Nearly two decades after “regionalism” became a buzzword here – only to get bastardized, bashed and buried – the concept is back.
Erie County Clerk Christopher Jacobs calls his proposal to move the Buffalo police and fire departments and some nonprofits from the downtown corridor to the East Side a “regional issue” that could breathe life into a part of Buffalo Niagara that needs it.
Given Western New York’s history, his candor is probably a tactical mistake.
Still, the proposal could revive a discussion that countless national experts – many of whom came here to lecture – have warned us needs to take place. Jacobs, if the idea gains traction, has at least started that.
He calls the idea a “win-win” that could move up to 600 workers – plus hundreds who visit agencies such as the United Way – into the Broadway Market and the surrounding neighborhood. At the same time, it would put the agencies’ headquarters along Delaware Avenue and Main Street on the tax rolls as redeveloped properties.
“I’ve had people call me and say, ‘If this really happened, I’d be interested in opening a restaurant over there,’ ” Jacobs said, alluding to new customers for the Broadway-Fillmore area.
But one expert says there are better ways of reviving the area than through the “continuing momentum” of turning high-value properties over to developers or pursuing a plan that might push out existing East Side residents.
Henry L. Taylor Jr. has focused much of his work on reviving East Side neighborhoods, from the area around Futures Academy – in the shadow of the Medical Campus, but hardly benefiting from it – to the Commodore Perry neighborhood now being eyed for transformation.
Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, said the real need is helping moderate- and low-income families maintain and upgrade their properties, and this proposal does nothing in that regard.
While the influx of workers might help a couple of restaurants or dry cleaners, “it’s not going to change the trajectory of a neighborhood,” he said. “These types of development don’t trickle down.”
As an example, Taylor cites the Main Street and Bailey Avenue businesses near UB’s South Campus. He said their energy, in and of itself, has not transformed surrounding neighborhoods.
But there is a way I could see Jacobs’ proposal really benefiting the people living in Broadway-Fillmore: If some of the money the city and nonprofits get from selling their properties and putting tax-exempt mansions back on the tax rolls is earmarked for the types of initiatives that Taylor envisions.
The urban expert is skeptical.
“I’ve seen that movie before … and it never has a happy ending,” he said of such promises made in the past.
But the past doesn’t have to be prologue, even in Buffalo.
If the region’s officials finally recognize that Buffalo Niagara is only as strong as its weakest part, this effort could be parlayed into something more than just backdoor gentrification or a bonanza for developers. But that would require foresight and coordination.
Jacobs has put East Side development back on the public agenda with this proposal. What, if anything, we do with it depends on how much civic vision and will we can muster.