Originally appeared in Artvoice on August 9th, 2012.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo snuck into town Saturday morning to announce a $2 million dollar deal by which the state would purchase from the City of Buffalo land—Busti Avenue, the paved street, the right-of-way—that the Peace Bridge folks want for their proposed expanded plaza, then turn over the land to the Public Bridge Authority. The announcement raised more questions than it answered.
Such as: Why does the state have to get involved? An alternative form of the same question would be: Why all the changing of hands of the property? Maybe as a kind of smokescreen, to obfuscate the matter of whether in going beyond its current territory, the PBA is going beyond its mandate somehow. The proposed expansion area is basically for a new and improved Duty Free Store. Repeated calls to city and state officials for clarification about the governor’s announcement went ignored.
Another question: Where is the $2 million coming from? Well, that’s easy. From the taxpayers of New York State. But which raises another question, if the PBA wants that property, why isn’t the PBA paying for it? The PBA isn’t exactly cash-strapped. On the other hand, the state has already generously stepped up to pay off the approximately $15 million back taxes on the Episcopal Church Home property that would be part of the expansion, relieving the PBA of that unpleasant burden come purchase time. Hey, what’s another $2 million for what’s clearly a Cuomo pet project? But the answer to why isn’t the PBA paying for Busti Avenue question probably goes back to the original obfuscation theory. It’s one thing—even for a public entity, in terms of mandate—to purchase private property; it’s another thing—and a lot more complicated, in terms of public scrutiny, which could get into questions of mandate—to purchase public property.
Which raise the biggest question of all: Is it legal and proper—in the large sense, if not the small sense? Last week in Artvoice, columnist Bruce Fisher wrote a piece on an essential concept for municipalities in dire straits that the politicians seem scared to death of, however, called regionalism, or metropolitanization. Involving the consolidation of two contiguous municipalities—usually because one of them is dying, while one seems to be prospering, though morbidity seems to be a more infectious condition than prosperity in such cases—into a single entity that is likely to benefit both previous entities in the long run. In New York State there is a peculiar constitutional provision (that can be a stumbling block to such regionalism, as occurred in Niagara County a few decades ago, when the county attempted to adopt a county executive form of government, versus rule simply by the legislature) called the “dual referendum” rule. Both entities in a proposed consolidation have to vote for it, each on its own. (In the Niagara County instance, the law was tested in a case that went all the way to US Supreme Court, where the state constitutional rule was upheld. The new county executive, who was already in office, was suddenly out of office.) All on the theory, presumably, that in agreeing to consolidation, a municipality, the people of the municipality, yielded some sovereignty. Something they were in control of, that they owned outright, they no longer would own outright. They had to vote in a referendum to yield that ownership.
So how can the City of Buffalo yield ownership of its territory (to the State of New York or anybody else), and how can the State of New York yield ownership of its territory (to a Public Bridge Authority or anyone else), without a public referendum? Whose territory is it, anyway? Mayor Byron Brown’s? Governor Cuomo’s?
Councilman David Rivera, whose district covers the Peace Bridge area, signed off on the deal. He said it was a better deal than the plan to take a much larger chunk of West Side territory for a much larger plaza to accommodate the twin span of bridges, when that idea was under consideration. Which is totally irrelevant because that idea is no longer on the table.
Meanwhile, the demolition plan to make way for the proposed expansion is under a temporary stay order while federal court decides if substantive arguments against the plan should be aired in federal or state court. The court challenge is by the preservationist Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, & Culture, which contends that, according to state laws, a proper environmental impact statement is needed prior to any demolitions. A proper EIS would get into preservation and health issues that could put the kibosh on the whole project. Several of the houses proposed to be demolished have local landmark status, and studies by epidemiologist Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa and others have revealed an unusually high incidence of asthma (and possibly other maladies) in the Peace Bridge area, apparently related to Peace Bridge diesel traffic. The bridge expansion project, besides demolishing neighborhood infrastructure, would introduce the bridge traffic deeper into the neighborhood.