Former city housing commissioner Joe Mascia is set to lead a task force comprised of residents of the Marine Drive Apartments to study redevelopment opportunities and new governance models for the sprawling waterfront property.
The objective of the effort is three fold, Mascia explains: 1) to spin off the property from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, a longtime symbol of urban mismanagement; 2) to identify a developer to redevelop the 400-plus unit property; and 3) to secure a legally enforceable community benefits agreement that ensures that current residents will not be displaced from the newly trendy Canalside neighborhood.
Mascia’s announcement comes just weeks after architecture critic Tim Teilman unveiled a reiteration of the mixed use, 1830s period architecture, primarily residential development that has been intended for the land until Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s egregiously slow-placed development of the parcels.
While Mascia agrees that the Canalside neighborhood should evolve as a primarily residential neighborhood in the historic architectural style endorsed by Teilman, Mascia insists that affordable housing be central to the development concept.
“Affordable housing on the waterfront is what will really make it a hip neighborhood. Working families deserve to live downtown, too,” Mascia insists. “This a blue collar, working class city, and we need neighborhoods that are inclusive of everyone — affordable to young families, students, artists, and young professionals.”
“We all deserve high quality urban design, in every neighborhood across the city,” Mascia argues. “But design alone doesn’t guarantee that a neighborhood will be dynamic — only diversity does that.”
The Marine Drive Apartments sits on dozens of acres of real estate wedged between the Canalside development parcels under the control of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation to the east, and expansive surface parking lots owned by the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation to the west.
The local real estate industry lusts the prospect of the property’s demolition and sale. LP Ciminelli, R&P Oak Hill, and Norstar have been pushing the Brown administration to privatize many of the authority’s massive properties. They have contributed heavily to Brown’s reelection campaign, a subject of much criticism.
Mascia wants the residents to openly and publicly engage in the participatory drafting of the redevelopment project’s request for proposals, rather than allowing such a critical task to fall, presumably, to BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garret; Norstar Regional Vice President Linda Goodman; or R&P Oak Hill Managing Partner Gary Bischler; in whom he utterly lacks confidence.
Mascia notes that a community benefits agreement with whichever developer is selected for the project will be legally enforceable. A guarantee that residents will have access to similar units at a similar price point is at the crux of the longstanding stalemate on the issue. Residents have long been expected to fervently oppose the demolition of the complex, which has always been presumed to include their displacement.
Tentatively, the redevelopment project will include 1,500 to 2,500 new residential units, of which 400 will be reserved for Marine Drive residents at below-market rates. The plan would call for an additional 400 units reserved as ‘perpetually affordable,’ with an additional 700 to 1,700 market rate luxury units. Supporters of the concept would like all street level storefronts reserved for locally owned and locally branded businesses.
A community benefit agreement can ensure that a developer’s promises regarding community benefits are legally enforceable. Developers “pitching” a project often make promises that are never written into any project approval documents, and even when they are, they may not be monitored and enforced by the relevant government agencies. By creating an enforcement mechanism or expanding the class of parties who can enforce these promises, community benefit agreements can make enforcement much easier.
The contract model allows each particular community benefit agreement to be tailored to the community’s needs, the size and type of the proposed development, and the relative bargaining power of the community groups and the developer. Benefits may be provided by the developer itself, or a community benefit agreement may require the developer to impose community benefit agreement provisions on its tenants, vendors, and contractors.
Beyond typical provisions that include job quality standards, local hiring programs, minority contracting goals, and affordable housing requirements, a community benefit agreement is likely to include, among other things, retail space set asides for locally owned businesses; space for neighborhood organizations, community centers, child-care centers, and other non-profits; and the construction of public spaces, compelling streetscapes, and pedestrian infrastructure.