Automobiles were banned from nearly all of Main Street downtown when Metro Rail was built in the 1980s, although cars had shared the street with trolleys for many years before those were removed in 1950.
Cars and trains will share the road again, according to the city's plan for a Main Street makeover that, while not extreme, will reverse a decision that some say accelerated the downturn of downtown.
"As far as I'm concerned, they destroyed the whole heart of the city," said Buffalo resident Charles Griffasi, who has lobbied to return cars to Main Street almost since they were banned two decades ago.
Griffasi might finally get his way as early as next year, at least for the first segment of the plan in the Theater District. The city has $6 million of the $12 million it needs, and city officials say they are confident they can obtain the rest.
It's estimated that about $40 million more will be needed to complete the job for the entire length of Main Street.
Construction would occur in four stages, with no stage taking more than one construction season to finish.
A final design plan is expected by fall, but one thing has been decided: cars will travel on the same track bed that carries the transit cars. And because of that, the train's existing stations will be changed. A few might even be eliminated.
"The stations take up quite a bit of space now," said John M. DiDonato of DiDonato Associates, the Main Street firm in charge of the redesign. The new stations won't "dominate the streetscape like they do now."
The plan now is to tear down the existing Metro stations and replace them with smaller ones, likely made with glass and stainless steel, DiDonato said.
Engineers are figuring out what to do with the poles that supply power to the rail system. Currently, they are between the two sets of tracks.
Some poles will be moved "no matter what, because of turn lanes and that type of thing," DiDonato said, but designers are considering moving all the poles to the side of the tracks. Curbs will be cut at points to allow for parking -- the current plan is 150 spaces. Surveys indicated parking was a priority for merchants, restaurant owners and residents. Crosswalks will get special paving, and sidewalks will be redone.
"We'll be doing the sidewalk areas in different types of concrete, like stamped and exposed aggregate," DiDonato said.
The overall look will be designed to make the area more welcoming, he said.
"Right now, you have a lot of uninviting, hard to maintain and worn out areas, everything from the track bed, which is cracked, to the sidewalks, which are heaved," DiDonato said.
Proponents say bringing cars onto Main Street will help restore vitality to an area that "most nights, you could shoot a cannon down," said Michael T. Schmand, executive director of the downtown development agency Buffalo Place. "We want to change that."
Schmand pointed to surveys showing that, since 1987, Main Street property values and retail space declined nearly 50 percent while vacancies increased by nearly 25 percent.
Buffalo's pedestrian mall is "probably too long," according to Dave Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association, who said the city was "probably better off" restoring cars to Main Street.
"You probably have four or five years before you get a critical mass of residents downtown," he said. "During that time, it's going to help things rather than hurt things."
There are those who don't think returning cars to Main Street is a good idea, including developer Paul Ciminelli, a member of the Buffalo Place board.
"I don't know if it's the highest and best use of $40 million," he said, adding that he feels the money would be better spent encouraging the fledgling residential community.
But two downtown residents said they welcomed the move.
William Smith manages the Ansonia and Sidway buildings and said most of the residents "are all for it."
Ansonia Center resident Jim Burke, who has lived downtown for 18 years, said the Main Street traffic will "bring people downtown, and the more people downtown, the better."
Downtown merchants expressed a variety of opinions, with some saying the plan may be too late for them.
"I think they've taken too long to do it, and they've already killed business on Main Street," said Judy Fuentes, owner of Grever's Flower Shop at 537 Main St.
Sam Gullo of Crinzi and Gullo Jewelers, which has been in Ellicott Square since 1957, believes it will take more than cars on Main Street to fill those vacant storefronts.
"I think what will attract people and cars is business," he said. "Part of the plan should be recruiting small businesses, not large ones, that people can pull up and run into, like you would on Grant Street or Elmwood Avenue."
Eric Smith, general manger for Ultimate Restaurants, which includes the City Grill at 268 Main St., looks forward to the traffic.
"It would be extremely beneficial not only to the businesses on Main Street but to downtown as a whole," he said.
But he remains skeptical. "I don't know if it will happen," Smith said. "They've been speaking about it for so many years now."
>Solid political support
This time it's different, officials insist.
Some construction on the rail line is inevitable, according to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, because much of the infrastructure needs to be replaced.
"The track bed rehabilitation would have to be done as part of its natural life expectancy," NFTA Executive Director Lawrence M. Meckler said. "It makes sense to do it as part of this entire project."
And there seems to be solid political support. Mayor Byron W. Brown called putting cars back on Main Street "one of my top priorities in terms of our federal legislative requests."
The city's representatives in Washington, including Sens. Charles. E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, said they are committed to finding the money to complete the project.
"We can get this thing fully funded," said Rep. Brian M. Higgins, who said the plan will gather momentum once it's started.
"Our ability to get future phases funded is dependent on our ability to show progress and complete the first phase," Higgins said.