Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

January 22, 2013

Reaction to 'impact zone' is mixed

Staff reports
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Public opinion of the city's newly announced "Impact Team Project" is a mixed bag weighed down with skepticism.

Last week, Mayor Michael Tucker announced creation of a multi-agency impact team and "impact zones," specific geographic areas that are targeted for increased police patrol and building code enforcement. The Niagara County Sheriff's Department and New York State Police are participating and sent representatives to the Friday press conference at City Hall, which drew TV news cameras as well as print reporters.

The first impact zone consists of twenty-five or so residential blocks roughly bounded by Erie, High, Transit and Walnut streets, Police Chief Lawrence Eggert said. Increased patrolling by multiple police agencies was to begin immediately, with an emphasis on Vehicle and Traffic Law enforcement by means including unannounced road blocks.

Within the zone, city building inspectors will be inspecting exteriors on 1,100 parcels looking for building code violations. All property types, single- as well as multiple-unit residential dwellings and commercial properties, are said to be in their sights.

Project Impact's aim is to weed out scofflaws and encourage property upkeep in sections of the city that struggle most with crime and blight. Tucker said it's also intended as a message to "outsiders," particularly non-residents engaged in drug trade, that order will be defended here.

The declaration followed a series of unusually violent and/or alarming criminal incidents in the city since November, including two shootings, the physical assault of a child and several significant drug busts.

Impact zones will be declared one at a time, based on spikes in local crime rates, Tucker said.

The Erie-High-Transit-Walnut zone is first after police noted a 27 percent increase in year-over-year police service calls in that area, Eggert said. Police service calls are anything police do, from writing parking tickets to fielding nuisance complaints to investigating a robbery. A sudden spike in the rate suggests the area could use extra policing, to "nip (problems) in the bud" before they're considered a normal part of the landscape, Eggert said.

In Facebook postings and interviews with a US&J reporter this week, some residents seemed less than appreciative of the impact zone declaration.

John and Linda Rosenberg of Genesee Street dislike the way it mischaracterizes, even maligns, their neighborhood. They've lived on the block between Washburn and Locust streets for 35 years, expanded the family business, Prudden & Kandt Funeral Home, encouraged their children to buy homes close by, and they say it's not nearly as bad as police and city officials have made it out to be.

"We have wonderful, caring neighbors ... and a few pigs who ruin things. That's true all over this city," Mrs. Rosenberg said, "but it's always Genesee Street that gets labeled "the red zone, the war zone, the ghetto. ... They target when they really need to clean up everything. The whole city needs a good scrubbing."

A few writers on Facebook suggested the city going for "impact" now is like closing the barn door well after the horse bolted. Blight and crime have been dragging down the targeted area for decades while "complacent" city officials, landlords and residents watched, Kenny Allore wrote on the US&J Facebook page.

Others suspect the city's true interest isn't in aiding long-beseiged residents, it's in protecting the "money," that is, new investors in the zone — Housing Visions, which put almost $9 million into a rental housing development on Genesee, Locust and Pine streets, and Trek Inc., a manufacturing company that's poised to sink $5 million into relocating to Harrison Place.

"Only reasoning for this 'step up' is because Tucker wants a business to move into the Harrisons plant!" Kelly Hall wrote.

"You didn't care til you got money," Bethany Coley wrote.

"Tucker is thumping his political chest," Spalding Street rental property owner Stephen Walsh said in a Tuesday interview. "I laughed when I read about this (impact zone). ... Government exists to protect government. To the extent that people buy into the notion that this is for them, well, we get what we deserve. ... Police officers will remain employed, that's the only 'impact' I foresee."

Walsh, who bought up and rehabilitated several residential properties around the city, says rental property owners struggle to recruit the kinds of tenants who'd make good neighbors. High property taxes and the threat of reassessment discourage housing improvement, he said; and even nice housing commands relatively low rent in this market.

City officials tend to act as though blight is the fault of landlords, but simple things the officials could do to improve neighborhoods — like add street lighting in dark areas — they won't do without badgering, if at all, Walsh added.

He's been asking, intermittently and unsuccessfully the past four years, for a street light at the end of Seidhoff Alley, an abandoned dead-end street off Spalding that a number of residents have ended up using for parking or back-yard access. The dark alley also draws drug users and vandals and blemishes an otherwise "safe, clean" neighborhood, he said.

"I can't increase the quality of tenants without a light," Walsh said. "I'm not going to have any more luck recruiting (good tenants) when the neighborhood becomes known as a place where people's liberty is infringed on (as) they're ticketed for dumb stuff like driving 5 miles over the speed limit."

Other residents see the impact zone declaration as a positive for the area.

Lewis Street homeowner Kevin Vincent thinks it's "very good news," especially the building code enforcement side of the project.

"I've always said our little neighborhood was like an oasis in the desert ... but we have definitely seen a downturn (here) the last five to seven years," he said. "I agree that the trouble seems to come from outside the city," especially when rental properties are held by non-local owners.

If increased code enforcement "sends a message .... that there are repercussions for not keeping things up, I welcome that," Vincent said. "At the very least, they should make their properties as presentable as the people who've been here a long time."

On Facebook, Lisa Rutherford suggested "better late than never," while Denise Rich, who identified herself as an ex-zone and city resident, encouraged a greater police presence in all the "bad" parts of Lockport.

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