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Buffalo, Meet Matthew Ricchiazzi

I first heard that Matt Ricchiazzi* was throwing his hat into the Mayoral Ring about six months ago. Someone sent me a link to his website, Change Buffalo. I also ran across a flyer in which Matt wrote about his deep desire to stir things up in the region (see flyer). The more I learned, the more I liked what Matt had to say. I liked his views on transportation and his desire to see UB continue to move more resources to the city. I found his Economic Development Strategy, promoting consolidation and stepped up marketing efforts, interesting. To me, many of his ideas were timely, while a few that appeared to be a bit radical needed to be fine-tuned.  

I met up with Matt a couple of weeks ago to learn more about what drives him. It turns out that Matt, a liberal republican, is incredibly well read when it comes to issues tackled by the likes of Jane Jacobs (vs Robert Moses) and Richard Florida. He’s been intrigued by planning issues since he was a young boy. Matt grew up on the West Side of Buffalo, listening to his grandfather talk about the city’s glory days. He’s been schooled in the fields of Urban Planning and Public Policy – he feels that Buffalo has unfortunately looked at Urban Planning as a side function. Bit instead of dwelling on a long history of planning mistakes, Matt tends to focus on the opportunities to correct them. “Operational procedures tie The Mayor’s hands,” he told me. “We need a Chief Executive, not a Chief Bureaucrat. I am 100% committed to running.”

I am convinced that Matthew Ricchiazzi will one day emerge as a driven, effective, out-of-the-box politician. Whether that is in Buffalo, or another city remains to be determined. In the meantime, I threw together some questions for him, which are featured below:

If you lived anywhere other than Buffalo, where would it be?

A personal motto of mine (which I’m pretty sure I lifted from an article in business school) is to live with a culture of discipline and the ethic of entrepreneurship.  I love Buffalo, and there’s no place I’d rather be, but career-wise I want to start businesses.  And, frankly, I don’t have confidence in the current political leadership to believe that the economy here will get better.  For the last 50 years they’ve squander our economy.  So, if I do ever move it will not be happily.  I hope I have an opportunity to rebuild Buffalo and bring the change and economic revival that we so desperately need.

Give me three projects that you would like to see completed in the next five years.

1-    Tear down the I-190 and replace it with waterfront parks

2-    New port facilities and rail-ship-truck transshipment facilities

3-    Large scale slum clearance and parks projects

4-    Extensive light rapid rail system

5-    High-speed rail connection between Buffalo and Toronto

Among many, many other projects…

Is there a politician (anywhere) that you admire?

I call myself a pragmatic objectivist: I want to understand our problems simply as they are, without the lens of ideological dogma and party entrenchment.

I have a great deal of respect for Barack Obama, who has–with the message of moderation and reason–brought people together and has gotten to the work of moderate governing.

I also have a great deal of admiration for Jack Kemp, the former WNY congressman, presidential candidate, vice presidential candidate, and HUD Secretary.  He was a real leader–he didn’t follow polls, he changed opinions through robust and respectful discourse.  He was a policy innovator, a deep thinker, and he articulated a vision for his Party that was inclusive, diverse, and respectful.

Skyway: Keep it or leave it?

It needs to go.

Favorite book?

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs–its every urban planner’s handbook.  I also really liked “City Making” by Gerald Frug, which is a tougher read, but if you’re into urban theory and cosmopolitanism it’s really great.

Give me an East Side quick fix. Not the entire solution, just an idea that could be implemented today.

There’s an extraordinary housing disequilibrium that needs to be corrected: we have lag luster demand and a huge oversupply of unsalvageable and uninhabitable housing.  We need large-scale slum clearance of unsalvageable housing in a concentrated way (rather than the City’s current “scatter-site” strategy).  Simultaneously, we need to replace that housing with beautiful park spaces that compliment and compete with the Olmsted system (rather than the current practice of leaving these already distressed neighborhoods with vacant lots, which further reduces demand).  Reducing oversupply and increasing demand (by virtue of new parks), will correct the disequilibrium and will make unsubsidized private sector investment plausible.

Three bad urban planning mistakes – and are they fixable?

Almost all of them.  We can’t recreate architecturally significant buildings that we’ve already torn down, but we can make progress going forward.  We can tear down the I-190.  We can choose a Peace Bridge Plan (with shared boarder crossing) that restores Olmsted’s plan for Front Park.  We can correct many of the alterations we’ve made to Ellicott’s radial street plan.  We can make damn sure we enforce historic preservation ordinances.  But in addition to fixing the mistakes, we need to also be building the City better than it ever was before; and that takes innovative approaches, big ideas, grand thinking, and a strong sense of civic pride and purpose in every plan.

Your favorite food?

I’ll get Ted’s Hot Dogs to come back to Front Park.

School system – how hard is it to fix and what is preventing us from getting the job done?

We try to manage our schools via a committee we call the School Board, which leads to inherent inefficiencies with no one raising the bar and challenging the system to go further.  We can’t manage a complicated organization effectively by committee–it doesn’t work.  That’s why I’m going to lobby the Governor and the State Legislature to disband the Buffalo School Board and to give us Mayoral control of the City Schools, as was done in New York City.  With czar-like authorities, we can start to implement comprehensive education reform that our children deserve.  There is a soft-bigotry to low expectations and complicacy.  This is the civil rights issue of our time, and frankly, the fact that Byron Brown has done nothing to improve our schools is an unconscionable betrayal that, under my leadership, will not continue.

Preservation. How important is it… really?

Absolutely critical.  Our architecture is an extraordinary civic asset that we need to leverage to attract new investment that compliments it.  Effective historic preservation, the restoration and reuse of architecturally significant buildings, and stringently enforced design guidelines for new construction in historic districts will give Buffalo a charm–a vibrancy–that increases neighborhood desirability, demand for housing, property values, and commercial activity. Preservation is absolutely critical.

Parking lots. Public transportation. Alternative transportation. Where should we be going?

We need to move very far away from parking lots.  We need to move very strongly towards mass transit and alternative transportation.  We need to make long-term light rapid rail inves
tments in the City, with commuter rail lines linking the City and suburbs.  We need bike lanes on each thoroughfare, and a bikeway grid superimposed over the automobile grid so that bikers can travel across the City safely, quickly, and easily.  Giving people options is will allow them to choose an auto-independent lifestyle, which will save them money and allow for increased discretionary spending in our economy.  In addition to being good for the economy, its great for the environment and the reduction of carbon emissions.

Higher education. Are we a college town? Why are we not perceived as one?

We are a college town, but one of the major planning mistakes we’ve made was in the 1960s, when the SUNY decided to build UB North Campus in Amherst rather than downtown.  Imagine if UB were built in downtown–the collapse of Main Street’s pedestrian mall never would have happened.  UB should by SUNY’s flagship campus, made a world renowned research university.  I’d like to see UB expanded to 100,000 students.  I’d also like to see Buffalo State College expanded to 50,000 students.  This would be hugely beneficial to our economy–both for real estate and the commercialization of cutting edge research.

Role model?

My grandfather.  He had an idealistic, entrepreneurial, spirited zest for life from which I’ve learned a great deal.  I loved hearing the stories he would tell me what Buffalo was like decades ago, the people, the neighborhoods, the aspirations.  In many ways, he instilled in me my love of Buffalo.  I remember being 8 years old and reading every book about urban planning, Buffalo’s history, and community development that I could find.

Ethanol. Wind. Solar. Hydro. What would you concentrate on?

We are geographically best situated to utilize wind resources–we have the lake affect.  Large scale investments should made to construct wind turbines, but we should also provide tax incentives for roof-top wind turbines and roof-top solar panels.

These technologies are great and have extraordinary promise to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the lowest-hanging fruit in our region is actually in energy efficiency retrofitting.  The large majority of housing units in Buffalo are natural gas, which is great.  But with our harsh climate and very old housing stock, we can achieve massive reductions in carbon emissions by double-insulating houses, installing energy efficient windows and doors, installing natural gas fireplaces, and efficient appliances and fixtures.

Fresh water. Do we do enough to protect our waters?

Probably not.  Our water facility at LaSalle Park needs security enhancements to prevent contamination of the drinking supply.  In terms of protecting the Great Lakes as a freshwater source, progress has been made, and I understand that there is an agreement now in place that prevents waters from being diverted to non-Great Lakes states.  There are issues related to the St. Lawrence Seaway, which has introduced foreign organisms into Great Lakes waters.

Federal stimulus money. Are we getting our share?

Not nearly.  There is a lot of data on this; in fact we get very little stimulus money per capita, which is a shame given our chronic economic depression.

Albany. How do you get Albany to take Buffalo seriously. Are we represented properly?

We are not represented properly.  If elected, I will build a robust lobbying operation in both Albany and Washington.  I will be lobbying the Congress personally several times a month.  We need to hire lobbyists who will fight for appropriations and legislation that will help us rebuild our economy.  You can read my intergovernmental affairs strategy at changebuffalo.org for a fuller description of the legislation that I would introduce.  We need to stand up to the political machine in New York State–and Byron Brown will not stand up to the machine that brought him up.

You’re a Republican. Are you expecting cross-party support?

I certainly hope so.  I’m a Republican because I think that the government should be smaller, our taxes should be lower, and our society should be more free–which makes me a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.  But the labels are unhelpful.  I think most people–particularly people of my generation–don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.  If you have a good idea that can create jobs or rebuild our City, then I want to hear it–regardless of Party affiliation.  I’m a pragmatic.  I’m objective.  I simply want to set goals and lay out plans to achieve them.  That doesn’t have to petty, it doesn’t have to be partisan, if we start electing a higher-caliber of leadership.

Your favorite subject?

Urban Planning was my undergraduate major, and I focused most heavily on economic development and understanding how regional economies develop specialized competencies.  I’m fascinated with urban planning, but I also very much enjoy economics, finance, corporate strategy, and organizational behavior.

Take on Regionalism?

Regionalism is Buffalo Niagara’s only future.  The longer we maintain too much government for too few people, the longer we endure crippling property taxes, economic decline, population losses, and dysfunctional and fragmented decision making processes.  We can–and we must–do much better.  We need to work together through a regional government with a regional perspective.  We are all in the same boat sinking together.  I hope we realize that we need a radical new approach before its too late.

Favorite animal?

A certain labra-doodle named Jack.

One thing you learned from Jane Jacobs.

Lesson: that the common sense of a community is always more enlightened than self-aggrandizing bureaucrats.  Jane Jacobs was a visionary–she’s under-recognized in the broad arch of American history.

One thing you learned from Richard Florida.

Lesson: that the creative economy can transform entire cities, generate extraordinary wealth, and breath new life into a city (both economically and socially).

High Taxes. A necessary evil?

An unnecessary evil.  We need to reduce out annual operational spending so that we can reduce property taxes.  New York State is–by far–the highest taxed state in the nation.  Forbes ranks Buffalo Niagara the 189th best place to do business.  That is shamefully unacceptable.  I want to make Buffalo the place where small businesses become big businesses; where entrepreneurs bring their dreams to fruition; where wealth and jobs are created.  We can’t do that without lower taxes.

It is absolutely imperative that we reduce the size and cost of our government so that we can reduce the property tax levy in a meaningful way.

Buffalo’s image. One step you would take to get the message out that things are looking up.

Everywhere I look in Buffalo I see nothing but potential.  I would hire a professional economic development staff of 50 people whose job will be sell Buffalo Niagara to the world’s largest, most innovative, most promising companies.  We need to aggressively articulate why Buffalo Niagara is the place they should do business and to create jobs.  It is an inexcusable failure of leadership that we don’t have anyone in City Hall that does that.  That should be core competency of our government.  Instead, Mayor Brown has decided not to even try.

Toronto. Friend or foe?

Toronto is a friend.  We will grow into each other and become the same metropolitan area (the fifth largest in North America, and one of
the fastest growing in fact).  The more we become the same City, the stronger our economy will become.  We need to make traveling, doing business, working, and trading over the boarder as easy as possible.

NYC. Friend or foe?

New York is a friend, to the extent that we can create economic linkages with industries located there.  It is also a foe, to the extent that they suck state resources away from Upstate New York and dictate a political agenda that ignores the issues of Upstate.

Favorite sport?

Lacrosse.  The National College Lacrosse Championship last week between Cornell and Syracuse was pretty great–and pretty upsetting.

Urban sprawl. A necessary evil?

Not with an urban development boundary, regional land use planning, the elimination of a municipal role in development, transit oriented development, and policies that encourage infill development and urban investment.

Unions. Take ’em or leave ’em?

I’m not a fan of unions.  If they want to be a productive member of a forward thinking leadership team, then they’ll have a seat at the leadership table.  If they want to be consumed with narrow interests and to obstruct progress and change, then they won’t have a seat at the table.  That’s up to them.  But when I have to decide between what’s good for students vs. teachers, I’m going to side with students.  When I have to decide what’s good for taxpayers vs. union members, I’m going to side with taxpayers.

If you had $132 million City Rainy Day Fund, what would you do with it, if anything?

I would partner with private sector lender(s) who are willing to match the $132 million, and create a Homeownership Financing Fund.  I would offer low and moderate income first time homebuyers subsidized mortgage capital that would be used to purchase existing housing units and to complete the energy-efficiency-retrofitting of those units.  The private partner(s) would originate and service the loans.  The loans would be packaged into mortgage-backed securities and sold, whereas to re-inject lending capital into the program perpetually.  Lending will be concentrated to focus on rebuilding a given neighborhood each year, whereas to create a catalytic affect.

City Manager? Or not?

No.  We should elect mayors with managerial competencies (like an MBA, for instance).  Currently the Mayor and Common Council squabble over the management of the City.  Imagine now that the Mayor has to squabble with both the Common Council and the City Manager.  We need a powerful Chief Executive, not a Chief Bureaucrat.

Tax incentives… Empire Zone – good or bad?

The ideal situation would be to have across the board low tax rates for every business everywhere.  But given the extraordinarily high tax rates that we endure, the Empire Zone programs are absolutely critical to keeping businesses here.

*Matthew Ricchiazzi is currently
matriculating at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of
Management, where he is expected to earn an MBA concentrated in private
equity and venture capital.  He holds a BS in Urban & Regional Studies from Cornell University’s Department of City & Regional Planning.  In 2007, he was a Public Policy & International Affairs Fellow at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.  He has worked in legislative affairs with the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC.  As
an undergraduate, he worked as a Community Organizer with the
Industrial Areas Foundation and the Interfaith Community Organization
in New York City.

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