[published in ARTVOICE v11n9, March 2, 2000]

The Convention Follies, Part 3: "Blight" or "Opportunity"?
by Hank Bromley
photos courtesy of Daniel Sack

[This is the third in a series of articles about the convention center controversy. Previous articles in the series are available at http://www.gse.buffalo.edu/fas/bromley/CCS/.]

Part 2 of this series (in the February 10 ARTVOICE) discussed how ramming a new convention center into the Electric District (Mohawk site) would further diminish the vitality of downtown Buffalo. As we should have learned from our last convention center, massive single-use structures with intermittent usage patterns effectively dissipate the constant pedestrian flow so critical for generating a vibrant streetscape and sustaining local businesses.

If that’s what Citizens for Common Sense is against, what are we for? Are we simply fault-finders, zealously opposing all progress, just to be contrary, or do we have something better to suggest? We do—something more readily attainable and healthier for downtown, while building on the unique characteristics of what’s already in the district.

At the February 15 convention center debate, when the Electric District was called a blighted area, Mark Goldman aptly observed that one person’s "blight" is another’s "opportunity." Such out-of-favor areas as Miami’s South Beach and Manhattan’s SoHo were similarly denigrated—just before becoming the liveliest neighborhoods and most hotly pursued real estate around. That’s no accident: the very characteristics that evoked disparagement provided the foundation for resurgence. Old, worn-down buildings, high vacancy rates, and low real estate values are a perfect environment for housing creative folks of limited means, and supporting innovative ventures operating on a shoestring. Cheap rent and soulful buildings—full of character but just shabby enough to encourage ad hoc alteration—are fertile ground for ingenuity. And cheap space in slightly faded buildings with character is exactly what the Electric District offers.

The status quo

Before delving into how the Electric District’s full potential could be realized, consider first what’s already there—and how it compares to what we’ve been told a new convention center would bring. There are some 40-50 buildings slated for demolition. (You can see an aerial photograph of most of the affected area at http://www.gse.buffalo.edu/fas/bromley/ccs/mohawk.jpg. The exact number of buildings depends on whether we include those on land designated "for future expansion" in the convention center plans.) The area contains about 35 businesses, and CCS member Daniel Sack canvassed every single one personally, determining that they employ about 600 full-time workers and generate sales of over $50 million annually. Since Daniel’s survey, the Holling Press has announced it will be closing down. The business could resume under different owners, but even if it simply ceases, that still leaves about 550 full-time workers and close to $50 million in annual sales.

Meanwhile the Johnson feasibility study projects that the impact of a new convention center would be an increase, beyond current convention-related economic activity, of 579 full-time-equivalent jobs in Erie County (616 statewide) and $32.9 million total economic benefit ($36.4 million statewide). The projections are likely overly optimistic—they assume the new facility would attract five times as many conventioneers as the current one, and include various indirect benefits I haven’t added to the Electric District figures—but let’s be generous and accept the projections at face value. That would still mean that in its unimproved, somewhat underutilized state, the Electric District is generating at least $10 million more economic activity annually right now than replacing the convention center would generate. (You may have heard a figure of $58.7 million cited for the economic impact of a new convention center. The Johnson report estimates the statewide impact of activity at the current convention center to be $22.3 million. The projected increase of $36.4 million would bring the total statewide impact to $58.7 million—but we’re already getting $22.3 million of that, without building a new center. The report clearly indicates that the payoff from the project would be the $36.4 anticipated increase.)

As for jobs, those current full-time workers in the Electric District are averaging $30,000 a year, but convention-related employment is largely food service, hotel, and retail work, paying little more than minimum wage. Also, note that the Johnson report estimates job creation in terms of "full-time equivalents," not jobs. Those 600 FTE’s might represent 1200 half-time positions, or 2400 quarter-time ones. Most will be contingent, part-time jobs, with short-lived peaks when a big meeting is in town and long gaps between calls. No benefits, no security, and certainly no supporting a family on a half-time job at minimum wage. A rather poor trade for 550 full-time skilled positions in printing and electrical work. (Photo at left: the current home of Ferguson Electric, slated for demolition.)

Convention center proponents argue that the current Electric District jobs won’t be lost, as those businesses will simply be relocated. The idea that after selling their buildings all of those employers will stay in business, and relocate within downtown, is pure fantasy, but let’s continue being generous, and assume that fantasy will come true: not a single current job lost, and all the new McJobs, limited though they may be, come in addition to what jobs are now available. Now it’s pretty attractive, right? Well, at the current estimated construction cost of $151 million (and, speaking of fantasy, does anyone believe that figure won’t rise again before all is said and done?), that comes to a mere $251,667 per FTE. Let that sink in for a moment: each $7/hour temporary fast food job created will cost a quarter of a million dollars in public funds. And that’s giving the estimates every benefit of the doubt. Do you suppose we can’t find a better way to create jobs with that money? Just last week, the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation announced that its assistance to private employers during 1999 had resulted in 1176 new jobs, at a cost of $1452 per new job created (see Feb. 24 Buffalo News). If you’re curious, $251,667 is 173 times as much. For lousy jobs, at that. You decide. And then speak up.

The future?

That "blighted" district is starting to look pretty good to me, even as is. But can we do better?

At the February 15 debate, Mark Mendell of Cannon Design—with whom I obviously disagree on much—did say some things I could happily endorse. One was to note the futility of relying exclusively on a convention center project to revive downtown, without simultaneously boosting residential and retail activity dramatically. Everyone seems to agree that we need to get more people living downtown.

In older industrial cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest, warehouses, mills, former offices, and small factories are being converted into loft housing and drawing residents back into the heart of downtown. Urban ambience, gracious architecture, large, high-ceilinged apartments with huge windows and great views, and the convenience of living a short walk from all the downtown cultural amenities have proven to have tremendous appeal, particularly as backlash grows against the sprawl, congestion, and homogeneity of suburbia. Last summer, I took one of Tim Tielman’s Preservation Coalition tours, featuring "endangered" portions of downtown, including the Electric District. As we walked about, Tim drew a verbal sketch of a revitalized neighborhood. Re-open a bricked up window here, add a small grocery store there...live within two blocks of the Angelika, the Central Library, Mohawk Place, Buffalo Wholesale Flower Market, the Calumet and Chippewa Street, and just a bit further from the Theater district. Imagine a loft in the Flint & Kent warehouse (the 7-story white brick building on the west side of Washington, just south of Huron—see photo at right): a 30-by-90 ft. space overlooking the gold dome of the M&T Center, the Niagara Mohawk tower, City Hall, the Rand Building, and the Liberty Building. If I didn’t already own a house, I’d do it in a minute. If such a space had been available when I moved to Buffalo six years ago and began renting here, I would have positively leapt for it.

The recent headlines read "Philadelphia Office Towers Get New Uses," "New Chicago Residential District Is Born," "Downtown Building Joins in a Conversion Trend—Residential Boom in the Financial District." Does the following sound familiar?

The printing presses have stopped at 155 Perry Street for the Italian newspaper Il Progresso, but the building was renovated into lofts with 12-foot ceilings. The Sapolia Soap Factory at 166 Bank Street is now a high-end co-op loft dwelling, as is a former stable on Horatio Street...Creative juices still flow at Westbeth, now a subsidized artists' residence with an on-site gallery, sculpture studio and graphic workshop. Residents pay from $380 for efficiencies to $660 for highly coveted three-bedroom apartments. (New York Times, Jan. 14, 1996)

Skeptical? Okay, Buffalo isn’t the West Village, nor is it Chicago or Philadelphia. But how about "Downtown Milwaukee Housing Picks Up—Industrial Buildings Becoming Residences in a Livelier Area"? Or this, from a USA Today cover story on Providence, Rhode Island (Aug. 16, 1999): "No one lived downtown a dozen years ago. Today, there is a waiting list for lofts in old department stores and office buildings. The city gives tax breaks to artists who live and work downtown." It’s happening in cities our size or smaller, with similar economic doldrums, and with downtowns that were—until recently—seemingly hopeless. And indeed it is already happening, to some extent, here. Plans are apparently proceeding smoothly for conversion of the former Trico complex into mixed residential and commercial space, as well as the former Berger Building. And the Tri-Main Center is a fine example of an actually accomplished adaptive conversion, although non-residential.

Part 2 of this series discussed the critical dependence of urban vitality on dense packing of diverse building uses, in order to populate the streets at all times of day. Piecemeal conversion of older structures, along with a modest amount of in-fill to close the gaps created by surface parking lots, is an excellent way to increase density and diversify building use by capitalizing on Buffalo’s unique architectural heritage, while retaining a wide enough range of building ages and conditions to welcome residents and businesses of varying means. Massive new construction—what Jane Jacobs calls "cataclysmic money"—would pose a threat to diversity, tending to produce uniform building use and cost structures. Rehabilitation also has the advantage, compared to new construction, of keeping more of the funds used to underwrite the work in circulation in the local economy: rehabilitation involves spending relatively more on labor and less on materials, and labor is more likely to be supplied locally than are materials.

This emphasis on multiple, small-scale projects does not mean, incidentally, that government funding has no useful role. I am certainly not one to oppose all government involvement, on general principles. Although promoting megaprojects undermines diversity, government—at any level—can actively encourage healthy, diverse development through other means, by lowering the threshold of wealth needed to take up residence or start a business in targeted areas. Instead of spending $150 million to obliterate the Electric District, the county and state could, for instance, guarantee or directly provide loans (for moderately scaled purchases or rehabilitation) that private banks might deem insufficiently profitable. Banks, for that matter, could themselves contribute similarly. Numerous banks around the country have made community development a priority; they invest in a neighborhood by providing loans below market rates or to local residents with limited credit histories, thereby trading immediate profits for greater long-term stability and prosperity of the community. Top executives of M&T Bank have taken a leading role in promoting the convention center project. They could exercise a more beneficial form of leadership by directing some of the bank’s own resources to such a community banking initiative in the Electric District. I would love the opportunity to commend them heartily for it.

Another governmental action that reduces the wealth threshold for living in a district, described above in both New York City and Providence, is to subsidize directly the rent of residents who contribute to the unique character of the area (artists, in this case). All kinds of subsidies and rent guarantees could be used to promote a rich and vibrant cultural life in the Electric District.

If these ideas seem rough or sketchy, consider the small fortune the Convention and Visitors Bureau has already spent commissioning the Johnson feasibility study and the Cannon/SMG site selection study. Given a fraction of those resources, we, too, could produce a polished plan, with detailed projections and enticing artists’ renditions. Indeed, Clarion Associates of Chicago and Denver, a national leader in historically sensitive redevelopment, has provided a quote of less than $20,000 to generate an Electric District plan. If we’re to have a genuinely public discussion of the convention center issue, shouldn’t we level the field a bit? Unlike the CVB, we’re not funded by the hotel tax, so we can’t afford that fee (or direct-mail campaigns and sponsorship of multiple spin-off advocacy groups). But shouldn’t we get to hear a second opinion before demolishing 40+ buildings and committing to a project on this scale? How about it, Mayor Masiello and County Executive Giambra? Isn’t it worth $20,000 to find out about the alternatives? What do you say?

Hank Bromley teaches at the UB Graduate School of Education and is a member of Citizens for Common Sense. He can be reached at hbromley@buffalo.edu.