In late September, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said of the ignored and undeveloped AM&A's building in downtown Buffalo: "I intend to either have a positive solution to the reuse of this building or a very aggressive court case before I leave office." As his term ends, he has done neither.
Last summer, the city's inspection team, citing some 100 code violations, wanted to take owner Richard Taylor to court to force action on this building which -- due to its location -- is key to downtown's health and future growth. The mayor intervened, proclaiming Taylor's good intentions and saying a development deal was in the works.
That never should have happened. In fact, the mayor should have acted years ago to force Taylor's hand. What's at stake here is not small: It's a vital part of downtown's future. Urban experts say no city can succeed if the downtown core stagnates. Meanwhile, downtown is woefully short of shovel-ready sites for new businesses.
Taylor's Carpe Diem Development owns the building, across from the Main Place Mall, where his short-lived clothing store died six years ago. He has since blocked every attempt to force him to keep the building up to code, delaying instead in hopes of a lucrative buyout on top of $450,000 he originally received for taking the building from the department store chain. Taylor has no track record of caring about downtown vibrancy, only one of broken promises and inaction.
The mayor and the city are fortunate that a fire in the decrepit building didn't take lives or damage neighbors. But what's most troubling is the failure to make something positive out of this mess. This eyesore needs to be sold to someone who can legitimately develop it, or the city should raze it and make the site available for new businesses.
A Taylor official admits that the building was repeatedly under contract for redevelopment, but work never started. Now, Centerstone Development of Buffalo is partnering with Taylor on the building's reuse, thinking about transforming the 10-story, five-structure complex to include retail, office and residential areas, said Centerstone CEO John Giardino.
City officials say that Giardino has addressed code violations and secured the building, but those claims are unproven. They also say that Giardino's team of planners and architects will assess the building next month as a preliminary step toward redevelopment. It should be noted that some major players in local development have already done that and walked away, saying such a project -- even with the hopes of significant public money -- doesn't make economic sense. Giardino, who lacks experience on a project of this magnitude, nonetheless says if he chooses to go forward with it, he will do so without public subsidies.
This does not constitute "a positive solution to the reuse" as the mayor pledged. If the mayor had acted years ago, the property would be restored or replaced with a vibrant building helping to resurrect Main Street and add jobs downtown, while its owner payed significant taxes.
During the years the AM&A's building stagnated, other cities -- Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, Portland -- mounted initiatives with the private sector to secure loans and cut City Hall red tape. They now have more active downtowns with new buildings. By contrast, Buffalo's mayor failed to do the bare minimum with this key site.
Now a strong mayor needs to step in and force owners and developers to do what's best for the city, not what's best for them. Here's what Mayor-elect Byron W. Brown said earlier this fall: "We see this as a prime piece of real estate. Our message will be, 'Develop your property, or the city will make sure its codes are enforced.' "
We're pleased to have Brown on record about setting the AM&A's property straight. His administration should make a priority of enforcing the law and freeing this property for the development so crucial to downtown.