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Another Voice: Authentic community engagement can be a win-win for Buffalo

By Gretchen Cercone

Each month, representatives from block clubs, neighborhood groups, and community associations gather at 40 Gates Circle to meet with the President of TM Montante, Christian Campos and the Director of Public Affairs, Byron DeLuke.  Sitting around that table, we have negotiated everything from brick colors to a new zoning district.  Underlying every agenda item is a shared goal, working together to have the best possible project emerge at the former site of the Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital.

There have been several large projects proposed recently in neighborhoods around the city, and many have struggled with city approvals due to a flawed community outreach strategy. Developers are finding themselves facing hurdles that could have been avoided with proactive and authentic engagement with stakeholders. As members of the Gates Circle Community Advisory Committee, we believe the process followed by TM Montante is a model for others to follow.

For the design of TM Montante’s building at 1299 Delaware, a statement of shared values was developed collaboratively with all committee members very early on.  After hours of conversation, an Architect’s Charge for Design was composed and included with the request for proposals document.  It outlined guidelines for successful proposals:  they would be informed by an open and inclusive community conversation, contribute to the quality of life on all sides of the project, be sustainable in the fullest sense of the word (socially, environmentally, and economically), relate well to the existing context, and comply with the Green Code, historic preservation districts, and the Olmsted Conservancy’s vision for the Olmsted landscape adjacent to the site.

As a result of this dynamic discussion, the first building proposed for the Gates Circle site was code-compliant, sailed through the approvals process at City Hall, and is well on its way to being constructed at the corner of Delaware and Lancaster Avenues.

We believe that developers in the city would be wise to follow the model used in the Gates Circle process.  Each person around the table is treated with respect. All stakeholders’ comments are given equal weight and nothing is negotiated without the full participation of the group as a whole.  Negotiations happen in the open and with the goal of achieving consensus. Differing opinions are acknowledged, welcomed, and encouraged.  Even when we receive answers to questions we do not agree with, we understand why such decisions were made.

As members of the Gates Circle Community Advisory Committee, we hope that developers proposing projects across the city can benefit from this model.  Instead of bracing for a fight with neighbors, include them.  Instead of seeing them as obstructionists, invite them into the process.  We have seen first-hand that this will ultimately lead to a better project for everyone in the end.

Gretchen Cercone is a member of the Gates Circle Community Advisory Committee. Other members, who contributed to this article are Jim Connolly, Judy Dean, Leslie Edmiston, Anthony James, Janet Meiselman and Andrea Schillaci.

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