3/09/2009

Neighborhood Plans

Two weeks ago Belmont Shelter announced plans to build 50 "rent-to-own" houses in Buffalo's Cold Springs neighborhood. Here's the Buffalo News announcement. The $12.1 million project scatters new houses over two council districts over an area of about 60 square blocks, combining more tightly-knit urban lots into larger suburban ones, all within blocks of a half-billion dollar transit system that depends on proximity to a dense neighborhood. The suburban style houses come at a hefty price - a stunning $240k per house.

Here's the site map. The smaller images below, provided by Belmont Shelter, show the exact locations of the proposed new builds.
5 4 3 1 2
click image then 'all sizes' for larger image
There are dozens of houses here in Belmont's target area that are part of the remaining historic neighborhood fabric. As these houses are being proposed, dozens of historic properties in Belmont's target area - the kind of houses that add value and could retain residents over the long haul - continue to decay. These houses can and should be saved. Neighborhood revitiliztion on a national scale is not being led by the construction of 'vinyl victorians', it's being led by the other model Belmont has embraced - the reconstruction of historic homes such as the Hamiltion Ward House at 19 Coe Place. Neighborhoods in every city in America that are experiencing revitalization are doing so because of the economic development resource of character buildings. Belmont should be challenged to name any district in America that has benefited from scattershot suburbanization in historic neighborhoods. If Belmont concentrated on its own precedent, performing restorations of character buildings like the Hamilton Ward House at 19 Coe Place, all over Midtown and Cold Spring, the impact would be transformative.
IMG_3268
One of the proposed 'vinyl victorians' - NRP Group
fixBuffalo readers may remember that Belmont Shelter purchased the Hamilton Ward House on Coe Place with the intent to demolish it and enlarge their parking lot. Through a combination of efforts - 'friends of Coe Place', a series of posts and an Artvoice cover story - 7/2006 - Belmont Shelter reveresed its decision. They've completed what is an amazing renovation - right here - that contributes to the streetscape and character of the neighborhood. This has helped attract new investment.

In this new proposal, best practices are being ignored. LISC-Buffalo has called for strategic reinvestment in our City along the core - along Main Street - see Getting Smarter about Decline. In Braddock, PA - four miles from Pittsburgh - it's like Buffalo, writ small and was recently profiled in a New York Times article - Rock Bottom for Decades, Showing Signs of Life. It featured Mayor John Fetterman's take on historic neighborhoods and the economic necessity of historic structures and their renovation. Mayor Fetterman said:
If struggling communities don’t preserve their architecture, there’s no chance of any resurgence down the line.
What makes Midtown unique is the architectural character and unique personality. Building suburban houses on large lots like the ones proposed not only do not help, they make the neighborhood worse by destroying the personality and character of the neighborhood which is its most compelling economic asset. It saps the potential and undermines the character of the neighborhood. Midtown: Poised for Renaissance, written by Chris Hawley (for the City of Buffalo), looks at the assets of this neighborhood and draws a set of conclusions that vastly differ from Belmont's plan. Hawley recognizes the necessity of restoring the neighborhood's historic building stock and deemphasizes the suburbanization of the neighborhood as undermining its character and economic potential. It's the City's own plan. Why isn't it being followed?

While discussing Belmont's proposal with Jeff Brennen, local green contractor, Jeff remarked, "It appears as though Belmont Shelter is strictly concerned with their mission and not the what is good for the City of Buffalo and its neighborhoods long term."

Drilling into the the individual site plans and taking a closer look, the new builds will occupy a footprint that incorporates two parcels, sometimes three. While this may seem necessary to satisfy current building code requirements, it isn't. They have a right to build on existing lots with a preexisting residential use by right - the old lots are grandfathered in. The proposed plan further reduces the possibility for density just blocks away from one of the city's most amazing assets, the subway. Residential proposals that rely on suburban style footprints endorse a car culture and reduce the possibility of achieving the sort of density that make neighborhoods thrive.

The City's Planning Board is expected to approve Belmont's proposal tomorrow morning during their bi-weekly meeting on the 9th floor of City Hall at 8am.

Belmont Shelter's phone number is 716-884-7791.
Neighborhood Plan background - Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI
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ArtspaceBAVPAWoodlawn Row HousesfixBuffalo flickr
Creative ClassShrinking CitiesSaturdays in the neighborhood

11 comments:

former board member said...

The high cost of these houses is because Belmont's closely-held for-profit sister companies need to make profits for their owners, which include Belmont's top administration and some board members.

See p. 18 of http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2004/161/080/2004-161080227-01f840fe-9.pdf for a list of some of those companies. There are other closely-held construction companies not listed here that do work for Belmont too.

Also they are probably realizing heavy losses on their retirement investments in Altria, GM, GMAC, etc... listed on p. 16 of the same document and are under financial pressure to make some big money back. 50 houses @ $240,000 x 15% profit = $1.8 Million in profits tto go around.

Most of the blame for the planning of these houses lies with the City though, as there is no housing plan for this section of the City.

By the way, could you look into the housing court status of the Belmont building at the corner of Coe and Main, next to Artspace? It's been vacant and an eyesore since Artspace began.

Bldg Sci Guy said...

Can Belmont Shelter please explain to me how this does NOT perpetuate and even excellerate the destruction of tenuous neighborhoods? How does adding even more housing to a city with 10,000+ vacant structures help slow the rate of abandonment? How does this NOT cost the City of Buffalo even more in demolition money down the line? How is this NOT a waste of public funds now and in the future?

I congratulate Belmont for: 1)perpetuating their existence for at least 30 more years; 2) for giving the appearence of improving the neighborhood; 3) giving local "leaders" the chance to get photo ops at ribbon cuttings; 4) sending money out of town if this is done by a non-local general contractor/manager. All this while wasting money and adding to the problem. This is quite an accomplishment.

Stupid is as stupid does. Ugh.

-Jeff

Bldg Sci Guy said...

You all MUST watch the Braddock, PA video, embedded in the NY Times article that David links to. We are not alone in the world of industrial and population decline. Standard redevelopement strategies are suspect in places like Braddock and much of Buffalo. The sooner more people realize this, the sooner we will stop spinning our wheels.

BlackRocker said...

Buffalo has yet to realize the advantage of putting this kind of money into renovation of our best old structures. Building pseudo suburban houses only devalues our city.

Rod McCallum said...

Across the street from my house on Glenwood Ave is a decade old "vinyl victorian" rental unit. The tenants were just evicted and it sits empty. On my side of the street sits another decade old vinyl victorian that was a bank foreclosure. These houses aren't solving anything, let alone root causes.

Grace and peace.

Chris Hawley said...

Thanks for plugging the Midtown plan, FixBuffalo.

It should be noted that that plan was headed by Allita Steward in the office of strategic planning and also received contributions from Stevan Stipanovich.

I know only a little about the houses being proposed but often these things simply come down to following prevailing setbacks of the historic housing and respecting the existing lot lines.

R. Schecter said...

Did Belmont have any public input or review for this plan?

Chris Hawley said...

I understand Belmont did have some public meetings, but they were not widely publicized outside the neighborhood.

I have to confess I was outside the loop. I certainly would shared some suggestions on how to maximize the public impact of the project.

Two rules: respect the original lot lines, front the buildings to the prevailing setbacks of the adjoining historic properties. The rest is talk about details - like vinyl versus other materials - which have less relevance for creating an adequate density and sense of civic scale.

Multiple Monitors said...

Interesting Project!

Clockhill said...

This is an absolute travesty. Buffalo has consistantly dropped the ball on adequately urban housing. Considering other recent investments in the area's educational and other civic community cornerstones, the fact that this POORLY designed housing is being thrown up without a centralized plan or vision is IDIOTIC and 100% COUNTERproductive to the area's public life, identity, and community.

But then again, the people in charge don't live in this area, identify with it, or know how to invest in community. There is NO passion here in functional design.

OUTRAGEOUS.

lulu said...

The problem here lies as much with the City, if not more, than with Belmont Shelter as the City prepared a grant application for this project (and I'd be willing to bet urban planners were not involved). They chased the money and wrote a proposal geared toward RFP guidelines, not geared toward what was best for our community. The $ awarded for this project can not be used for renovation of existing structures as the proposal was specifically seeking new build projects. Belmont was chosen as the City's development partner because they were the only CHDO who had the capacity to handle this large scale project (this is debatable now and was then) at the time the project was conceived and the grant proposal written. The argument you'll hear now in defense of the project is that if we don't proceed, we will "lose the $."

Short sited efforts with the wrong people making decisions on behalf of the residents - welcome to City government.