Buffalo’s Billion

Our Governor here, Andrew Cuomo, has just announced that the State of New York will be forking over $1 billion to the city of  Buffalo, to aid a city in crisis.

Yup – a cool billion.

As you can imagine, the howls of disbelief and anger in Rochester and Syracuse are deafening. These three cities, the Moe, Larry and Curly of upstate New York urbanism, are nearly identical in rates of poverty, crime, joblessness, screwed up downtowns, massive sprawl, infrastructure no one can pay for, municipal budget deficits, crummy schools, and any other metric you might imagine to measure cities in crisis.

All three cities are a mess, with huge challenges ahead. All three cities have a rich and deep store of narratives, and all three were once gorgeous, vital, robust, bustling, and unique. All three cities have systematically choked themselves with inner loops and outer loops and loop-de-loops, sending  jobs and institutions and families out of town, and fast. All of which got me to thinking.

Maybe the fact that our city didn’t get the dough is actually a blessing. Maybe we can put our heads together and figure out just exactly what we would do with that kind of money, so next year, or the year after, when we here might win the Governor’s massive lotto game, we can get started right away. Let’s think about this for a minute.

(Of course it could take years to get an agreement in any of the Stooge Cities as to how to spend a $1 million windfall, much less $1 billion – but onward).

Here’s what we should do (with thanks to Edward Glaeser and his wonderful, problematic book, “Triumph of the City”): City, County, and area leaders and institutions should come together to harness the extraordinary energy and innovative talents of our region – our people – and especially our young people. Doing all that they can to foster a spirit of invention and entrepreneurship, our leaders should commit to a central locale for a potent, new, and powerful economic engine: our central city. By bringing the energy of our most gifted citizens together in a dense urban setting, collaboration and the free sharing and transfer of ideas and invention will yield new jobs, real growth, and a new vitality for Rochester and its surrounds. History teaches us that innovation and invention benefit most from close quarters – cities.

Where should we create this new regional economic engine room? Well, there are a bunch of recently cleared blocks in downtown Rochester where an old enclosed shopping mall used to be. It was called Midtown Plaza, and it was at Main and Clinton – our city’s historic crossroad intersection. Now it’s big and empty, and will be for the most part for the foreseeable future. A great spot for our power center.

From the Democrat & Chronicle.

At the moment, RIT is building the Golisano Institute of Sustainability out in the suburbs on their windblown campus. Of course this kind of Center should be downtown, since no human settlement is more sustainable than a dense, walkable city. Maybe we could allocate a few dollars to move the building to Main and Clinton.

Our local Community College, Monroe Community College, is about to enlarge their downtown presence substantially – probably in former Kodak buildings over by our ball yard. So they will be downtown.

University of Rochester is spread out all over the place here. They began downtown – maybe we could lure them back with a portion of their facilities.

So we gather the best and the brightest – well at least some of them – and we get them to go to work inventing a useable future for our region. Meanwhile, we take whatever is left over in the $1b grand prize and we give it all to our urban infrastructure, social and physical. Many of my fellow Rochesterians may not agree with me, but it seems clear that the health and viability of our region is inextricably tied to the health and viability of our city.

And in late-breaking news, we learned Friday that Rochester has won a kind of booby prize in the state’s urban lotto. The Governor has awarded us $100 million so that we can improve an interchange on one of our loop-de-loop expressways. Everyone here seems to think this is a fabulous development. At the risk of being lynched, I say: NUTS!

The intersection in question, I 390 at Kendrick Road, is a southern point of access to U of R and their medical campus. Sandy Parker, of the Rochester Business Alliance says: “All of that area is extremely congested, so without this project coming into being, it would restrict further expansion of the U of R and RIT.” Take a look at this extreme congestion.

Joel Seligman, President of the U of R, declares that the project will be “transformational to the region’s economic future….” State Assemblyman  Joe Morelle says that this project will “help take us to the next level.” All of them should be ashamed. This project is a massive make-work that is a total and absolute dead end. Basta.

As it happens, I know this intersection very well. In the spring, summer, and fall, I am here multiple times a week, at many different hours of the day. This place is many things, but “extremely congested” is certainly not one of those things. This is just the kind of defective thinking that is leading us further and further from a useful urban future.

A truly ridiculous project, whose time has come and long gone, and yet cheered on by our regional and institutional leaders. Do we really still believe that road building is what we should do to preserve and protect our community? I wish I could laugh – it is laughable – but I can’t. There are 100 million better things we need to be doing here. Expressway interchanges are nowhere on that list.


14 thoughts on “Buffalo’s Billion

  1. Mind if I repost this on Buffalorising? The Buffalonians could use some ideas for this money -if any is left after surrounding towns get their shut up and go away money.

  2. That area that they’re talking about as congested is not Kendrick Rd, it’s Mt Hope Ave/W Henrietta Rd/E Henrietta Rd. And it is very congested by Rochester standards. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to build more highway exits (remember those sources Glaeser quotes that argue that new highways just fill up with additional drivers) but you can’t convince anyone if you deny the reality that they’re sitting in pothole-filled traffic for 10 minutes twice a day to move 2 miles.

    I wonder if any of the money could be repurposed towards Collegetown.

  3. Oh and not to be out done, Buffalo spent $50 million rebuilding the Route 5 super highway that cuts the southern half of the city off from Lake Eire. This road is said to shave an extra 5 minutes off the suburban commute. It carries less traffic than metro Buffalo’s main strip mall drag Transit Road. To be fair there were many civic leaders fighting the project but it was jammed through at the state level. I guess since the other half of the city’s waterfront is also cut off by a suburban scary people avoidance chute this retains the wonderful symmetry.

  4. Good morning readers. First, David, sure. Feel free to link to Buffalorising. I will be interested if anyone says anything.

    Next, Adrian. Thanks for joining the conversation, and welcome. I have the plans for the “I 390 Interchange 16” $100 million project in front of me this morning (from NYDOT). As you note, one of the goals of the project is to reduce congestion at Mt. Hope and Henrietta Roads. Funnily enough, there are news clips online with folks complaining that they sometimes have to wait 4 or 5 minutes at these intersections at peak hours. Gosh!

    Adrian, I will always claim that wasting $100 million on more roads is worse than sitting an extra few minutes at a traffic light. This makes me a heretic, I know. So be it. When we give in to “reality” and try and make automobile traffic a highest priority, and ever more convenient, we are simply adding to all the mess we have made over the last century. A mess is a mess is a mess. Enough!

    As you note, Mr. Glaeser, and many, many others, have long pointed out that building more roads has a simple and inevitable outcome – more traffic. This I 390 project is a band-aid, not a cure. It may help for a very short time, but the time it will help will be very, very short.

    The I 390 project reworks the existing ramps at Henrietta Road. But the real changes are at Kendrick.

    And if you take a look at the U of R Master Plan for their campus in this area, you can easily see why U of R President Seligman is so enthusiastic about this project. What are now parking lots and one story dorms are slated to become many new buildings in the future.

    And it’s this future we need to focus on. There is more than one way to move around a city. What if their campus plan actually aimed at reversing – not downplaying but reversing – the automobile bias in favor of other ways of getting around?

    The U of R project called Collegetown, nearby and which you refer to, in fact includes a major bus terminal. Of course our transit system here is, well, troubled. But if it really worked, and if there were other modes, other choices, we might stand a chance at getting out of some of our cars.

    So, thanks for the clarification about the I 390 project, and the chance to say more about what it means. But I will stand by my disappointment in this investment, and I will continue to encourage my readers here and elsewhere to consider better ways to make our city fit for the future than zipping along in our cars. More roads ain’t gonna get it.

  5. I agree that spending $100 million on more onramps to temporarily solve 5-10 minutes of congestion is silly. But if you tell people that Mt Hope isn’t congested, you will just turn them off. I think it’s better to focus our arguments on the outcome of the $100 million spent – temporary relief from traffic and then a return to the status quo which few people like. It was more of a “how to win the argument” quibble than any disagreement over the post, which I agree with.

  6. Adrian, my continuing thanks for encouraging me to be cranky. As you must know by now, it doesn’t take much.

    As to strategies for arguing about issues like this, you might be right. I have never thought of myself as the one who could convince most people of most anything, and I lose most arguments. That’s why I am only an amateur blogger, I guess.

    But I am thinking of the guy they interviewed the other day. He had stepped out of his pickup at evening rush hour at Henrietta Road and I 390, and he was regaling the TV reporter with his tales of being stuck in traffic there for, say, 5 minutes. He had a haggard, forlorn look on his face. Telling that fellow, at that moment, that spending $100m would NOT ease his pain doesn’t seem like a surefire win. I could be wrong, of course.

    Maybe what I should do is just take everybody’s keys away for a week.

    Anyway, yes there is congestion at those intersections, for a few minutes a day. And yes, the City is in the red for about $60m. And yes, our Monroe County has the 6th highest rate of suburban poverty in the nation. We are surrounded by facts that argue powerfully that building more roads is a dead end. And so I always find myself asking the same question: What will it take? $200 million? More? Buffalo – warning….

  7. Hey, don’t forget about the SUNY Brockport (my alma mater) Metrocenter campus http://www.brockport.edu/metrocenter/ or the potential St. John Fisher law school when we’re talking about downtown educational centers. I do agree that the $100 million that the state is spending for Kendrick Road could be used for plenty of other transportation projects that will provide greater benefit to the region, such as filling in the Inner Loop and reconnecting the street grid or building a streetcar line from downtown to Strong.

  8. I think that Mt. Hope Rd. is the crappiest road in Rochester – and perhaps the ugliest, with its sad sights of strip malls and fast food joints. It deserves to be ripped up and converted into a light rail line. One that can connect the South Wedge, U of R, MCC, and RIT with each other. And even with… The Inner City! NOW that would bring real change to Rochester. The beautiful Mt. Hope Cemetery doesn’t need to be stuck with the blight of that road and its swarming cars.

  9. Howard, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. Over the past year or more, through your blogs and the few conversations we have had, I learned a lot. It has, as well, pointed me in the direction of my own research. I need to thank Mike as well.

    However, it has led to increase frustration on how local, regional and state leaders continue to follow policies that for decades have been unsuccessful and even at times detrimental in resolving the issues cities face. Gone are many of the features that made Rochester and Western New York the first inland boom town and region in our country’s history. And I fear more are to follow.

    With everything I have learned, and with the technology and capabilities we have today, Rochester could be at the forefront of urban revitalization and possibly return to and exceed its history. However, the mistakes appear to continue.

    Let us try to open people’s minds, see the possibilities, and try to get our leaders to understand what can be done and where we can go. As for arguing with the general public, to be honest (and I hope this does not come out wrong) sometimes what people want are not always in their best interest.

    It seems people believe driving is a right. However, under New York State law, it is a privilege. It’s our infrastructure that makes it a necessity.

    We need change, for economic, environmental, and sustainability reasons. I hope you, as I will, continue to advocate for a paradigm shift from our leaders.

  10. It’s not that the new ramps don’t make sense — they’ve been talked about for decades, so they do make sense — for decades ago. And true to form, community leaders are billing as a Great Leap Forward in economic development a project that represents decades-old thinking. The worst thing about this is that it’s a highways-only project. Not a congestion-mitigation project that addresses or begins to address other causes of the congestion. Nope, just the old “Lotsa cars = build more lanes. More lanes = draws more traffic. More traffic = more lanes. Rinse & repeat.”

    While it would not be cheap, it would be fairly straightforward to link downtown with U of R with RIT by light rail. This project not only doesn’t include provisions for light rail, it apparently doesn’t even include study, engineering, or incubation funds. In that regard alone, this project would seem to fly in the face of NY’s Smart Growth policies. Progressives, Greens should give this project — to use an “engineering term” — an N.F.W., and should hold it up by any and all means necessary until the State, U of R, and community leaders agree to a light rail project and commit some incubatory State funds for it.

    This would be as good a hill as any to die on for a smart, sustainable future for Rochester.

  11. Wow. Good morning again, readers. So many thoughts this morning, and thankfully, so many visitors in the last day or so. Great!

    First, Chris, yes let’s get everybody in the tent downtown. St. John Fisher, Brockport, and all others. Plenty of room, plenty of need, plenty of great ideas to be shared and acted upon. Forgive the sins of omission.

    Brian, and all of you who have joined the conversation, I am thrilled to hear you all invoke fixed rail transit as something we need to do here, and right away. Of course we should have done it sooner, but now would be a great moment. Here’s a sobering fact: $100 million would buy between 6 and 7 miles of streetcar. That, as RCC notes, would get us a fast, easy, non-auto link between the outer campuses of our major universities and our future downtown power center.

    But what’s puzzling is that these kind of thoughts don’t show up on the radar of any of our leaders – from the Governor down. I would love to hear any or all of them tell any or all of us what kind of future they imagine for us. For our sake, when will competition become cooperation?

    RCC, a whole bunch of us are on that hill with you. Go take a look at http://www.reconnectrochester.org as a starting point.

    And finally, Paul thank you for your kind words. Much appreciated. But of course you are frustrated. Many of us are very frustrated, and mostly because we can see and know what we once were, and can envision what we could, and should, become. The recent Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council’s plan, (part of a NYS competition I note – that word again) authored by what is supposed to be our region’s best minds, never gets to a larger vision for our communities. It ends up being a kind of economic laundry list of projects, but never articulates where we should be heading.

    I noted that during the creation of that plan, the Council’s leaders talked about how terrific it was to start to connect initiatives and ideas from across the region. Really? Just now thinking about that?

    Paul, our work continues to lie ahead of us. Keep the faith.

    Thanks, all of you, for your thoughts.


  12. I’m a bit late on this one, but thinking about the gaping hole that was Midtown, a cultural center, I agree that this opportunity must be seized. What is the heart of the city now? As a kid, Midtown was a healthy, beating heart and felt like Manhattan to my 8 year old brain. I think this hole has to be filled with a centralized purpose. Where is Rochester going?

    As for the money… I’m currently living in Buffalo, and I have to say, I think this city genuinely needed the money more. Hopefully they’ll do the right things with it. As far as I’ve seen, the initiatives that have really helped revive Rochester either haven’t been here or haven’t gotten as far.

  13. Lee – never too late. I am always eager for contributions to the discussion.

    I guess I don’t have much faith in the “big-project-saves-downtown” line of thinking. I offer Midtown as Exhibit A. Big projects can help for a while, but as change inevitably arrives, big projects are very difficult to alter to meet new needs. Midtown faced not only the challenges of social change in the 70s and 80s that affected every American city, but challenges from sprawl, the increase in suburban retail options, increased automobile dominance.

    The finer grained we can craft the Midtown replacement, the more likely we can build a downtown that is sustainable over a longer time. That means a broad mixture of uses – including residential uses – and scales.

    When downtown Chicago began to turn around in the 1990s, it was not because of some huge project. Instead, it was because local colleges and universities began to site downtown campuses in or near the loop. Slowly at first, and then with increasing pace, until there are today about 3 dozen institutions with a downtown presence. It should be easy to imagine the enormous impact this has had on downtown Chicago, and would have anywhere: retail, residential, cultural, and office space has increased, walkability is enhanced, density is increased. And a center of gravity for the exchange of ideas hasn’t hurt downtown either.

    Many of these college and university centers are located in buildings that are remarkably similar to Sibley’s: big buildings, mostly once home to a variety of department stores.

    Possible in Rochester? Perhaps. Worth a thought, beyond the obvious debate surrounding the location of MCC’s new home. Maybe this kind of renewal happened in Chicago because that city’s sprawl became so bad that downtown satellites were required. Here, we still revel (?!?) in the 20 minute commute, and our ease of auto-mobility. So getting to Henrietta may not yet be sufficiently difficult to suggest a downtown satellite. Still, worth a thought.

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