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BIG IDEAS HAVE BEEN DISASTROUS; IT'S TIME TO TRY SOME SMALL ONES

As someone who cares as much about the future of our city as about the past, I must object to the News editorial that said it is "time to end this debate" about the proposed convention center. Indeed, there has never been any real debate, at least not one that has involved the public. Not once have the citizens, who will have to pay the massive bills and support the years of endless subsidies, been consulted about this most critical issue.

The News laments that "big ideas . . . ignite opposition and take forever and sometimes longer . . ." As well they should! Most of the so-called big ideas that have been forced on this community over the past generation have been disastrous.

The '40s and '50s saw the New York State Thruway built alongside the Niagara River, the '50s and '60s saw the demolition of the much Lower West Side and the Ellicott District in the name of urban renewal, the '60s saw the creation of the Amherst Campus at the University at Buffalo, the '70s gave us the present convention center and the '80s saw the installation of the rapid-transit line and the end of Main Street as we knew it. Indeed, it is difficult to find one big idea that has worked. It's time instead for some small ideas.

Small Idea 1: Small is good. Big, especially massive, is bad. We have already seen how the attempt to shoehorn a huge project into the still somewhat fragile fabric of the city has had disastrous impact. The present convention center, less than half the size of the proposed one, demolished dozens of buildings, disrupted the street patterns of downtown and, by creating the most infamous blank wall west of the Hudson, forever destroyed any chance that Pearl Street could come back to life.

The impact of what the Preservation Coalition accurately calls the "Death Star" of the huge new center will dwarf the effect of the old. This time the wall will turn its back on the East Side, block access to the Central Library and create the kinds of street-deadening spaces that we now associate with the Pearl Street side of the convention center.

Small Idea 2: Old buildings, not new ones, are the incubators of economic growth. While no one building on the site selected for the convention center would make it to the National Register, taken together they create a fabric that most cities would die for. The kind of connectivity that exists on Washington and Ellicott streets -- small buildings, placed close together -- is exactly what has made Chippewa Street and Elmwood Avenue successful.

Entrepreneurs and their customers are drawn to these kinds of places, with their interesting facades, store windows, steps, stoops and little alleys in between. It is the creative reuse of these kinds of buildings that makes for economic vitality and downtown renewal.

Small Idea 3: Not withstanding the comments of Richard Geiger, president of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau, a city should not be developed for visitors and tourists but rather for those of us who live here.

Small Idea 4: Don't use public funds to displace successful, private businesses. The News errs when it says that the area is "hardly a bastion of economic vitality."

On the site that our leaders have chosen to build the convention center, there are more than 30 businesses whose combined payrolls annually exceed $14 million and generate close to $500,000 in taxes. The notion of replacing this small, yet vibrant engine of economic vitality for a publicly funded and subsidized convention center is one of the most ridiculous big ideas ever postulated.

So, is it really time to end this debate? I am not so sure. Are you?

MARK GOLDMAN is the owner of the Calumet Arts Cafe and a leader of Citizens for Common Sense.
For writer guidelines for columns, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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