Memo to the Livingston County Planning Board

RE: Gateway Town Center proposal
FROM: Bill Lofquist and Corrin Strong,
for Please Don’t Destroy Geneseo
DATE: June 11, 2008

The Gateway Town Center (GTC) project, a large-scale retail development proposed for the Gateway District in the Town of Geneseo, is in direct conflict with Town of Geneseo planning and zoning for the Gateway District, the County’s DAN Plan, and state and local laws and policies enacted to fund construction of Volunteer Road. As a result, and for the reasons discussed below, we believe this proposal must be rejected. In the alternative, we propose mitigations that would alleviate some of the worst conflicts between this proposal and existing planning.

The Gateway District was created by a series of zoning laws enacted by the Town of Geneseo is the mid-1990s and by the construction of Volunteer Road several years later. That zoning, which was drafted with the professional assistance of Phoenix Associates, now Clark Patterson, is explicit in its prohibition of retail development that faces or takes access from Route 20A. That zoning also exhibits a strong preference for non-retail development, by imposing strict building size limits and other limits only on retail businesses.

The written record created by the Town Planning Board in drafting the existing zoning makes it clear that these restrictions were intended to prevent the development of another large-scale, traffic-intensive retail plaza across the street from the Wegman’s/Wal-Mart plaza and to prevent retail sprawl along the frontage of 20A. Yet, this is precisely the type of development represented by GTC.

In reviewing this zoning at the time of its enactment, the County Planning Board voiced strong support for the Town’s efforts. In particular, the County noted that, like the proposed zoning, “the DAN Plan also discourages ‘strip development.’” Continuing, the Staff Report noted that “the general purpose of the [Gateway] District is to control development in this area of the Town and to prevent development directly along Route 20A and Lima Road in order to reduce potentially significant negative impacts such as traffic congestion.”

In addition to enacting the Gateway Overlay District zoning, the Town pursued county funding to support the construction of Volunteer Road. The clear intention of the construction of this road was to facilitate development of the Gateway for non-retail development and that this road serve as the primary or even exclusive access point to development in the Gateway.

Funds for the construction of Volunteer Road were provided in part by the Livingston County Infrastructure Capital Program, which was created pursuant to state law (Chapter 644 of the Laws of the State of New York) that prohibited the use of program funds to support retail development. The Livingston County guidelines for that program reiterated that prohibition, stating that projects funded by the program “must be in direct and bonafide support of an economic development objective. Such projects include manufacturing, research, distribution and corporate office developments. Projects proposed in support of housing, commercial or speculative developments will not be considered.”

The Empire Zone established in this area in 2005 represents an additional level of Town, County and State planning to support non-retail development in the Gateway District.

In direct conflict with this planning and zoning, with State law and local policies, and with the sound economic development and traffic and sprawl control principles they represent, Newman Development Group has proposed a large-scale retail proposal along Route 20A and taking direct access from Route 20A. Due to these many conflicts, we believe the GTC proposal is not only inappropriate for this site but is impermissible.

Further, we believe the use of the Town’s Planned Development District (PDD) law to circumvent these conflicts results in an additional legal obstacle for this proposal. The state law authorizing PDD laws is explicit that such laws must be used “in furtherance of” local planning and zoning. For the reasons outlined above, the GTC proposal is in direct conflict with such planning and zoning.

The Town Planning Board’s SEQR Finding that the proposed Lowe’s building be oriented toward Volunteer Road and be slightly smaller than its originally proposed size represent their recognition of the requirements of the zoning for the Gateway. However, we do not believe these modifications go far enough to protect the integrity of the existing planning and zoning.

Of particular concern is the access road to GTC proposed for Route 20A at Morganview Drive, which is also prohibited under the underlying zoning. This road will result in yet another unsignalized access point to 20A, characterized by long delays and dangerous left turns. More troubling, this access point will serve to promote additional retail sprawl fronting 20A to the east.

The developer’s own traffic study by Fisher Associates indicates that, if this access is built, those seeking to make a left hand turn off Morganview Road will experience an increase in their average wait time during peak hours from the current 51 seconds to as much as 451 seconds!

In addition, the town’s traffic consultant, Bill Holtoff of Stantec, has repeatedly advised the board that it is unlikely that the Morganview intersection will meet state DOT warrants for installation of a traffic light at any time in the foreseeable future. We believe that to go forward with such an entrance in the face of this record would be irresponsible.

Accordingly we request that the County Planning Board adopt a recommendation that this access point be removed or be limited to delivery and emergency vehicles only.

The record in this matter, including the DEIS, the FEIS, and the many memos that we have submitted over the past two years provides extensive documentation for every statement that we have made in this memo. Unfortunately, the record also contains many inaccurate statements by both the developers and project supporters which seek to distort the nature of the underlying planning and zoning. Since the record is so voluminous and confusing, we stand ready to help clarify any point or answer any question either by e-mail, phone or at your meeting tomorrow.

For PDDG

Bill Lofquist
Corrin Strong

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To the Table, Reluctantly

I don’t like the Gateway Town Center proposal. I don’t like anything about it.

I don’t think we need another big box and we surely don’t need another pharmacy. I don’t like the effects a Lowe’s will have on locally-owned hardware, lumber, appliance, kitchen and bath, and garden stores throughout the county. I am concerned that even more retail for Geneseo will mean even less business for every other surrounding burgh.

I don’t like the effects of another huge retail plaza on already congested roads. 20A is already overcapacity, as indicated by all the Geneseoans who refuse to use it. More traffic and more sprawl will do more damage to our community’s character and our Historic Landmark status.

I don’t think large-scale retail in small towns and rural counties is viable in the long term. Rising fuel prices and the slowly dawning reality that a nation cannot continually spend more than it earns will soon leave us with far more retail space that we can fill.

I particularly don’t like the tactics that have been used by Newman and others to see this project built. The Planned Development District (PDD) law was enacted to subvert local planning and zoning, no two ways about it. The Gateway was never intended for large-scale retail development. Good people on the defunct master plan committee, the Planning Board, and in the public have been treated badly due to their opposition to this project.

For all these reasons and others, I’d like nothing more than for Newman to pack it up and leave. I believe that’s what’s best for the community and I believe that’s what the law requires.

For all these reasons and others, it’s hard for me to – I’m having troubling finding and typing the words – say that I support the Planning Board’s efforts to find a compromise.

Their effort to minimize the worst effects of the proposed Lowe’s by requiring a smaller building facing Volunteer Road with only limited access to 20A is noble. They have breathed some life back into the zoning for the Gateway. They have tried to use the PDD law as it should be used – to allow “flexibility” in development – rather than to eviscerate local zoning. They have tried to limit the sprawl to the east by directing development down Volunteer Road.

In the process, they have helped to bring this matter closer to a much-needed conclusion and to avoid protracted litigation.

I have my concerns with their proposed compromise. I think the proposed Lowe’s should be required to be the 94,000 square foot model that Lowe’s advertises as its small town model. (It’s crazy how what was once huge – the size of our first Wal-Mart – is now “small”.) I think every effort should be made to ensure that the 20A access being permitted for trucks and emergency vehicles doesn’t become the entrance to the next big plaza to the east.

Most of all, I think the Planning Board and the Town Board must resist any effort to undo the compromise that has been reached.

Finally, I also think it would be a good idea for the Planning Board to direct the Town Board to scrap the PDD law, or at least modify it to limit how much proposals can deviate from the existing zoning. Let this be the last time the community goes through such an ordeal.

The End of an Era

With the exception of a seven-year period beginning in 1979, the inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of gas was never higher than $1.60 from 1950 to 2003. As recently as 1998, a gallon of gas cost $1.10, the lowest inflation adjusted price recorded at least since World War II, perhaps ever. In 2004, gas went to $1.94 a gallon, then to $2.34, $2.65, and $2.79, in successive years. This year’s average price will certainly end over $3.00, marking a near doubling in five years and a nearly 300% increase in ten years.

With gas prices averaging a bit less than $1.50 during most of the “automobile era,” a family of four consuming 2,000 gallons of gas would spend $3,000 a year. This means that for much of the automobile era, gas prices have pretty much represented a fixed cost of approximately 7% of average family income. Consumers could happily motor certain in the knowledge that the cost of gas would be mostly incidental to the cost of driving and the cost of living.

Under these circumstances, people made certain decisions – such as the type of car to drive, how far to live from work, where and how often to go shopping, how many cars to own, and whether or not to use public transportation – based on certain expectations about the cost of gas, expectations that have been reasonable throughout much of the automobile era.

Likewise for businesses. The proximity of businesses to employees and customers and to public transportation lines is shaped by fuel costs. So are decisions about how and how far to ship goods. So, I would submit, are decisions about the scale or size of the business.

And these are just direct, at the pump fuel costs. Since energy is involved in almost everything we do, increased energy costs are a major source of inflation, showing up in increased shipping, heating, and cooling costs. In our petrochemical economy, oil also represents a major input in paints, plastics, food, and fertilizers.

My point is that our landscape of lawned suburbs, retail sprawl, and campus-like office complexes connected by a dense thicket of roads is the product of an era of cheap fuel, an era that has just ended. With oil production declining in Mexico, the North Sea, Russia, and Norway, with demand growing far faster than supply, and with even Saudi Arabia showing signs of fatigue, there is little evidence to support the hope that recent price increases are temporary.

In its last phase, fueled by well below average gas prices and well below average interest rates from the mid-1990s to 2003, we experienced a historic surge in residential and commercial sprawl. Retail square footage per capita more than doubled in what was already the world’s leader in retail space. Wal-Mart became the world’s largest company. Lowe’s quadrupled its number of stores. Now we are left with a huge hangover and a doozie of a recession to get over it.

Returning to our average family of four, fuel costs are now approximately $7,000 a year, or 16% of income. That’s equivalent to $585 a month, comparable to the mortgage on a modest home. This doesn’t include the inflationary effects of higher fuel prices on food, heating, cooling, and everything else. Using the methods used to measure inflation back in the 1970s, before the federal government changed the formula to show less inflation, today’s inflation rate is almost 12%. (See article here for details).

It will take a while for the new reality of gas prices to be felt. Many households and businesses will carry out plans made in a previous era, believing that era isn’t really over. Schemes to suspend gas taxes, send checks to taxpayers, and draw fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will be tried.

In the end, though, we will need to accommodate to an era of permanently higher fuel costs. Even as a dedicated opponent of sprawl, I enter this new era with real concern.

Never Mind

Back in the day, when Newman was new to town, energy levels were higher, and it was still possible to believe that it wasn’t a done deal, the Town Planning Board set a pretty high bar for the review of Newman’s Big Box plans. That bar took the form of a requirement that Newman complete an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing “potentially significant adverse impacts” associated with its proposal.

Among the potential impacts Newman was required to analyze was the precedent this project would set for future development in the area. Quoting directly from the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) and Scope endorsed by a majority of the Board, concern was expressed that “large-scale development tends to occur in clusters” and that “approving Newman’s proposal would “establish a precedent that will encourage high density retail development and possibly additional Big Box retailers along NYS Rt. 20A and within the Gateway Overlay District.”

Demonstrating that these were not abstract concerns, it was noted that “we have already seen this in our community with the building of Wegmans and Wal-Mart’s Plazas” and that Newman itself had originally submitted “plans to develop 14 acres to the east of the proposed project now in question.”

To evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of these impacts, the Scope endorsed by the Board required that Newman and, ultimately, the Town Planning Board itself, complete a “Precedent Analysis” to determine “the precedent [Newman’s proposal] may establish for future similar development in the Gateway Overlay District, as well as other nearby zoning districts.”

As recently as January of this year, after reviewing the environmental impact materials Newman had submitted and finding them deficient, the Town reiterated that it was still waiting for an analysis of “the impacts of additional similar development within the Gateway Overlay District … including the potential traffic impacts of same.”

So, now that the Town Planning Board has accepted Newman’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) as complete, what have we learned about the precedent effects of Newman’s project?

Nothing. Nada. Not a damn thing, except that Newman apparently did not want to answer this question and the Town Planning Board got tired of asking. As I write, the two volumes and 600 pages of Newman’s FEIS sit next to me, silent on what for me has long been the central question of this entire project.

Remember PDDG’s much talked about slogan: “Geneseo Yes, Genrietta No”? That’s a concern about precedent in bumper sticker form.

Volume I of the FEIS contains Newman’s (and the Town’s) responses to the many questions posed by the public. This is the heart of the FEIS. In response to concerns expressed about precedent, we are told that the Gateway “may” become “more desirable” to retailers, but that the Town retains the right to say no to future developers.

We are also told that Newman answered these questions last year, in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), submitted well before the Town told them it still hadn’t completed the required Precedent Analysis.

What Newman had done, and what it apparently thinks counts as a Precedent Analysis, was to complete an Economic Impact Analysis of its proposal way back in early 2006. Nowhere in that analysis, or in the independent evaluation of that analysis completed a year later, is there any information that might be construed as a precedent analysis.

The closest we get is an analysis of the effects of Big Boxes on Main Streets. This is useful and interesting information, but go back to the EAF and Scope quoted earlier and see that the concern driving the Precedent Analysis was the effect Newman’s proposal would have on “similar” or “Big Box” development in Geneseo.

Once upon a time, the Town Planning Board obligated Newman to tell us and obligated itself to make them, whether Wal-Mart and Lowe’s get together and give birth to Target or Best Buy or Dick’s or whether we had sprawled as far as we were going to sprawl. These aren’t impossible questions to answer. Lord knows there are plenty of other communities to look to for answers.

In response to those concerns, all we get are bland assurances that we control our own destiny and that future sprawl will be limited by the amount of available land. Those answers don’t inspire much confidence and they certainly don’t constitute a Precedent Analysis.

Decision Day Approaches

The Town Planning Board’s recent determination that Newman Development has provided all the information it needs to evaluate the impacts of Newman’s big box plans represents a big step toward the biggest step in this long saga. Now the board must decide whether those impacts – on traffic, on community character, and on growth – are bearable in a community already strained by retail sprawl.

Should the Board decide Newman’s plans fit into Geneseo’s plans, a huge hurdle will have been cleared. There will still remain other hurdles. The County Planning Board will need to give its approval, the Town Board will need to vote to rezone the property in question, and the Town Planning Board will need to work out the details of the site plan. The available record indicates these decisions are but formalities; speed bumps in the path of Newman’s bulldozer.

Now, at long last, is the time for the crucial decision to be made.

We at PDDG are busy preparing a memo to the Planning Board urging them to reject Newman’s plans. That document, which we will post online on The PDDG File when it is complete, will make three major arguments: that Newman’s plans are in impermissible conflict with Geneseo’s plans, that another big box will strain our infrastructure and cement our status as Genrietta, and that the legal requirements for making a final decision on Newman’s project have not been met due to Newman’s intransigence and the Board’s lack of proper oversight.

At its meeting on April 28 and perhaps at a subsequent meeting or two, the Board will take up these issues. We’re not particularly hopeful of the outcome, despite our confidence in our arguments.

Since helping to persuade the Board eighteen months ago that Newman’s plans required the completion of the environmental review process that is now being completed, we have had a harder time persuading the Board that Newman’s plans are fatally flawed.

Where we see Genrietta, a community that has lost its soul and its character, the Board seems to see just another big box. Where we see traffic gridlock, the Board seems to see just a few more cars. Where we see careful planning and zoning designed to prevent exactly what Newman proposes, the Board seems to see the PDD law as a get out of jail free card. Where we see Newman flouting its legal obligations, the Board seems to see business as usual.

Perhaps our standards are too high. Maybe community self-determination must bow to the almighty tax dollar. Maybe you can’t really say no to “progress,” however ugly it may appear. Maybe the procedural train wreck that has been occurring ever since Newman helped us write the PDD law they now seek to exploit is simply par for the development course.

We’ll soon see what the Planning Board decides. There is some room for optimism. Statements from Planning Board members at their April 7 meeting showed some reservations about Newman’s plans.

If the Board sides with Newman, we’ll review our legal options. That’s not intended as a threat. Rather, it represents a recognition of our core belief that Newman’s plans are for Newman’s benefit and are contrary to Geneseo’s laws and Geneseo’s interests.

In the end, the truth of that proposition will have to be determined.

Magical Thinking

Friend and fellow traveler Jim Allen uses the term “magical thinking” to refer to that special brand of nonsense in which benefits come without costs, growth goes on forever, and every meal is a free lunch. I really like the term. It is a cheerful, almost whimsical way of calling out bullshit.

Two different examples of magical thinking have drawn my attention recently. Both figure prominently in Newman Development Group’s efforts to realize their big box dreams.

The first is found in their effort to measure the capacity of Route 20A. It’s an important issue. At some point, the amount of traffic on 20A will exceed the carrying capacity of the road. Signs of this are already seen in the long delays getting on to 20A and the large number of people who have simply quit using it.

Next will be the need to widen the road, a move that is tremendously expensive and nowhere to be found in DOT’s plans or budgets. Due to its likely effects on the Homestead’s stone wall and on the general character of the community, widening 20A is also a move that would greatly increase the jeopardy of Geneseo’s National Historic Landmark District status.

The Planning Board is wise to try to determine how much more traffic and how much more traffic-intensive development Geneseo can bear. The answer that Newman provides, perhaps reflecting their own considerable interest in traffic that goes on forever, reveals some magical thinking.

Determining the capacity of a road is complicated. It involves figuring out the maximum number of vehicles that can move past a certain point (an intersection with a traffic signal, in this case) in a certain time and then reducing that number by the amount of time the light is red, the width and grade of the road, the number of trucks, the characteristics of the area in which the road is located, and so on. Traffic engineers figure ideal flow is 1,900 vehicles per lane per hour.

In its calculations, Newman determined that 20A operates at approximately 97% efficiency, meaning that the actual flow during green lights will be 97% of the ideal flow. The research I did, and I readily admit I’m not a traffic engineer, indicates this is far too generous. The residential character of 20A, the volume of trucks, the grade of the road, and so on, likely diminish its actual flow to something closer than 90% of ideal flow.

This difference is enough to change the point at which 20A is maxed out from sometime in the 2020s to sometime around 2010 (depending on the assumed rate of traffic growth in the meantime). Put another way, the difference is enough to mean that 20A’s capacity is an issue now, not sometime safely in the future.

The second kind of magical thinking on my mind is found in the claims of Newman and others that retail sprawl on 20A can continue without any adverse effects on local businesses. Somehow, we are to believe, $30-$40 million (the annual receipts expected at Lowe’s) can be transferred into Lowe’s cash registers without coming out of anyone else’s cash register.

I recognize that some of this business will be returned to Geneseo from Henrietta, moving from one big box to another. I also recognize that this business will bring jobs and taxes with it. I even recognize that some of those coming to our big boxes may also stop at a local business.

However, it is magical thinking, not to mention callous, to believe there aren’t real and serious costs to this. As with traffic, these costs can already be seen in the vacant groceries and quiet Main Streets throughout the County. Whether on our Main Street, elsewhere in Geneseo, or on someone else’s Main Street, by Newman’s own estimates, at least $5-$10 million more will be lost by local businesses if Lowe’s opens.

Then there are the secondary costs. As I wrote last week, money spent locally stays in local businesses and in local hands far longer than does money spent in chains. Newman didn’t even consider these costs, though they are considerable.

The Full Value of Main Street

The Business section of last Sunday’s (March 23) Democrat & Chronicle included a front page article on the problems faced by Main Street businesses in a retail economy dominated by Big Boxes and other chains.

I was pleased to see it. As the article pointed out, with some choice quotes from Geneseo’s Louise Wadsworth, Main Streets are struggling to find their place, their market niche, as centers of value, service, and specialization, in a shopping landscape of malls, strip malls, plazas, and power centers.

Yet, I came away from the article with a sense that it was a story only half told. While we all recognize the appeal – nostalgic, quaint, attractive, authentic, human-scaled – of Main Streets, and while we all root for their success, their value is far more than just to our senses. Main Streets and locally-owned businesses are a critical cog in a healthy and sustainable local economy.

To draw some attention to this other half of the story, I wrote the following letter to the editor:

Sunday’s article, “Village stores struggling,” was a welcome reminder of the costs that Big Boxes and retail sprawl have on Main Streets and locally-owned businesses. I’m sure many of us feel a sense of loss at the closing of these businesses.

Missing from the article, however, was a consideration of just how great an economic loss this represents. The value of Main Streets is not simply the authentic alternative they provide to chain stores or the nostalgic longing that they satisfy.

Money spent in local businesses is more likely to stay in the community, to pay local workers and suppliers, earn interest in local banks, pay for local advertising, be counted by local accountants, and support local charities. This “local premium” pays significant dividends not paid by chain businesses.

Local businesses deserve our patronage. They also deserve the support of lawmakers. Zoning that limits store sizes and discourages sprawl, limits on subsidies to retailers, and efforts to insure that developers bear the costs they impose on infrastructure are a good place to start.

The “local premium” that I refer to is real and quantifiable, though rarely do we go to the trouble. Research by Civic Economics, the state of the art practitioners of economic impact analyses, has found that local businesses “generate more than three times the local economic activity of their competitor chain stores on equal revenue.” I expect to hear more about this at next week’s APOG conference on economic development.

Though the economic impact analysis that has been conducted for the proposed Geneseo Lowe’s is a great step forward in the thorough local review of development proposals, it does not consider the local premium. Rather, it includes only the most easily quantified impacts: on jobs and taxes.

Even there, it tends to favor positive impacts, measuring the new property and sales taxes that will be provided by the Lowe’s store, but not measuring the property taxes that will be lost by residential properties devalued by traffic and commercial properties – throughout the county – devalued by excess capacity. Likewise for jobs, with new jobs and wages easily measured, while jobs and hours worked that are lost and wages that are held down are harder to measure.

Patronizing Main Streets is not simply an exercise in nostalgia or a way to find that hard-to-find item. It is an investment in our communities. Without that investment, the community, in the many senses of the word, will be lost.