanism), and its intention to keep industrial properties zoned for industrial use as part of a “mixed” economy.
The Green Code legally implements this vision, and Hawley was hired to pound it out. Far and away the most influential business ally of the Shibley plan was Russer Foods heir Howard Zemsky, whose father founded the business (“Zee-Best”) in Brooklyn and later expanded into Buffalo. Zemsky sold the business and, in a dramatic vote of confidence for Shibley’s planning approach, invested in the 2002 purchase and renovation of the abandoned Larkin Soap Factory and mail-order house. The Larkin plant was an enormous 1912 manufacturing-and-warehouse complex with ties to Frank Lloyd Wright and Roycroft’s Elbert Hubbard, located on the East Side—the most devastated, emptied neighborhood in the city. It still has a long way to go, but the neighborhood is now home to a thriving commercial center, dubbed Larkinville, that is attracting further residential investment, retail, and small businesses.
Zemsky also made shrewd use of his many business and philanthropic connections, as well as his substantial political contributions to both parties. Having served on the regional transportation authority since 2003, appointed by governor Elliot Spitzer, he became Andrew Cuomo’s chief consultant on Western New York revitalization in 2011, and has since risen to the state’s top position in economic development. Thanks in part to Zemsky’s counsel and Cuomo’s political maneuvering, the state has put through two programs to rein in runaway private development. The Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act of 2010 (PIPA) requires state agencies to run local requests for infrastructure support through a checklist that includes considerations such as whether development is located “wholly or partly in an existing municipal center,” “preserve[s] and enhance[s] the state’s agricultural land,” and “reduce[s] automobile dependency.” And in 2011, Cuomo created ten Regional Economic Development Councils that wisely seek to shape competition for subsidy dollars by forcing municipalities to work in concert as unified metropolitan regions when seeking state economic development funds. Buffalo’s population declined by more than one hundred thousand people in the 1970s, when Chippewa Street was called the “Street of Broken Dreams.”
© David Torke PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF DAVID TORKE
Our Ally the State
Here it’s worth pausing to note the importance of state-level intervention in the fate of small-to-midsize older industrial cities like Buffalo. Richard Longworth, author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, argues that in the age of private-market-based, neoliberal globalization, “the role of the states is to get out of the way.” But that view—shared by Florida, Glaeser, and the like—assumes that great metropolises like Chicago and New York, with their soaring real estate values, can thrive without the productive, energy-generating, and agricultural capacities of their smaller regional metros. Strengthening smaller cities would help to slow the much-resented transfer of wealth from the downstate financial sector to the fiscally weakened municipalities scattered throughout the state. It would be both more sensible and more equitable—more green—to ground Buffalo’s economic strategy and future tax contributions in a template different from those of New York City and other fast-growing “global cities.”
Back in 2012, when the state ran a competitive bidding process for economic development funds among its ten Regional Economic Development Councils, promising a $1 billion jackpot to the proposal reflecting the most fully realized Smart Growth plans, the Western New York REDC won. This should come as no surprise; Howard Zemsky, favored by Cuomo, was running the Western REDC at the time. Thus was born the so-called Buffalo Billion, much to the disgruntlement of neighboring cities like Rochester and Syracuse.
Political cronyism? Yes. But it also makes a world of sense to establish a beachhead for upstate economic revitalization in Buffalo to match the successful nanotechnology industry emerging in the eastern end of the Thruway, in the Albany area. By early 2014, Cuomo announced to great fanfare that $225 million of the booty would be used to subsidize the “Riverbend” green advanced-manufacturing complex on the former site of Republic Steel in South Buffalo, not far from Larkinville. (In June, Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced plans to build “the world’s largest advanced solar panel factory” on the site.) In a novel arrangement designed to safeguard taxpayers’ capital investment, the facility will be owned by the state.
The hefty investment in low-carbon manufacturing nicely complements another of Hawley’s pet projects—reviving the city’s still extant Belt Line rail system and its nearby industrial properties. Built in 1883, the circular rail line once bordered the city’s agricultural greenbelt, and snakes over trellises and then below grade through Buffalo’s old neighborhoods. The major employment center during the period of Buffalo’s industrial prime, it hosted a commuter rail service (along with freight), moving Buffalo’s workforce throughout the city until after World War I. Most of these factory buildings and warehouses still stand, having escaped the mid-twentieth-century downtown wrecking ball: Pierce Arrow, Ford Motor Co., Bell Aircraft, Wonder Bread, Otis Elevator Co., Curtiss-Wright, Northland Rubber, Niagara Machine and Tool Works, and bicycle-makers Buffalo Wheel Co. It still hosts two daily freight runs for several manufacturing firms, including Del Monte Foods, which produces all the Milk-Bones for America’s doggies, and General Mills, which pumps out the nation’s Cheerios. Hawley sees the Belt Line as the “third strand” in the city’s “development DNA,” along with Ellicott’s street plan and Olmsted’s parkway and park system. The Green Code proposes to restore the circular corridor for mixed use—residential, commercial, and light industrial—and eventually to resurrect the commuter rail. Zemsky’s Larkinville, located on one of the line’s nineteen former commuter stops, is part of that vision too, as are two other, more recent adaptive-reuse residential projects.
Even though the mega-world built on fossil fuel and Big Wealth is facing contraction, Buffalo and the State of New York are betting that we will still need big substantial (if also greener) things—things like renewable-energy and mass-transit infrastructure, large battery storage, freight ships, and carbon-neutral vehicles. And they are wise to rebuild the city, putting an end to sprawl and preserving their precious regional farmland in the process.
Between Zemksy’s leading investment and Shibley’s planning vision, the Green Code’s playbook for a more flexible and vernacular approach to development, and the state’s attraction of a major low-carbon manufacturing and research complex, Buffalo, it seems, is on course to establish the productive green economy of its dreams.
The Looming Silicon STAMP
What one hand giveth, however, the other can taketh away. All of Buffalo’s long-term, hard-fought efforts to jump-start its battered city and regional economy are now directly threatened by the selfsame Cuomo administration that just lavished $1 billion on those efforts. With funding extracted from the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo has greenlighted plans for yet another revenue-sapping, sprawl-feeding development compound to be plonked down in a 1,340-acre tract—one and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park—midway between Buffalo and Rochester.
In March, the Cuomo administration quietly announced that it was directing $33 million in state funds to build a “mega” complex called the Science and Technology Manufacturing Park (STAMP) on working farmland in Alabama, New York, a tiny hamlet in Genesee County. The aim, according to the Genesee County Economic Development Center, is to attract an as yet unsecured semiconductor manufacturer (or “chip fab” in the industry’s irritating shorthand) in a bid to create “Silicon Valley stretching along the Thruway.”
STAMP has been in the works for some nine years, led by local politicians and private and county Industrial Development Agencies. The project both antedated and deftly sidestepped the consolidation of the state’s smart growth initiative and Cuomo’s metro-regional economic development program. It flew under the radar, as these things do, with occasional state subsidy support for “studies” and the like—including a 2012 Smart Growth Impact study whose disapproval was waived by the Empire State Development Corporation. Cuomo gave the project only tepid support, claiming he couldn’t get the funding, and Buffalo’s legislative delegation opposed it. But somehow, a deal was cut, and funding was procured from the Buffalo Billion. If the dilapidated face of Buffalo is what puts bones and flesh on the idea of disinvestment, then the STAMP project is what the future holds if the traditional forces of sprawl development continue to operate on auto-pilot.
Now that the financial wizards of Wall Street
aren’t looking all that smart, it’s time
to take a fresh look at New Urbanist place-making.
Long after the low-key March announcement, it caught activist leaders in Buffalo completely by surprise. “I had heard rumors about this a few years ago,” one of them told me in June, “but I had been reassured that it would come to nothing.” Local alt-weekly columnist and professor of urban and regional planning Bruce Fisher, who specializes in economic-development governance, responded with similar shock in a May phone interview. Zemsky himself said by email, “In my opinion STAMP’s a compromise between two regions, WNY and Finger Lakes. It fits the WNY focus on next generation jobs and companies, and it falls outside of our focus on smart growth/existing infrastructure/sustainability/and job access for all.”
The basic idea behind the STAMP initiative isn’t objectionable. Turning upstate New York into a center of advanced manufacturing makes all sorts of practical sense. The area has an abundance of excellent research universities, underused industrial infrastructure, and an existing corps of skilled workers. To attract a firm that would directly employ ten thousand people, as claimed, and then spin off tens of thousands more jobs in services and suppliers, would be to boost flailing upstate cities and the entire state economy.
But locating it in Alabama—five miles off the New York State Thruway and fifteen miles from the nearest “city” (Batavia, pop. 15,000) is a terrible idea. The area already has a growing $31 million farming and food-processing economy. And it would put those “chip fab” jobs at a long, automobile-dependent commuting distance from Rochester and Buffalo, which both have an abundance of fallow industrial properties to spare.
STAMP supporters defend the location on three main grounds: the delicate nanotechnology required for chip fabrication is sensitive to seismic “urban” vibrations; the project’s large size will require access to both cities’ labor markets; and in any case, it will need the participation of new supply-chain businesses that can be located in both cities, boosting their economies. But none of these claims stands up to even casual scrutiny. “Chip fab” requires a high degree of cleanliness, but an entire industry is devoted to stabilizing vibrations. And Rochester and Buffalo are only sixty miles apart—meaning that a chip-fab complex sited in either metropolis would easily satisfy the rule-of-thumb sourcing requirement of one-day “just-in-time” delivery.
No, what STAMP boosters want—consistent with two decades of sprawl-inducing development—is control of the land and the political landscape, for all the usual time-honored reasons. They want what Wall Street wants: the “build-to-suit” standard real estate product type, which urban development analyst Christopher Leinberger calls “the building block of the ‘edgeless city.’”
If the STAMP folly goes through, development companies will buy up all the surrounding land, in anticipation of housing workers from Buffalo and Rochester who will not abide the slushy commute to Alabama. (Area grocery mogul Danny Wegman has already suggested he’d build one of his mega stores out that way if STAMP moves into the full development phase.) Those vaunted supply-chain businesses will follow, as will the need to fund new water and sewer lines, roads, schools, and police and fire services, at taxpayers’ expense. Thousands of acres of prime farmland—acres that we will desperately need to feed New Yorkers as global warming tightens its grip on the international food trade—will be lost forever.
Meanwhile, Rochester and Buffalo, whose citizens are busily repairing the urban fabric, will continue to hollow out. The minority working poor will, as usual, be deprived of access to all that STAMP bounty. Business bigwigs in the region pronounce stoically that this is just how things have to be—and that they were, for all intents and purposes, ever thus. When the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle asked Greater Rochester Enterprise president and CEO Mark Peterson why STAMP had to be sited so far beyond the reasonable reach of existing cities, he shrugged. “That is the price you pay if you’re going to play in this industry,” he explained, in full-on tough-guy Gordon Gekko cadence.
It took us thirty years and the rise of intransigent structural inequality to learn that greed is, in fact, not good. Likewise, myopically planned sprawl along the Thruway is not a price worth paying for any industry, and, in the age of global warming, it is even more economically self-defeating than genuflecting before the occult powers of trickle-down greed. It speaks volumes about the incoherence of our loose, multijurisdictional regional planning regime that state government is staking out plans for expanding the “innovation economy” into farmland while simultaneously supporting the dense, urban, green economic revival of Buffalo, as though the two initiatives couldn’t possibly have anything to do with each other. It simply fails to register, at the most basic level of policy debate, that the STAMP project is all but tailor-made to undermine and destabilize the development approach reflected in Buffalo’s Green Code.
That’s why it’s beyond perverse to fund the latter project out of funds earmarked for the former. And that’s also why we shouldn’t entrust all the self-hymning apostles of “innovation” and “smart” government—tied as they are to Wall Street’s “standard real estate investment products”—with hatching an economic game plan to equal the times.