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Bold plan for East Side wins some praise, but is a nonstarter at City Hall

Convince the city to move Police Headquarters to the East Side. Then do the same with the Fire Department.

Next, persuade the many nonprofits that occupy Buffalo’s grandest mansions along Delaware Avenue to pick up and move east, too.

Then sell the old headquarters and the mansions. Those revenues would help the city and the nonprofits, while returning $20 million in real estate to the tax rolls.

At the same time, a critical mass of workers would move to a part of the city that desperately needs them.

Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs has been talking up this vision to revitalize the vast unused parts of the Broadway Market and surrounding buildings all summer.

“Go somewhere aggressively, infuse a significant amount of population there, things start to begin to reverse the downward spiral that’s been going on there for 40 years now,” Jacobs said.

So who’s buying in?

So far, those in City Hall seem uninterested.

“At this time the city has no plans to do that,” spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said in a one-sentence statement in response to an interview request for this story.

But others, including East Side advocates and some in the nonprofit world, think Jacobs’s idea deserves a good look.

“I really think you have to do things like that to make the kind of transformation for a city,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.

In the spring, Jacobs personally paid for an eight-page glossy brochure, distributed widely, laying out his plan to jump-start the East Side. He hoped to spark a discussion, and it appears to have done that.

The Republican, who hails from the affluent Elmwood Village neighborhood, won praise from some new allies who believe change has come too slow, if at all, for the East Side. For Jacobs, his experience as a developer sparked his interest, as did his time as a School Board member during a period when the district closed schools because of falling enrollments.

The East Side takes up nearly a third of the city’s land mass. The population there fell 30 percent between 2000 and 2010. In the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, where the Broadway Market is located, the population over the same period dropped 40 percent.

In many neighborhoods, the city’s real estate market has turned hot – but not east of Jefferson Avenue.

“It’s like none of that has showed any impact over there,” Jacobs said.

“We should all be thrilled to see the cranes in downtown, but we cannot forget that there’s really still a pretty stark divide between prosperity that we’re seeing in one area of town,” Jacobs said. “At some point, we’re going to hit a wall if we don’t start doing something more significant over in the areas that have been left behind.”

Moving to the market

Jacobs proposes moving Police Headquarters, now on Franklin Street, and Fire Headquarters, now behind City Hall, into the Broadway Market. That building, a community anchor, is publicly owned and has thousands of square feet of unused floor space, as well as ample parking, he said.

Other buildings around the market, or in other parts of the East Side, would work too, he said.

If the market were to gain new tenants, as Jacobs describes, the plan could work without displacing the existing market vendors, and would help support vendors by bringing in potential customers, he said.

The added activity and greater police presence would help the neighborhood, said Marlies A. Wesolowski, executive director of the Matt Urban Center, three blocks from the market.

“We desperately need economic development to go on in this part of the city,” she said.

Broadway Market advocates point to some new nearby development, including a new distillery in development on Lombard Street, but say more attention to the market is needed, such as that provided by Jacobs’ plan.

“When my wife and I saw it, we heard the angels singing in the background,” said Carl Baj, who assists in fundraising for the market and whose wife, Sophie, is president of Friends of the Broadway Market.

“We haven’t seen any politicians get off their better intentions in the past 10 years or so,” Baj said. “The real need is for the city to open their eyes and see there are people living there. It’s an opportunity with great potential.”

Some worry the plan would displace the limited food options in the neighborhood, or that the workers who would arrive there would provide only social services. Jacobs said he envisions bringing in administrative workers to support – not supplant – existing businesses.

Peoples-Stokes, who represents the East Side, said she called Jacobs after hearing of his plan.

“In particular, if the police and fire were relocated into an area that’s not being used, it will be beneficial to that area, but also to the economy of downtown Buffalo,” she said. “I think it’s a brilliant concept, and I think it merits community discussion.”

The agency angle

A major part of Jacobs’ plan calls for the nonprofits along Delaware Avenue, like the Red Cross, United Way and Child and Family Services, to relocate across town.

A “significant amount” of interest exists in adaptive reuses of the mansions that are currently off the tax rolls, said Dennis M. Penman, executive vice president of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.

Whether moving the agencies makes sense is worthy of consideration, because there may be better uses for the properties, said Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.

But he also urged caution.

“We should first do no harm to the civic infrastructure in our city,” Shibley said. “It seems to me it has to be done in a way that is reciprocally beneficial.”

Child and Family Services, with 250 employees in eight buildings on Delaware Avenue, is in the middle of assessing its physical space and could make changes.

President and CEO Francisco M. Vasquez didn’t commit to moving, and called the Delaware Avenue bus line important for the people served by the agency. The school and residential facilities would be difficult to move. But he talked to Jacobs and thinks the plan could be viable.

“There are wonderful people who live in that part of town,” he said of the East Side. “They deserve a place at the table.”

Near Medical Campus

Properties controlled by nonprofit organizations near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where property values keep rising, could also be ready for a reshuffling, Jacobs said.

The Catholic Center, at 785-795 Main St., looks ripe for private development, perhaps as loft apartments marketed to Medical Campus employees, he said.

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has received inquiries about the building, but no formal offers. Any offer to purchase the building would have to be considered in light of the needs of the diocese’s ministries, said spokesman Kevin A. Keenan.

Two of the properties that Jacobs thinks should be taxable again – the Salvation Army and Every Person Influences Children (EPIC), both on Main Street near the Medical Campus – are headed in that direction, with the goal of converting them into residences with some retail.

EPIC is under contract by Ciminelli, and the developer is also looking for a new home for the Salvation Army, Penman said.

Jacobs, county clerk since 2012, is running for re-election in November. He said his plan doesn’t have anything to do with his political office, and he’s not laying the foundation for a future mayoral run.

“I live in the city. I grew up in the city,” he said. “I just want the city to thrive in total, not in part. This area’s been left out.”

Jacobs said he has thought about city finances. He said the city needs a bigger tax base to reduce its reliance on state aid.

It also needs a bold move to reverse the population loss, he said.

“If we just wait and do the incremental approach that we’ve been doing, I’m just very concerned that this area will continue to see a continually precipitous drop in the population,” he said. “That’s bad for everybody, not just the city. It’s bad for the border suburb of Cheektowaga, where you see the decay entering there. It’s a regional issue for sure.”