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Another Voice: Fruit Belt residents deserve moratorium, environmental review

By Arthur J. Giacalone

A neighborhood is much more than its physical location. It’s a section of a city defined by its residents, history and distinguishing characteristics. It’s a place where neighbors feel comfortable interacting in familiar surroundings.

It is fiction to suggest that the Fruit Belt neighborhood is being renewed or revitalized by the gentrification that has been occurring as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has grown and expanded eastward.

A “neighborhood” is not renewed or revitalized if its existing residents are being displaced, either directly through significantly higher rents or an exorbitant rise in property taxes, or indirectly when longtime residents decide to move as the departure of family and friends leaves them feeling like strangers in a once familiar setting.

Real estate prices may be rising, and property assessments skyrocketing. New buildings out-of-scale with the existing homes, with residential units too expensive for existing neighbors, may be planned. But true Fruit Belt renewal and revitalization isn’t occurring if the neighborhood is no longer affordable for the residents who call it home, or if the character of the community is no longer recognizable and comforting to the families who have lived there for decades.

For a decade and a half, Western New York power brokers have allowed virtually unfettered economic development to take priority over the quality of life of nearby residents. Millions of square feet of buildings have been constructed. More than 16,000 employees and students converge on the campus daily. However, despite this massive growth, officials have never prepared a campuswide environmental impact statement to provide a neutral platform where information could be gathered and development options publicly assessed to ensure an appropriate transition between the Medical Campus and Fruit Belt neighborhood.

The failure to engage in the EIS process and provide meaningful protections to Fruit Belt residents is particularly regrettable for two reasons: In its 2010 master plan update, the BNMC board of directors expressly recommended preparation of such an EIS. Mayor Byron Brown and Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who sit on the BNMC board, have taken no steps to initiate the environmental review.

To compensate for years of neglect and to prevent additional displacement, Buffalo’s Common Council should promptly enact a moratorium barring any new construction along the portion of the Fruit Belt near the Medical Campus, and conduct an environmental study that identifies mitigation measures to protect residents from the impacts of gentrification.

Arthur J. Giacalone, of Buffalo, is a lawyer focusing on zoning, development and environmental review issues.

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