State Supreme Court Judge Mark Montour’s ruling against the creation of a special economic zone for a project at the site of the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital makes a statement: Words matter.
The Buffalo Common Council in April approved the use of a little-known state law aimed at redeveloping “blighted” properties formerly owned by the city. The law would provide TM Montante Development with extra tax breaks over 20 years to help it complete a $150 million project known as Lancaster Square, a mixed-use community with more than 500 apartments, retail shops and other commercial space.
The project has much to recommend it, including an agreement for 20% of the residential units to be affordable housing, plus minority and female hiring goals during construction. It would also bring new vitality to the 6.7-acre site where the hospital once stood.
The problem is that the approach was pushing legal boundaries to make the financing easier. The city’s plan was for the site to become a special “urban development action area.” The UDAA law was intended to revitalize “blighted” areas, on land formerly owned by the city that was acquired through processes like abandonment or foreclosure.
Daniel Sack, a local activist who lives near Gates Circle, filed a lawsuit challenging the UDAA designation. Montour on Friday ruled in Sack’s favor.
The dispute over the tax breaks may have been a barely noticed news story were it not for the use of “blighted” to describe the property along Delaware Avenue. Buffalo’s Millionaires’ Row sat about one mile south on Delaware in the city’s heyday. Gates Circle, the former Chapin Place, was renamed in 1902, with design work performed by E.B. Green. North of the circle is Chapin Parkway, one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s contributions to the city’s landscape. Neighborhoods change over time, but it takes a vivid imagination to see devastation in that corner of the city, apart from whatever wrecking balls left behind inside the hospital property.
Common Council President Darius Pridgen, whose Ellicott District contains the site, has said “the affordable housing component” is the only reason he backed the project and its use of tax abatements.
Montour noted in his opinion that the Common Council had acknowledged that Gates Circle sits in a thriving neighborhood.
“If the (UDAA) is in the middle of a ‘vibrant and affluent neighborhood’ considered to be a ‘prominent area’ of the City,” he wrote, “then it begs the question how the area can be a ‘slum’ in danger of further deterioration.”
Another requirement of the law is that 60% of land in a UDAA must be publicly owned. The Montante project had included city streets and the rights of way on Delaware, Lafayette and Linwood avenues to reach that minimum, which the judge found was done “in a gerrymandered fashion to achieve a threshold measurement.”
Montante President Christian Campos told The News in February that the tax incentives “are critical for these new construction projects to be viable” in the Buffalo market. He said a public-private partnership would be required to make Lancaster Square a reality.
Montante has faced setbacks and delays beyond its control, including the need to buy out an original investment partner in the project, the embattled Rochester developer Robert C. Morgan. Like any project, the developer is entitled to whatever tax incentives the law allows. But it does not take a white-shoe law firm to know the difference between a high-end neighborhood and a slum. Montour’s ruling is a victory for common sense.