When the president of the Common Council opposes a major downtown development project, citizens should be confident that the public good is not being sacrificed to a private feud. Recent comments by Council President James W. Pitts about a development plan for the long-vacant L.L. Berger department store complex shake that confidence.
Landmark Management Ltd. of Cleveland had been the designated developer to turn the Berger complex in Downtown Buffalo into a combination retail-residential building. It pulled out, indicating the costs connected with the $6.5 million project were too high.
So Ellicott Development Co., one of the firms that had originally submitted a redevelopment plan for the site, has renewed its proposal. Ellicott Development is headed by Carl Paladino, perhaps Pitts' most bitter enemy.
"I'm just not sure that we should be putting housing in what could be and should be our retail district," said Pitts, questioning the feasibility of the $3.5 million project proposed by Ellicott.
Pitts' reasoning is not consistent with urban realities. Buffalo's downtown used to be a retail center but long ago lost that status to suburban malls. That's a scenario that has played itself out in many other cities.
What's important now is to get people downtown. There is, of course, room for retail, but downtown's retailing future is tied to residential development. To be successful, downtown needs people living there, and that is not likely to happen unless there are attractive apartments available. Pitts has every right to make sure city development projects are based on solid numbers. It's a fair question to ask why Ellicott thinks it can do what Landmark, which has had success with similar projects in Cleveland, cannot.
But when he opposes a project because of its impact on a nonexistent retail and commercial center, there is a strong suspicion that personal animosity is affecting professional judgment.
That suspicion was reinforced at a Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency meeting Thursday when Pitts launched an ugly attack on Paladino and his representative. "I think you're a crook, both you and your boss," Pitts said to Paul Gregory. Pitts was the only member of the agency to vote against letting Paladino investigate further the feasibility of the project.
His intemperate and offensive personal attack aside, Pitts' view of the "retail district" is out of date. Where is this thriving commercial area that is so vibrant that there is no room left over for apartments?
Given the weakness in Pitts' logic, it's difficult to take at face value the claim that his opposition to the Ellicott proposal has nothing to do with his long-standing feud with Paladino. That's especially true when one considers that Paladino pumped thousands of dollars into David Franczyk's unsuccessful run against Pitts in the Democratic Primary. It's understandable that the council president may still be smarting over that.
Regardless, it is imperative that personalities be put aside here. The important question is whether Paladino and Ellicott Development can accomplish what they propose to do for the dollar amount they say it will cost. City development officials and their consultants think the Ellicott proposal will work because it is less ambitious and more realistic than the Landmark plan.
The city's urban renewal agency has given Paladino more time to determine the economic feasibility of the project. That seems like a reasonable approach. Besides, what other offer is on the table?
The Berger complex actually consists of four buildings, including two wood-frame structures, at 500-518 Main St. Landmark proposed using all four to develop 75 upscale apartments with office or retail space on the ground floor. Ellicott wants to develop 36 apartments and retail space in the two more substantial buildings and raze the other two. It also projects high rents to provide adequate revenue to assure financial feasibility.
Yes, Paladino's development record is not perfect. He has been insensitive to neighborhood concerns over aesthetics as he's spread Rite Aid drugstores throughout the area.
But he is one of the few entrepreneurs in this city willing to take a chance on downtown Buffalo. City officials need to encourage that kind of entrepreneurship, not discourage it.
Pitts needs to reconsider whether his opposition to Paladino's plan is a product of the animosity between them.
After his landslide re-election victory, Pitts must make sure his talent and energy are directed at moving forward, not getting even.