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Concept Proposal: How to make Buffalo’s distressed neighborhoods benefit from Downtown’s real estate boom

Article submission by Chris Jacobs:

I moved back home to Buffalo in 1994. Since that time I have witnessed, and hopefully in a small way contributed to, an exciting transformation taking place in downtown Buffalo. Ten years ago I started a real estate company and purchased buildings in Buffalo’s Theater District and Larkin District. Both these neighborhoods were still very challenged at that time.

I remember when trying to lease commercial space in the first building I redeveloped on Main Street how difficult it was to convince folks that their car wasn’t going to be “popped” on a regular basis (made a little harder when one of the contractor’s vans was stolen in broad daylight, but that’s another story).

When I purchased a four-story warehouse building on Exchange Street people thought I was a complete fool. “Nothing is over there” was a common refrain. That was just before Howard Zemsky and his “Larkinville” team bought the former Graphic Controls building and brought their bold vision to that forgotten area.

The Medical Campus, Canal Side, the Elmwood Village, Larkinville, and on and on… it has been a long time coming, but we are witnessing a rebirth, a real estate boom, in downtown Buffalo!

The Two Buffalos

All that being said, east of Jefferson Avenue has not seen much benefit from this boom, frankly things get worse each and every year on the East Side.  The statistics bear this out – more vacant houses, more poverty, and a real unemployment rate of over 50 percent.  Just take a drive down Genesee Street, William or Broadway. You will see block after block of vacant buildings and vacant parcels. The East Side is not the only area in Buffalo in distress. The West Side and parts of South Buffalo have serious challenges, but no area is in such dire straits, and no area encompasses such a large land mass, nearly 1/3 of the City, as Buffalo’s East Side.

How do we change this dynamic of more crime, more poverty, more vacant lots, more properties off the tax rolls, and more depopulation?  As Yogi Berra once said about a restaurant, “No one goes their anymore. It’s too crowded.” Similar to Yogi’s saying, few people invest or live in the East Side because too many people have left.

There is no “silver bullet” solution, but I would like to propose an idea which I believe could help the East Side while at the same time put more properties back on the tax rolls, generating more annual property tax revenue for the City and County.  Finally, this proposal can more than pay for itself.

Less Eyes and Ears

The East Side of Buffalo statistically has more crime than any other area in the City of Buffalo. Whether it is a minor crime like a car break-in or vandalism of homes or a more serious crime, perpetrators often feel comfortable committing crimes in many areas of the East Side because of the perception that no one will see them do it. It’s this feeling of desolate-ness that makes folks feel free to do whatever they want to do. Unfortunately this perception is real, because the East Side has lost so much population since the 1970’s and because the land mass is so large.

How do we reverse this trend? How can we jump start a significant amount of activity? How can we infuse hundreds of people into the East Side in short order?  We need to find an “activity catalyst” on the East Side. Activity begets activity, and people beget more people. Just look at what’s going on downtown, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Elmwood Village, and in Larkinville!

Proposal: Move-Em East!

This concept proposal is to leverage downtown Buffalo’s real estate boom to jump start the East Side. This would be achieved by relocating many of our government and non-profit entities from the downtown area and into the East Side.

The City of Buffalo and the non-profit sector own many properties in and around downtown Buffalo. With the downtown real estate boom, many of these properties would be very attractive to developers for such things as loft housing.  Let’s use this real estate boom to our advantage.  Put these properties up for sale, put them back on the tax rolls and move these non-profit and government activities into vacant buildings on the East Side (or other distressed areas in the City), thereby bringing activity (and more eyeballs) to these areas.

The best way to maximize the benefits of such a move would be to “co-locate” and “cluster” all these organizations and their employees together to create a critical mass and to achieve maximum benefit. The following are some of the organizations that would be ideal candidates for “transplant” under the above described plan.

MANSION ROW

The most obvious example of non-profits housed in attractive properties is the assemblage of charities that are in mansions on Delaware Avenue. Just on the one block of Delaware between Bryant and Summer Streets, there are the administrative offices of The International Institute, Child and Family Services, American Red Cross, and the United Way.  All these organizations own these mansions and since they are not-for-profit organizations, these properties are exempt from paying City and County property taxes.

One should not criticize these organizations, as many of these charities had these mansions donated to them many years ago. These philanthropic organizations have kept these regal structures vibrant and maintained for decades while downtown Buffalo struggled to find its footing. Now the real estate market is strong enough to put these properties back in private hands and back on the tax rolls.

Outside Mansion Row the two other areas that are ripe for transplant, relocation and return to the tax rolls are the areas around the medical campus, and several City owned properties in the downtown core.

The following is a list of the properties that are currently tax exempt, because they are owned and occupied by non-profits or government entities.  The list shows the current owner, assessed value, and the current taxes they would pay if back on the tax rolls. All these properties would be in strong demand if put up for sale.

MANSION ROW

United Way of Erie County 

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742 Delaware Avenue: Old Mansion on Delaware and Summer

Estimated Employees: 50

Assessed Value: $964,900

Current Property taxes paid: $0

Annual County/City Taxes if Back on Tax Rolls (existing condition)=$36,825

Potential Re-Use : Housing/Boutique Hotel

                                                                                               

International Institute (Mansion on Delaware)

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864 Delaware Ave

Estimated Employees: 20

Current Assessed Value: $629,000

Current Property Taxes Paid:$0

Annual County/City Taxes if Back on Tax Rolls: $24,028

Potential Re-Use:  Loft Housing

                                                                                         

Child and Family Services (Several Mansions on Delaware)

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768. 824,830, 844,848 Delaware

Estimated Employees: 100

Current Assess Value: Approximately $4 Million

Current Property Taxes Paid: $0

Annual County/City Taxes if Back on Tax Rolls: $152,000

Potential Reuse: Housing/Senior Residential Community

                                                                               

Red Cross of Buffalo and Erie County

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786 Delaware Ave

Estimated Employees 50

Current Assessed Value: $2,206,400

Current Property Taxes Paid: $0

Annual County/City Taxes if on Tax Rolls: $84,285

Potential Reuse: Housing/Hotel

                                                                               

NON-PROFITS BY MEDICAL CAMPUS

Three other non-profit candidates that are located on the border of the “red-hot” real estate market of the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus:

Salvation Army (across from Medical Campus)

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954 Main Street

Estimated Employees: 50

Current Assessed Value: $2,282,400

Current Taxes Paid:$0

Annual County and City Taxes if on Tax Rolls: $87,188

Potential Reuse: New Build Housing Development for Medical Campus

                                                                                             

EPIC – Every Person Influences Children, Inc.

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1000 Main Street

Estimated Employees: 50

Current Assessed Value: $740,000

Current Taxes Paid: $0

Annual County And City Taxes if on Tax Rolls: $26,030

Potential Reuse:  New Build Commercial or Residential for Medical Campus Needs

                                                                                               

Catholic Center (Former Courier Express Building)

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785-795 Main Street

Estimated Employees: 100

Current Assessed Value: $2,776,900

Current Taxes Paid: $0

Annual County and City Taxes if on Tax Rolls: $106,078

Potential Reuse: Loft Apartment Conversion for Medical Campus

                                                                                         

CITY OWNED PROPERTIES 

There also exist many municipally owned properties in the downtown area that now would be attractive to developers and put back on the tax rolls:

Buffalo Fire Headquarters (Behind City Hall)

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Estimated Employees 30

Current Assessed Value: $2,065,500

Current Taxes Paid: $0

Annual Count/City Taxes if on Tax rolls: $78,000

Potential Reuse: Loft Apartments

                                                               

Police Headquarters

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72 Franklin Street

Estimated Employees:200 (and another 200 in/out daily)

Current Assessed Value: $4,486,000

Current Annual Taxes Paid: $0

Annual County/City Taxes if on Tax Rolls: $171,365

Potential Reuse: Loft Apartments

                                                                         

If these properties were sold just for their current assessed values, they would reap nearly $20 million dollars for the non-profits and City Government. Additionally, these properties would go on the tax rolls, and the City and County (mostly the City) would receive nearly $800,000 in additional property taxes each and every year moving forward.

If just some of this $20 million and the $800,000 in re-occurring property tax revenue, in the form of Tax Increment Financing (TIF), were used to pay for or finance the relocation of those great organizations and government service providers into, say, the East Side, it could be an extremely powerful economic force.  Additionally the majority of these sales proceeds would infuse much needed resources into these charitable organizations to further their important missions and stabilize bottom lines in tough economic times.

The following is a proposed location in which to “cluster” all these entities for maximum impact.

Broadway Market (Broadway/Fillmore) Area

What if a coordinated plan could be implemented to re-locate all these organizations and over 600 employees into the Broadway Market area?

The Broadway Market provides a bounty of existing amenities and infrastructure to support such a large scale relocation.  It is accessible, less than 1 mile off the I-90 and ½ mile from the 33. The building has well over 200,000 square feet of unused space on the upper floors.   Between the vacant space and parking at the Broadway Market and the buildings surrounding the Market, there is more than ample square footage to accommodate all these organizations. To be clear, this is not displacing the Broadway market, but locating these entities in the unused upper floors and back portion of the huge structure.

Some of these new property tax proceeds derived from putting all these downtown properties back on the tax rolls would finance a major upgrade to the Broadway Market, both in terms of the exterior but also converting the back portion of the market into a new police and fire headquarters with secure parking for police cars within the Broadway Market parking ramp and converting a portion of the upper floor into modern and well laid-out office and workspace for these non-profits and government entities, and with the low-cost public financing combined with the sales proceeds of the government buildings the rents could be very reasonable for these non-profits.

What would this do? “Jump Start” this area of the East Side!

And the Move Could Pay For Itself

If such a coordinated “transplant” occurred hundreds of workers would re-locate to the Broadway Market area, immediately bringing new life to the formerly vibrant business/commercial district.

Just the location of the police headquarters, in the back portion and upper floor or the Broadway Market, would have a profound effect.  In addition to 200 police officers and employees working in the neighborhood on a daily basis, hundreds of police cars would be going to and from headquarters on a daily and nightly basis.  The result would be not just the perception of more eyes on the neighborhood but the reality of more eyes on the neighborhood.  The location of Fire Headquarters would further add to creating the feeling of security in the neighborhood.

All these re-located employees will need a place to grab a bite to eat, have meetings and events.  No need to establish restaurants to serve all these workers; an established venue in the Broadway Market already exists. The Broadway Market could be busy, once again, every day of the week serving these permanent employees, not to mention the many daily visitors to these employers.  With this many more consumers in this neighborhood, it would not be surprising to see an upswing in the number of new businesses in the area serving the needs of these folk.

This proposal would not transform the entire East Side overnight, but it is one of the few ways–in a relatively short time span— to inject hundreds of people and numerous valuable organizations into an area on a daily basis that has seen one of the most significant population declines of all the East side.

Additionally, the move could more than pay for itself from the sale of this valuable downtown real estate and the hundreds of thousands in new property tax revenue that could be a source of financing as well

Hopefully over time additional spin-off would be fostered, other organizations and businesses wanting to locate in proximity to this center of activity.  More activity, more people, and more police would make this area begin to feel and to become safer. If people feel safe, many great things begin to happen, such as more people wanting to live in that community.

Proposed Property to Move into

Broadway Market

Existing Pic of Broadway Mkt. This 3 story structure is much larger than one might think
Existing Pic of Broadway Mkt. This 3 story structure is much larger than one might think

A growing frustration in our City is that downtown Buffalo and a few other areas are thriving while other areas, especially our East Side, seem not only left out of this growth but continuing in a free-fall. This proposal is a way to make another area in Buffalo a direct beneficiary of the downtown boom. Additionally, putting all these properties on the tax rolls is in the long term best interest for the entire City of Buffalo.

Stabilizing the East Side will assure the continued progress in areas such as the Larkin District and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. It will also blunt the continued erosion and blight we are seeing in first ring suburbs like Cheektowaga.

How to Move this Forward

After a more detailed analysis, some of these suggested moves may not be feasible, but then many other non-profit/governmental entities exist that were not mentioned here that likely could move.  Additionally, locations other than the Broadway Market may be suggested and they absolutely should be considered.

The public and non-profit sector should convene to discuss this proposal, perhaps convened by the Mayor of Buffalo.  If these stakeholders do see merit to creating better facilities for their mission, while in closer proximity to those they serve, and achieving a broader goal of revitalizing a needy community while putting properties back on the tax rolls, then let’s roll!

Concept Drawing Renovating the existing with a more transparent façade. You could likely fit all the organizations mentioned in this city owned structure…including police and fire headquarters (Charlie Gordon Architects)
Concept Drawing – Renovating the existing with a more transparent façade. You could likely fit all the organizations mentioned in this city owned structure…including police and fire headquarters (Charlie Gordon Architects)

 

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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