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Investigation: No Fines For Owners of Rundown Main St. Storefronts

6:31 PM, Nov 8, 2011   |    comments
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BUFFALO, N.Y. - It's among first things thousands of visitors see when they arrive in Buffalo, and many here call it an "embarrassment."

The 500 Block of Main Street is literally outside the back door of one of Buffalo's premier hotels, The Hyatt. Each year the hotel hosts visiting NFL teams, hundreds of students taking the New York State Bar Exam and tens of thousands of convention visitors.

Many are surprised to see that most of the storefronts on that block of Main Street are either vacant or closed. Some are filthy. Others are covered with rusty, old cages.

"It's sad," said Canadian visitor Andrea Perry.

The results of our two-month investigation indicate that, while the city has made some progress downtown in recent months, in the last five years, none of the vacant or filthy storefronts has been fined.

The results are based on documents 2 On Your Side requested from the city, which provided them.

In Buffalo, city inspectors cite violations, and then the cases go to housing court. A city spokesperson said it is unfair to blame the city for the lack of fines.

This portion of Main Street, and those surrounding it, were once a symbols of boom time in downtown Buffalo.

Over the years, Main Street became the street that time forgot.

When Buffalo hosted the World Junior Hockey Championships last December and a member of team USA tweeted that Buffalo was a quote "ghost town," he was referring to this area around the Hyatt.

"Quite frankly, they're frightened," said Hyatt Marketing Director Julie Williams. "We don't want them to feel unsafe in the city."

Of the 13 buildings across from the Hyatt on the 500 block of Main Street, as well as Genesee St, we counted nine with either vacant or closed storefronts. Through some of the store windows, visitors can see collapsed ceilings, if not worse.

All of it right outside the window of this Main Street spa connected to the Hyatt.

"It's sad because you have people who are staying at the hotel, who don't know anything about Buffalo, and this is what they see, and it makes our city just look run down," said Alexis Luczak, who owns Spa Alexis, which is located inside the Hyatt overlooking the 500 Block. "That's not what we want our city to be."

Some nearby business operators were more blunt about it.

"It's an embarrassment to bring prospective tenants into our building and (to) entertain clients and have them look across the way at a row of dilapidated, uninhabited buildings," said Barbara Roedel, who manages a building that sits adjacent to the 500 Block.

Given the complaints about the block, 2 On Your Side wanted to know what the city has been doing about the buildings and their condition.

Reporters Michael Wooten and Aaron Saykin sifted through five years of city inspection reports for buildings on that block. In the documents provided by the city, Wooten and Saykin found, over the years, that the City of Buffalo did issue violations to some of the owners, warning of future fines or legal action.

Yet during that span, despite all of the obvious decay, the city handed out a grand total of zero fines.

Some property owners may find this ironic, considering the city has been quick to slap residents with citations when their grass grows too high.

Who owns these buildings? Many belong to small companies. Some are local businessmen. Some are out-of-state companies with no listed officers.

Of the owners whose names 2 On Your Side did find, some had a history of making political donations to government leaders of both parties.

Regardless of who they are one thing is consistent: Each owns property on a block, in the heart of Buffalo, with no shortage of vacant and run-down space.

"We need to get the city to listen, and to do something. Do something with the owners," Roedel said. "Whatever that may be, I don't know, but they've got to listen. They've got to do something."

Several years ago, developer Rocco Termini did try to do something about the 500 Block of Main Street.

"It looks like Beirut," he said. "As a matter of fact, I think Beirut may look a little better."

A few years ago Termini unveiled a $15 million dollar plan called Century City Lofts. It would have transformed several of the vacant buildings into high-end apartments with retail shopping and restaurants. But the plan never made it out of the design phase.

"We needed to join all the buildings," Termini said. "You needed to put one staircase in, you needed to put one elevator in, and then join the buildings, and the only way you can do that was taking control of all the buildings."

But that never happened. Why? Termini and others think there was not enough incentive. For example, some of the buildings that are literally falling apart have not faced any fines from the city, despite code violations.

WOOTEN: Are you surprised that over the past years not a single one of these buildings has been fined?

TERMINI: I am very surprised, but you know it's not just the inspections. It's the courts.

But can't the city do more? More inspections? More fines?

We took the concerns to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

WOOTEN: Do you think the inspections department needs to crack down on those business owners?

BROWN: Well I think they have been. We have been hammering property owners who are not within code compliance.

But our investigation has shown sporadic inspections, and no fines for the buildings in question. Some of them still appear to violate code.

Take the former Red Hots building, for example. Any passerby can see exposed insulation on its exterior. Inside, the ceiling is collapsing. The city has inspected the building twice over the past five years. The first time was in 2006 for graffiti issues. Then, nearly two years ago, the city required the owner to replace the frame around the door. It hasn't been inspected since then.

That's why Termini and others want the city to hire a new code enforcement officer to re-double inspection efforts.

WOOTEN: Are you confident that getting a new code enforcement officer to focus on this area could improve that?

TERMINI: I think it will.

WOOTEN: Do you think at some point the city is going to have to step in and help coordinate the development that takes place in that block if it's ever going to be turned around?

BROWN: One of the things that we have done is ask the private sector through the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to engage in a study.

And Termini is part of that process. His recently-formed committee wants the city to hire that new inspector. While the mayor declined to talk about proposals from the committee until its work is finished, 2 On Your Side was able to discuss them with Brendan Mehaffy from the city's office of strategic planning.

WOOTEN: Do we need more code enforcement of those buildings?

MEHAFFY: I think it's probably a piece of an overall strategy, but to the best of my knowledge we have written up many of those property owners.

WOOTEN: But no fines.

MEHAFFY: Yea, that I don't know. That might be, at that time, an issue for the housing court rather than what we're able to do with the resources we have.

Another of the committee's proposals is to add a new fee that would essentially double the property taxes for owners of empty, blighted buildings.

TERMINI: "There will be their tax bill and then their registration fee, which will be equal to their taxes, and this way, we're increasing their carrying costs on each one of these buildings, and they're going to have a greater incentive to either sell or do something with these buildings."

WOOTEN: Will that be incentive enough, you think, to get something done here?

TERMINI: It will help. The more onerous you make it just to hold a building, the more likelihood it is that somebody will sell it.

But is City Hall on board?

REPORTER: Should the city go in and apply this fee on those building owners to try to incentivize them to either get tenants in or sell the property?

TERMINI: Well I think it's a recommendation, and it's going to depend on the scope of the recommendation.

Finally, we asked about the most controversial proposal: giving the Erie County Industrial Development Agency eminent domain powers to obtain the properties, and then turn them over to private developers. Termini says that is what it will ultimately take to turn around this block.

WOOTEN: Do you think there's the political will to make that happen?

TERMINI: There has to be the political will to make that happen, because if we don't, we will never do any of these blocks, because that's the only way you're doing to assemble them.

But, based on our investigation, the committee will not find that political will in City Hall, at least not right now.

WOOTEN: Is it time for the city to do something dramatic like that? Is eminent domain part of the answer in Buffalo?"

MEHAFFY: At this point in time, no. We're not looking for something that dramatic. Again, we're seeing activity on the 500 block that we haven't seen in a very long period of time. The eminent domain process is a difficult, challenging and expensive process.

It is also a politically polarizing process. Just the idea of taking one person's property and giving it to another doesn't seem right to many. But supporters argue it's all about the public good. Plus, to some the alternative of doing nothing may be worse.

"That's the only way you're going to assemble them," Termini said. "We've tried the other way, and it doesn't work."

While the city isn't on board with any of the proposals, at least not yet, leaders are still optimistic.

From the Statler to the Hotel Lafayette, there are downtown success stories, even on the 500 Block of Main Street.

Jim Sandoro, who owns one of the buildings on the 500 Block, turned his building around. The previous owners didn't pay taxes for seven years. Not only is he now paying taxes, but he's also making major investments, and his building is no longer vacant.

Sandoro is now part of a group that met Monday to discuss what's next.

"The business owners who are putting money into their businesses are not about to sit back and let some of the business owners who have abandoned this area simply own property continue to have blighted buildings," Sandoro said. "That part I'm excited about."

Michael Schmand with Buffalo Place is also excited, especially since the city is slowly opening Main Street back to 2-way vehicle traffic. The 700 block is done. The 600 block is next, and Buffalo applied for a $32 million federal grant to do the rest.

"When we took traffic off of that block, I really thought that we did a big disservice to downtown Buffalo," Schmand said. "Obviously there's a plan in place now to bring traffic back, so we're very excited about that."

And he's excited about the future of this block, the oldest on Main Street, which is now hoping for new life.

WOOTEN: Are you hopeful right now about the future of downtown Buffalo?

TERMINI: I have no doubts that buffalo is changing, it's turning the corner... This is a great city. We have no place but up to go.

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