Donn Esmonde is a Senior Metro Columnist for the Buffalo News. This column was originally published in the Buffalo News and is reprinted here with permission.
I can’t let a milestone anniversary in the history of New Buffalo pass without notice.
There will be no ceremony, although a 21-gun salute – to blast away any vestige of the petrified “Old Buffalo” mindset – might be in order.
It’s six years ago this month that Bass Pro – a project backed by virtually every power broker and politician – mercifully pulled the plug on a nine-year flirtation with the downtown waterfront.
By spurning a $35 million handout, CEO Johnny Morris did us a monumental favor.
Imagine 18-wheelers rolling up 24/7 to a big-box retailer on what has become Canalside’s glorious communal front lawn – the place where concerts bloom, pop-ups blossom and paddleboats retrace the Erie Canal. Aaaaagghhhh.
This isn’t just a chronological but a philosophical milestone. The state development agency that first fought against unearthing the historic Commercial Slip, then tried to lure the mega-box retailer to the downtown waterfront, was – with Bass Pro’s demise and at the public’s insistence – discredited, remade and redirected. A citizen-driven “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” philosophy – imported by activist/entrepreneur Mark Goldman – replaced the mega-project mentality that had beset us for decades.
The harvest of the change in sensibility, some of it spurred by Bass Pro’s spurning, is apparent from Canalside to the reclaimed Buffalo River corridor, from the Outer Harbor to the West Side to downtown.
“Metaphorically, it was the day Buffalo learned to stand on its own,” Rep. Brian Higgins, the figurative father of a revived Outer Harbor, said of Bass Pro’s exit. “Putting our fate in the hands of these outside interests was indicative of a community that had lost faith in itself … Our philosophy of development has profoundly changed.”
I lived through the decades of battles that paved the road to renaissance. I won’t bore you with a chapter-and-verse reprisal. Instead, consider seven basic tenets on Buffalo’s journey from self-loathing to self-love; from communal inferiority complex to (roll over, Jimmy Griffin) We’re Talkin’ Proud.
1. Enlightened citizens led the way
There is one overarching truth to Buffalo’s revival: Time and again, the powers that be were obstacles to change, not the agents of it. Any road-to-revival capsulation that credits CEO-laden state agency boards, elected officials (with rare exception), or corporate power-brokers confuses cause with result.
From shaping Canalside, to preserving the downtown buildings we’re building a future on, to the Outer Harbor waterfront, to unearthing the historic Commercial Slip that fed Canalside’s blossoming, Buffalo’s rebirth was preservationist-driven and activist-laden. An enlightened public – in courtrooms, protests and public meetings – battled and bent myopic politicians and power brokers into going a better way.
Preservationist and urban expert Tim Tielman back then uttered my favorite description of the common scenario: “Buffalo does the right thing, after all other options have been exhausted.”
Bottom-up beat top-down, and anybody who says differently should stop drinking from Scajaquada Creek.
2. The power of a few hurt the many
State-agency boardrooms were – and, to some degree, still are – populated by corporate power brokers who don’t know Jane Jacobs from Jane Fonda. They were picked for their business success and political donations, not for any grasp of urban planning.
The fallout was a “magic bullet” syndrome of chasing mega-projects, from Bass Pro, to the E-Zone domed waterfront theme park, to a mega-convention center that would’ve obliterated a swatch of downtown.
“The idea was if you were successful in business, you could make good decisions about anything – and the community suffered from that,” said businessman/developer Howard Zemsky. “It was a dictatorial model, and people lost confidence because they didn’t trust the way decisions were made and policy was set.”
Before he took over as head of the state’s economic development agency, Zemsky – who for years shepherded the Darwin Martin House restoration – brought a long-absent progressive sensibility to local boardrooms.
“Local economic development was driven for so long by a small, homogenous group of businessmen who’d tell whichever governor what was important,” recalled Zemsky, whose dollars and vision begat Larkinville. “It wasn’t driven by data or a strategy, and the community wasn’t allowed to be involved in the process.”
The backwash of community shutout was lawsuits, protests and hammer-and-tongs battles that fueled communal cynicism.
“There were a lot of bad decisions made, but I think we’ve got it right now,” Higgins said. “The Tielmans and Goldmans were very helpful in saying, ‘No, let’s do the right projects and take the incremental approach.’ ”
3. The exception to No. 1 proves the rule
From the State Legislature to Congress, Higgins for 15 years carried the flag for the Outer Harbor waterfront. The son of a South Buffalo bricklayer didn’t just fight the New York State Power Authority to get our fair share from the backyard gold mine of Niagara Falls hydropower. He took on fellow politicians and the business-mighty Buffalo Niagara Partnership (anybody miss Andrew Rudnick? I didn’t think so), who feared risking our measly stipend.
Higgins successfully brokered a deeper revenue stream from the NYSPA that now funds waterfront development. Beyond that, he had the biggest hand in breaking the half-century death grip of the transportation authority on hundreds of Outer Harbor acres. Bizarrely, the bureaucrats running buses and trains until three years ago oversaw waterfront development – or, predictably, lack thereof. No, we don’t miss the Old Buffalo.
“Whether you were 18 or 80, the common refrain about the waterfront was, ‘Not in my lifetime,’ ” Higgins said. “What we first did at Gallagher Beach (a decade ago) wasn’t much, but in the context of nothing ever happening, it took on mythical proportions.”
4. Studies, books and panels didn’t provoke change
The battle for Buffalo’s rebirth was fought and won on the front lines, not in classrooms or in consultants’ offices.
For decades, we led the nation in white papers, blue-ribbon panels, studies, consultants and plans. Even the best of them were written in sand, given the regularity with which they were forgotten or violated any time somebody proposed a casino, big-box store or mega-convention center. A map comes in handy, but the right direction was no mystery. Not in a city with a radial street grid, an Olmsted parks system and a long-slumbering waterfront: Restore an enviable stock of old downtown buildings as lofts and apartments. Reclaim vast waterfront acreage for green space, bike paths and parks. Capitalize on the canal-laden history and glorious setting of the downtown waterfront.
“Instead of the old dictatorial model, we now identify and build on our resources – then take one step at a time, based on how it goes,” said Zemsky, echoing the “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” mantra behind Canalside’s exploding popularity. “If I had tried to lay out at the start what Larkinville would be in 15 years, it’d would’ve been wrong – because it was impossible to know. You just need the confidence to be patient, and the next step will reveal itself.”
5. Preservationists saved the resources
Everybody now loves old buildings – none of the downtown apartments sprouting like spring flowers comes without exposed brick, high ceilings and arched windows. Many of the same now-rehabbed structures were not long ago slandered as eyesores standing in the way of “progress.”
Despite the architectural riches, mayors from Griffin through Tony Masiello to Byron Brown refused to crack down on negligent owners or craft a sharp-toothed preservation policy. Which is why Tielman, long the preservationists’ street-fightin’ man, was a four-letter word at City Hall and in corporate boardrooms. His fellow preservation travelers included Sue McCartney, Richard Lippes, Dick Berger, Scot and Jessie Fisher, the old guard of Tom Yots, John Conlan, Bob Kresse and Tony Fryer, new blood Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson, and a host of allies. From the – shortlist – Hyatt Hotel to Pearl Street’s Webb Building, from Asbury Methodist Church to the Trico Building to the historic Commercial Slip, preservationists saved the buildings and structures upon which the New Buffalo is being built.
“From downtown to the waterfront,” noted Zemsky, “Tielman and the preservation community fought hard.”
6. Millennials rush in
Open doors don’t matter if nobody enters. Baby boomers (at least locally) largely fled to the ’burbs during the half-century when the city bled out half its population. Under-30s conversely are repopulating downtown, stoking bars and restaurants, resettling (along with a stream of immigrants) the West Side, hopping on bicycles and buses and generally embracing the charms, buzz and beauty of the (sorta) big city, while – bonus – leading a craft beer revolution.
7. Private dollars
As Cleveland and Pittsburgh found out, it helps to have rich people with a civic commitment. Terry Pegula solidified the Sabres in Buffalo, then built the $200 million HarborCenter hotel/restaurant/rink complex at Canalside’s edge. Zemsky created a pocket neighborhood in the ever-expanding Larkinville – appropriately. The Zemskys’ longtime family business, Russer Foods, stood in shadow of the monolithic Graphics Control building, whose restoration was the hub of the district’s revival. And in a turnaround that would flip Old Buffalo on its head, Larkinville’s celebrated public space was designed by – drum roll, please – Tim Tielman.
It’s six years to the month since Bass Pro said “no thanks.” All I can say is, “you’re welcome.”
(Top photo by BlueGold73)