When I moved from Cleveland to Buffalo a couple of months ago, I was surprised by Cleveland's favorable image here. Although I had always thought of Cleveland as an aging industrial city much like Buffalo, I learned that many Western New Yorkers think of it as a role model.
The fascination seems to come about because Cleveland has a couple of downtown museums and a couple of thousand middle-class downtown residents -- not as many as in larger cities, but more than in Buffalo (at least if one counts the areas within walking distance of most office buildings, as opposed to neighborhoods two or three miles away).
Unfortunately, some people have drawn the wrong lessons from Cleveland's improvements. I therefore submit for Buffalonians' consideration a few lessons I learned from living in downtown Cleveland:
Lesson 1: No museums, no zoos
Some Western New Yorkers think that Buffalo can acquire a "24-hour downtown" by building a museum at the site of the downtown auditorium, or by moving the zoo to the waterfront. This view is incorrect because museums and zoos, like office buildings, are generally open only during 9 to 5 daylight hours. It follows that even if museums and zoos increase area tourism, they will do nothing to contribute to downtown's nighttime vitality.
Cleveland's Rock Hall of Fame and Science Center are on the northeastern tip of downtown -- one of downtown's duller areas after the museums' closing hours. Most of Cleveland's new residential development has been in the western half of downtown, far from the Rock Hall.
Lesson 2: No new sports
Occasionally it's argued that bringing the Bills downtown might revitalize downtown Buffalo. This claim is meritless. Sports facilities are only open for a few days a year (81 for baseball, fewer for other sports) -- not enough to encourage residential construction around those facilities.
Cleveland has always had its sports stadiums downtown yet has only recently had a surge in downtown residential construction -- most of which is at the other end of downtown from the stadiums -- like the Rock Hall, they're at the east end.
Lesson 3: Housing variety
Both downtown Cleveland housing and Buffalo Theater District housing are dominated by loft apartments, because existing buildings can easily be renovated into lofts. Yet I lived in downtown Cleveland but not in downtown Buffalo. Why? Because Cleveland had other options. I wanted to live in the sort of high-rise, high-security building that dominates midtown Manhattan and central Philadelphia (or that some of our office buildings could become). I found the right building in downtown Cleveland -- but in Buffalo, it was a few miles farther north.
The downtown should offer a variety of housing options.
Lesson 4: Build near work
Buffalo should be encouraging development in the blocks closest to downtown office buildings. The city already has some housing within a mile or so of where I work -- townhouses on the waterfront and lofts in the Theater District. But there is almost no housing within a few blocks of most downtown office buildings. That means walking to work in downtown Buffalo would be very inconvenient -- especially when the winter winds begin to explode.
By contrast, in Cleveland I found an apartment a block and a half from work -- a far more attractive option. If Buffalo had housing within true walking distance of work, downtown would be far more appealing.
Lesson 5: Put cops on foot
I lived at the east end of downtown Cleveland, in a block which (although otherwise quite dull and deserted) was unusually well policed. By contrast, on Buffalo's Main Street I have seen a few panhandlers but no police officers -- not a reassuring sign.
Lesson 6: Not just downtown
Saving downtown won't, by itself, save a city. Despite downtown Cleveland's revitalization, the rest of Cleveland is arguably in worse shape than Buffalo -- probably because Cleveland has five major highways within city limits, making suburban living unusually convenient.
Fewer than 10 of the attorneys in my Cleveland firm lived in the City of Cleveland. By contrast, I would guess that as many as a third of the attorneys in my Buffalo firm live in the City of Buffalo. My perusal of high school, college and alumni directories suggests that both firms are typical of the professional classes of Buffalo and Cleveland.
Buffalo has some attractive neighborhoods, but its downtown is still pretty dull after 5 p.m. If Western New Yorkers want to equal or improve upon Cleveland's record, they need to learn from Cleveland's successes and from its failures.
MICHAEL LEWYN is an attorney with a downtown Buffalo law firm.
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