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A Response From Marilyn Rodgers

By Marilyn Rodgers

[Editor’s note: Keeping in mind that the ultimate decision about who will fill the recently vacated council seat will be made by the present members of the Buffalo Common Council, the following is a response by Marilyn Rodgers, one of the many Ellicott District Council hopefuls.  We invite others who are vying for the seat to contact us and, we will be happy to treat them in kind.]

A commenter
on Buffalo Rising recently provided a number of issues facing Buffalo’s
Ellicott District.  I could have
attempted to answer them all in the comment format, but I was sure there wasn’t
enough space to do so.  So, I ask
you to be patient and accept this excerpt from my views on district remediation
for Ellicott.

The Ellicott
District is the most diverse district on our city.  Whether we consider race, ethnicity, culture, income,
education, housing, economic development, or preservation, the Ellicott
District has it all.  This
diversity is not only a challenge, but a blessing, as well.  What is needed in Ellicott is a meeting
of the minds to develop trust for the seat and within the district, a bridging
of the gaps and a celebration and appreciation of that diversity.

Ellicott is
divided geographically as well as culturally.  Main Street dissects it, as does the Kensington.  Everyone is affected by both advantages
and disadvantages of this geographic and cultural divide and it’s time we
bridge that divide through ground-up efforts and practices.  Although the commenter mentioned the
victories of Allentown and the West Village, there have been numerous victories
in each of Ellicott’s sectors whether the East Side, West Side or the
Downtown/Delaware Development Corridor.

This meeting
of the minds, as mentioned above, has been going on in various sectors of the
District.  But, again, I cannot
emphasize more the need to reestablish trust through communication.  This includes a sharing of ideas that
is comprised of not only those victories, but the failures, as well.  We learn and succeed from both.  And, it includes getting the people of
the district to work across both visible and invisible borders.  Everything worth your attention is
worth working.  When you run up
against a roadblock, you go back to the map, turn the page and find a better
route.  Then, add strategic
patience as the second step after communication.  That is what community rebuilding is about. 

As mentioned
by the commenter, Ellicott is a critical district for our city due to its
challenging urban issues, many of which have been either ignored or mishandled
for decades.  (If you get a chance,
read “Race, Neighborhoods and Community Power – Buffalo Politics 1934-1997” by
Neil Kraus)  If we work these
issues collectively between the citizens, businesses, organizations and
government, we could create a benchmark for other cities to follow.  So, here are the issues that person
brought up and my thumbnail responses to each.

Regarding
demolition, I believe it is needed in many cases, most in part due to the
number of years these properties have sat idle and the number of times they
have been used for illicit activity, squatting and stripping of reusable
materials.  However, it is a quick
fix that cannot be an instant fix to waylay the angst felt by residents of the
district when having to deal, not necessarily with the vacant structure itself,
but the by-products that add to neighborhood decay. 

We need to
capitalize on what occurred just two weeks ago on Massachusetts Avenue even
though the cameras are gone.  What
this can do is create not only jobs but careers.  Rehabilitation utilizing Green Methods can do more than turn
a few houses around.  For example
green demolition via Buffalo ReUse working along side other organizations such
as PUSH and others not only saves buildings and money, it creates stimulation
for those being trained that may end in a career.  Not only are they learning to take a house apart and reuse
certain items, they are learning the very best of construction as many of these
properties were built “back in the day” when construction held for more than 25
years.  They learn about materials,
joinery, the proper tools, craftsmanship… 
So careers can be attained as well as jobs while we accept the
responsibility of green initiatives for our future as well as today.

Start with
Green Demolition and Rehabilitation and start now.  Create those jobs and careers which can be the backbone of
keeping our youth off the streets, and in our city which, in turn, creates
incentive for retail and other businesses to move to city-proper, increasing
overall economic viability.  Just
today, after I wrote the previous paragraph last evening, it was noted in the
Buffalo News that WNY AmeriCorps has received a $100,000 Federal Grant to
create these types of program and training in conjunction with PUSH and Buffalo
ReUse.  $100,000 doesn’t seem like
much due to the size of the work that needs to be done, but it’s a tremendous
start.  And, once the track record
of success is set, there is other funding available out there.  Again, we can create a benchmark for
other cities to follow.

Also, please
raise your hand if you have heard of the Real Property Tax Exemption for
Capital Improvements to Residential Property.  That’s what I thought, about 50/50.  There is a sort of sliding scale tax
exemption for capital improvements that is limited to one- or two-family
residences that applies to reconstruction, alterations or improvements but does
not include ordinary maintenance and repair.  It’s limited to $80,000 and provides 100% exemption for Y1,
87.5% for Y2, 75% for Y3, 62.5% for Y4, 50% for Y5, 37.5% for Y6, 25% for Y7
and 12.5% for Y8. 

Now, what if
this program were marketed to constituents?  Would some be more likely to improve their property since
they had a chance of a digestible reassessment?  Could this be tailored to include major maintenance and
repair such as roofs, decayed porches, and more?  Could it be created as an essential part of the urban redevelopment
plan for the city?  Well, it
certainly is worth looking into.

The commenter
then mentions a number of areas where funding could be slated to improve what
we already have as far as services such as Inspections and Housing Court and
further funding for other initiatives that would benefit low- to middle-income
property owners such as home repair. 
These are areas that, although they work together, must be reviewed
regarding their current performance levels and how they are delivered as well
as how they can be funded. 

In 2007 Brian
Meyer of the Buffalo News mentioned the city had 17 inspectors juggling
approximately 10,000 complaints annually. 
A review of performance levels had been planned along with introduction
of new tools to measure those levels that also provides ease of data entry of
said inspections utilizing what many auto auctions have used for condition
reports for their client’s vehicles. 
The paper shuffle of inspections could be decreased dramatically giving
more time for the current Inspectors to truly perform within best
practices.  After that measurement
is created and reviewed, the department could determine the need for increased
numbers of Inspectors.

We seem to
respond rather than perform proactively to neighborhood decay via housing and
business complaints.  Judge Henry
Nowak, whom I’ve had the pleasure of serving during the Housing Court Reform
Project, was instrumental in introducing innovative methods of neighborhood
remediation.  One initiative that I
hope the city reviews and passes is the Lis Pendens Program (Lis pendens is
a legal document filed to note that a property MAY be foreclosed upon.)
and is a project I
consider one of the most important to initiate.  This program combines the talents of interns from local
colleges and universities to identify homeowners recently placed in or notified
of impending foreclosure by review of public records on a weekly basis.  The interns would create a list of
properties to be inspected by – who else? – Inspections.  If there is any issue that could be
cited for Housing Court, including vacancy of the property, not only is the
homeowner cited, but the financial institution that has filed the Lis Pendens
is, as well.  Many banks allow the
properties to languish and remain vacant until a buyer is found to purchase the
parcel for the value placed upon it by the bank rather than its true market
value.  This creates even further
delay of the turn-over process.  As
well, many homeowners think that a Lis Pendens is an actual foreclosure, a
notice for them to move out of the home rather than attempt to work with the
bank to keep it.  The result is
more vacant property and increased neighborhood decay.  The Lis Pendens Program brings both
parties into court and that can (1) create an agreement for the current owner,
if they can be reached, to stay and keep the property with refinancing, (2) the
homeowner can also be advised they can remain in the house until such time as
the foreclosure process is final and the property is sold, (3) if the homeowner
is unreachable, place the ones on the financial institution to maintain the
property and (4) turn it over for its true value, increasing the probability of
quick turnaround for homeownership and stabilizing the neighborhood.  This has been done a few times
throughout the city with great success. (See BR article “A Four-Year
Celebration”)

As far as
home improvement grants, review of current organizations and their ability to
truly administer these programs needs to be undertaken.  Here are a few questions that need to
be answered regarding continued funding to these organizations:

1.     Is the organization
proactive within their area of service? (marketing the programs, reaching out
to those houses evidently needed the repairs, etc.)

2.     Do they perform due
diligence in qualifying the homeowners without prejudice?

3.     Do they refer
applicants to other organizations and services to assure a holistic approach
and positive results?

4.     Do they offer basic
economic and maintenance skills training and/or do they require this type of
training prior to receiving home acquisition assistance?

Once these
questions are answered with solid documentation, then the organization should
be funded to continue the work of the points above as well as administering
home acquisition and improvement grants and loans.

The commenter
then continues with a combination query that includes the Life Sciences area of
the Ellicott District (Museum of Science/MLK Park) and the need to eliminate
the Kensington Expressway. 
Actually, the borders of Ellicott and Masten are on the land between the
Kensington and the Life Sciences District.  This means a strong partnership must continue with Masten to
assure all bases are covered for this area. Besides the Museum of Science, this
area also includes the Dr. Charles R Drew Science Magnet School with 1,000+
students.  The school reaches the
kids on an innovative level that creates interest and stimulation, even a
Museum section.  They, in part,
have a hand in creating the community leaders of our future to assure any
action taken for redevelopment continues when those doing the work now need to
retire from this essential, yet mostly volunteer service.

The
Kensington (33), much like its predecessor, the Scajaquada (198 – whose
construction began in 1950) created a schism between class and race.  The 198 divided the mid- and upper west
sides, cutting through neighborhoods and “required” eliminating the old
Humboldt Parkway.  Construction was
finalized on the Kensington in 1968. 
It cut through the middle of the East Side during and after a time there
was great disorder in the direct neighborhood.  Even worse was that the construction took almost eight full
years to complete causing even more disruption of the surrounding neighborhoods.  “White Flight,” as it is called, was in
existence then so the predominantly white neighborhoods prior to the
construction had enough left over housing to allow movement of those from the
construction area while the increasing African-American population was shoved
into a corner, so to speak, say nothing of the effect it had in dividing our
city.  To reconnect this area would
be a benefit to our community, although very expensive.  It is a necessary action to bring our
collective community together while also enhancing the various gateways into
Buffalo.  However, we first need to
address the infrastructure and other needs of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The commenter
goes on to state that the Ellicott District “also includes a section of the
Central Terminal.”  That’s
stretching the borders somewhat, but again proves the importance of
Councilmembers working together for the good of the entire city.

Although the
Ellicott District border ends at the junction of Stanton/Fox along Broadway, it
is a neighbor to the Fillmore District and the Central Terminal.  Dave Franczyk, as President of the
Council and representative of the Fillmore District, has a great deal on his
plate and could use a good partner on the Council that would work with him to
right many issues.  The Ellicott
seat is important for this partnership success to be attained.

On a side
note, I once had an office at the Central Terminal – when it was closed.  It makes me laugh now, but I was a
young entrepreneur and traded office space for security walks around the
complex with Tony Fedels’s dog, Major. 
What an amazing building and every effort by the Central Terminal
Restoration Corporation is priceless.  

Again,
however, we could do just about anything to promote that building for a number
of uses, but the surrounding neighborhood needs attention first and foremost.

Now, on to
Preservation.  The Ellicott
District has to have the most historic districts within it borders than any
other in the city.  Allentown,
Cobblestone, 500 Block of Main, Joseph Ellicott, Theater and West Village.  I always felt the Fruit Belt should
have this designation but am very reserved on that thought now.  You see, I live in a Historic District
and bought in over 15 years ago when the place was crawling with drug dealers,
vagrants, prostitutes and other sundry characters.  The area I bought in achieved Triple Designation (city,
state and national) by 1980.  Many
of the homeowners who lived there many years, through the good times and the
steady decline, were unaware of the impact of owning a home in a Historic
District, nor were they properly notified when this change was effected or that
a Deed Liber was attached to their deeds that cites the city designation.  This was a Common Council resolution
passed in 1978.  It wasn’t attached
to our deed until 2002.

Preservation
is necessary for so many reasons – too numerous to list here.  But there needs to be common sense
application in preservation. 
Permits and the process itself needs to be revamped and customer friendly.

Adaptive
Reuse is a phenomenon throughout the US and Rocco Termini is the kingpin of the
Adaptive Reuse world in Western New York. More developers are following his
lead in this movement along with his understanding and application of Historic
Tax Credits.  That’s terrific for
mid- to large developers, but we need to address the needs of the individual and
small developers in these districts, as well.

Another issue
to address is the elderly man up the street whose house has been featured in
articles by Steele, a true gingerbread house built in the mid 1800’s.  He has lived there for decades and now
faces major restoration he cannot afford due to standards of preservation.  And if he could get a grant or low
interest loan that was affordable his assessment would increase him out of his
home.  We have to have a plan to
assure folks like these aren’t propelled from their homes due to cost of
maintenance and repair and, as mentioned above, create a sliding and digestible
scale for reassessments. 

Back in the
mid-90’s I visited a number a times with representatives of the Historic
Charleston Foundation.  I asked
questions and found them to be strong on the Secretary of the Interior’s
Preservation Standards, while using common sense when it came to security and
cost issues.  Even watching “This
Old House” provides us with knowledge of acceptable substitutes for
preservation renovation and rehab. 
We need to review others’ practices to redevelop our preservation code
while ensuring it is affordable and non-gentrifying.

Here’s
another great idea for historic districts in our city – make them
destinations.  Allow them to lure
visitors, show our rich history in architecture, not only in the larger
downtown landmarks, but the quaint little villages found throughout our city.  There’s nothing better for me to have
experienced during my travel days than walking through a historic neighborhood
in places like Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah, or Georgetown.  Even with my hectic schedule of a day
or so in three cities during a week, I needed downtime and these walks, when
possible, were a blessing.  The
Delaware Development Corridor right next to the Government Sector brings plenty
of visitors to our district.  The
National Trust is due in town for their convention in 2011.  What better way to truly tout the
importance of preservation and our legacy than to include these residential
districts?

Now, I’m
adding a couple of my own.  I
promise to keep these short for now.

Businesses
must be supported from the largest, like Labatts; to the smallest, like James
the Ice Creamcycle Dude.  Permits
and licensing must be streamlined and customer-friendly.  And, we must eliminate 99-Year
contracts and leases.  However,
businesses must take surrounding neighborhoods into consideration when
developing or expanding and heavily consider the importance of corporate
citizenship for the local area.

Health
Centers must be supported. In Ellicott we have the Jesse Nash Health Center
recently experiencing drastic cuts of primary health care by the 2010 Erie
County budget.  Without these
centers we have increased costs in our health industry and taxes as well as
decreased funding from the state and federal levels.  A healthy community starts with the health of the
individuals living within it.  Yes,
I know the County Executive has offered to transfer these primary services to
Sheehan, however, it is the trust factor and location of the Jesse Nash Health
Center that is very important to recognize.

I’ve gone on
far too long and wish I could provide you with more exact answers, but even
though Buffalo Rising has been gracious enough to allow me to answer in this
fashion, I cannot expect them to create a special page to include every thought
and initiative I wish to work on.

Thanks for
bearing with me while I drone on and on, but we really have a great deal to do
and the foundation to build this new house of trust is communication on every
level.  If I get in, we’ll have
monthly forums for everyone to assist in creating the action plan for the
Ellicott District’s future success.

Please let me
know if you have any further questions. 
I can be reached via e-mail at mrodgersfcs@msn.com

 

 Image: Cheryl Gorski

Written by Buffalo Rising

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