Baring my Soul

Buffalo’s Ellicott District – Just a Few Ideas

A commenter on Buffalo Rising provided a number of issues facing Buffalo’s Ellicott District about a year or so ago.  I could have attempted to answer them all in the comment format, but I was sure there wasn’t enough space to do so.  So, I ask you to be patient and accept this excerpt from my views on district remediation for Ellicott.

The Ellicott District is the most diverse district on our city.  Whether we consider race, ethnicity, culture, income, education, housing, economic development, or preservation, the Ellicott District has it all.  This diversity is not only a challenge, but a blessing, as well.  What is needed in Ellicott is a meeting of the minds to develop trust for the seat and within the district, a bridging of the gaps and a celebration and appreciation of that diversity.

Ellicott is divided geographically as well as culturally.  Main Street dissects it, as does the Kensington.  Everyone is affected by both advantages and disadvantages of this geographic and cultural divide and it’s time we bridge that divide through ground-up efforts and practices.  Although the commenter mentioned the victories of Allentown and the West Village, there have been numerous victories in each of Ellicott’s sectors whether the East Side, West Side or the Downtown/Delaware Development Corridor.

This meeting of the minds, as mentioned above, has been going on in various sectors of the District.  But, again, I cannot emphasize more the need to reestablish trust through communication.  This includes a sharing of ideas that is comprised of not only those victories, but the failures, as well.  We learn and succeed from both.  And, it includes getting the people of the district to work across both visible and invisible borders.  Everything worth your attention is worth working.  When you run up against a roadblock, you go back to the map, turn the page and find a better route.  Then, add strategic patience as the second step after communication.  That is what community rebuilding is about.

As mentioned by the commenter, Ellicott is a critical district for our city due to its challenging urban issues, many of which have been either ignored or mishandled for decades.  (If you get a chance, read “Race, Neighborhoods and Community Power – Buffalo Politics 1934-1997” by Neil Kraus)  If we work these issues collectively between the citizens, businesses, organizations and government, we could create a benchmark for other cities to follow.  So, here are the issues that person brought up and my thumbnail responses to each.

Regarding demolition, I believe it is needed in many cases, most in part due to the number of years these properties have sat idle and the number of times they have been used for illicit activity, squatting and stripping of reusable materials.  However, it is a quick fix that cannot be an instant fix to waylay the angst felt by residents of the district when having to deal, not necessarily with the vacant structure itself, but the by-products that add to neighborhood decay.

We need to capitalize on what occurred during the Buffalo Neighborhood version of Extreme Makeover on Massachusetts Avenue even though the cameras are gone.  What this can do is create not only jobs but careers.  Rehabilitation utilizing Green Methods can do more than turn a few houses around.  For example green demolition via Buffalo ReUse working along side other organizations such as PUSH and others not only saves buildings and money, it creates stimulation for those being trained that may end in a career.  Not only are they learning to take a house apart and reuse certain items, they are learning the very best of construction as many of these properties were built “back in the day” when construction held for more than 25 years.  They learn about materials, joinery, the proper tools, craftsmanship…  So careers can be attained as well as jobs while we accept the responsibility of green initiatives for our future as well as today.

Start with Green Demolition and Rehabilitation and start now.  Create those jobs and careers which can be the backbone of keeping our youth off the streets, and in our city which, in turn, creates incentive for retail and other businesses to move to city-proper, increasing overall economic viability.  Just today, after I wrote the previous paragraph last evening, it was noted in the Buffalo News that WNY AmeriCorps has received a $100,000 Federal Grant to create these types of program and training in conjunction with PUSH and Buffalo ReUse.  $100,000 doesn’t seem like much due to the size of the work that needs to be done, but it’s a tremendous start.  And, once the track record of success is set, there is other funding available out there.  Again, we can create a benchmark for other cities to follow.

Also, please raise your hand if you have heard of the Real Property Tax Exemption for Capital Improvements to Residential Property.  That’s what I thought, about 50/50.  There is a sort of sliding scale tax exemption for capital improvements that is limited to one- or two-family residences that applies to reconstruction, alterations or improvements but does not include ordinary maintenance and repair.  It’s limited to $80,000 and provides 100% exemption for Y1, 87.5% for Y2, 75% for Y3, 62.5% for Y4, 50% for Y5, 37.5% for Y6, 25% for Y7 and 12.5% for Y8.

Now, what if this program was actually marketed to constituents?  Would some be more likely to improve their property since they had a chance of a digestible reassessment?  Could this be tailored to include major maintenance and repair such as roofs, decayed porches, and more?  Could it be created as an essential part of the urban redevelopment plan for the city?  Well, it certainly is worth looking into.

The commenter then mentioned a number of areas where funding could be slated to improve what we already have as far as services such as Inspections and Housing Court and further funding for other initiatives that would benefit low- to middle-income property owners such as home repair.  These are areas that, although they work together, must be reviewed regarding their current performance levels and how they are delivered as well as how they can be funded.

In 2007 Brian Meyer of the Buffalo News mentioned the city had 17 inspectors juggling approximately 10,000 complaints annually.  A review of performance levels had been planned along with introduction of new tools to measure those levels that also provides ease of data entry of said inspections utilizing what many auto auctions have used for condition reports for their client’s vehicles.  The paper shuffle of inspections could be decreased dramatically giving more time for the current Inspectors to truly perform within best practices.  After that measurement is created and reviewed, the department could determine the need for increased numbers of Inspectors.

We seem to respond rather than perform proactively to neighborhood decay via housing and business complaints.  Judge Henry Nowak, whom I’ve had the pleasure of serving during the Housing Court Reform Project, was instrumental in introducing innovative methods of neighborhood remediation.  One initiative that I hope the city reviews and passes is the Lis Pendens Program (Lis pendens is a legal document filed to note that a property MAY be foreclosed upon.) and is a project I consider one of the most important to initiate.  This program combines the talents of interns from local colleges and universities to identify homeowners recently placed in or notified of impending foreclosure by review of public records on a weekly basis.  The interns would create a list of properties to be inspected by – who else? – Inspections.  If there is any issue that could be cited for Housing Court, including vacancy of the property, not only is the homeowner cited, but the financial institution that has filed the Lis Pendens is, as well.  Many banks allow the properties to languish and remain vacant until a buyer is found to purchase the parcel for the value placed upon it by the bank rather than its true market value.  This creates even further delay of the turn-over process.  As well, many homeowners think that a Lis Pendens is an actual foreclosure, a notice for them to move out of the home rather than attempt to work with the bank to keep it.  The result is more vacant property and increased neighborhood decay.  The Lis Pendens Program brings both parties into court and that can (1) create an agreement for the current owner, if they can be reached, to stay and keep the property with refinancing, (2) the homeowner can also be advised they can remain in the house until such time as the foreclosure process is final and the property is sold, (3) if the homeowner is unreachable, place the ones on the financial institution to maintain the property and (4) turn it over for its true value, increasing the probability of quick turnaround for homeownership and stabilizing the neighborhood.  This has been done a few times throughout the city with great success. (See BR article “A Four-Year Celebration”)

As far as home improvement grants, review of current organizations and their ability to truly administer these programs needs to be undertaken.  Here are a few questions that need to be answered regarding continued funding to these organizations:

  1. Is the organization proactive within their area of service? (marketing the programs, reaching out to those houses evidently needed the repairs, etc.)
  2. Do they perform due diligence in qualifying the homeowners without prejudice?
  3. Do they refer applicants to other organizations and services to assure a holistic approach and positive results?
  4. Do they offer basic economic and maintenance skills training and/or do they require this type of training prior to receiving home acquisition assistance?

Once these questions are answered with solid documentation, then the organization should be funded to continue the work of the points above as well as administering home acquisition and improvement grants and loans.

The commenter then continued with a combination query that includes the Life Sciences area of the Ellicott District (Museum of Science/MLK Park) and the need to eliminate the Kensington Expressway.  Actually, the borders of Ellicott and Masten are on the land between the Kensington and the Life Sciences District.  This means a strong partnership must continue with Masten to assure all bases are covered for this area. Besides the Museum of Science, this area also includes the Dr. Charles R Drew Science Magnet School with 1,000+ students.  The school reaches the kids on an innovative level that creates interest and stimulation, even a Museum section.  They, in part, have a hand in creating the community leaders of our future to assure any action taken for redevelopment continues when those doing the work now need to retire from this essential, yet mostly volunteer service.

The Kensington (33), much like its predecessor, the Scajaquada (198 – whose construction began in 1950) created a schism between class and race.  The 198 divided the mid- and upper west sides, cutting through neighborhoods and “required” eliminating the old Humboldt Parkway.  Construction was finalized on the Kensington in 1968.  It cut through the middle of the East Side during and after a time there was great disorder in the direct neighborhood.  Even worse was that the construction took almost eight full years to complete causing even more disruption of the surrounding neighborhoods.  “White Flight,” as it is called, was in existence then so the predominantly white neighborhoods prior to the construction had enough left over housing to allow movement of those from the construction area while the increasing African-American population was shoved into a corner, so to speak, say nothing of the effect it had in dividing our city.  To reconnect this area would be a benefit to our community, although very expensive.  It is a necessary action to bring our collective community together while also enhancing the various gateways into Buffalo.  However, we first need to address the infrastructure and other needs of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The commenter goes on to state that the Ellicott District “also includes a section of the Central Terminal.”  That’s stretching the borders somewhat, but again proves the importance of Councilmembers working together for the good of the entire city.

Although the Ellicott District border ends at the junction of Stanton/Fox along Broadway, it is a neighbor to the Fillmore District and the Central Terminal.  Dave Franczyk, as President of the Council and representative of the Fillmore District, has a great deal on his plate and could use a good partner on the Council that would work with him to right many issues.  The Ellicott seat is important for this partnership success to be attained.

On a side note, I once had an office at the Central Terminal – when it was closed.  It makes me laugh now, but I was a young entrepreneur and traded office space for security walks around the complex with Tony Fedels’s dog, Major.  What an amazing building and every effort by the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation is priceless.

Again, however, we could do just about anything to promote that building for a number of uses, but the surrounding neighborhood needs attention first and foremost.

Now, on to Preservation.  The Ellicott District has to have the most historic districts within it borders than any other in the city.  Allentown, Cobblestone, 500 Block of Main, Joseph Ellicott, Theater and West Village.  I always felt the Fruit Belt should have this designation but am very reserved on that thought now.  You see, I live in a Historic District and bought in over 15 years ago when the place was crawling with drug dealers, vagrants, prostitutes and other sundry characters.  The area I bought in achieved Triple Designation (city, state and national) by 1980.  Many of the homeowners who lived there many years, through the good times and the steady decline, were unaware of the impact of owning a home in a Historic District, nor were they properly notified when this change was effected or that a Deed Liber was attached to their deeds that cites the city designation.  This was a Common Council resolution passed in 1978.  It wasn’t attached to our deed until 2002.

Preservation is necessary for so many reasons – too numerous to list here.  But there needs to be common sense application in preservation.  Permits and the process itself needs to be revamped and customer friendly.

Adaptive Reuse is a phenomenon throughout the US and Rocco Termini is the kingpin of the Adaptive Reuse world in Western New York. More developers are following his lead in this movement along with his understanding and application of Historic Tax Credits.  That’s terrific for mid- to large developers, but we need to address the needs of the individual and small developers in these districts, as well.

Another issue to address is the elderly man up the street whose house has been featured in articles by Steele, a true gingerbread house built in the mid 1800’s.  He has lived there for decades and now faces major restoration he cannot afford due to standards of preservation.  And if he could get a grant or low interest loan that was affordable his assessment would increase him out of his home.  We have to have a plan to assure folks like these aren’t propelled from their homes due to cost of maintenance and repair and, as mentioned above, create a sliding and digestible scale for reassessments.

Back in the mid-90’s I visited a number a times with representatives of the Historic Charleston Foundation.  I asked questions and found them to be strong on the Secretary of the Interior’s Preservation Standards, while using common sense when it came to security and cost issues.  Even watching “This Old House” provides us with knowledge of acceptable substitutes for preservation renovation and rehab.  We need to review others’ practices to redevelop our preservation code while ensuring it is affordable and non-gentrifying.

Here’s another great idea for historic districts in our city – make them destinations.  Allow them to lure visitors, show our rich history in architecture, not only in the larger downtown landmarks, but the quaint little villages found throughout our city.  There’s nothing better for me to have experienced during my travel days than walking through a historic neighborhood in places like Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah, or Georgetown.  Even with my hectic schedule of a day or so in three cities during a week, I needed downtime and these walks, when possible, were a blessing.  The Delaware Development Corridor right next to the Government Sector brings plenty of visitors to our district.  The National Trust is due in town for their convention in 2011.  What better way to truly tout the importance of preservation and our legacy than to include these residential districts?

Now, I’m adding a couple of my own.  I promise to keep these short for now.

Businesses must be supported from the largest like Labatts to the smallest like James the Ice Creamcycle Dude.  Permits and licensing must be streamlined and customer-friendly.  And, we must eliminate 99-Year contracts and leases.  However, businesses must take surrounding neighborhoods into consideration when developing or expanding and heavily consider the importance of corporate citizenship for the local area.

Health Centers must be supported. In Ellicott we have the Jesse Nash Health Center recently experiencing drastic cuts of primary health care by the 2010 Erie County budget.  Without these centers we have increased costs in our health industry and taxes as well as decreased funding from the state and federal levels.  A healthy community starts with the health of the individuals living within it.  Yes, I know the County Executive has offered to transfer these primary services to Sheehan, however, it is the trust factor and location of the Jesse Nash Health Center that is very important to recognize.

I’ve gone on far too long and wish I could provide you with more exact answers, but even though Buffalo Rising has been gracious enough to allow me to answer in this fashion, I cannot expect them to create a special page to include every thought and initiative I wish to work on.

Thanks for bearing with me while I drone on and on, but we really have a great deal to do and the foundation to build this new house of trust is communication on every level.

Please let me know if you have any further questions.  I can be reached via e-mail at mrodgersfcs@msn.com

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