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Downtown pioneers didn’t wait for revival

They were among the first drops of the coming cloudburst. The rolling pebbles that signal a subsequent earthquake.

That’s how I think of them. An urban Lewis & Clark, boldly venturing where few had gone before. They carved a space on the frontier, because no settlement was waiting.

Those were different times.

These days, brick-walled, high-ceilinged lofts in ex-industrial downtown Buffalo space are so common it verges on cliché. Newly rehabbed places in and around downtown open seemingly weekly – and demand still outpaces supply.

Before the feast was famine.

A generation ago, Mark and Jill Wisz were 20-something professionals who wanted to live downtown in a Manhattan-style loft. It was then a residential species so rare they had to go under the radar.

They ferreted out what thousands of young professionals and empty nesters now cherry-pick. The second-floor space on the 700 block of Main Street was zoned for business, used as an office and next to an auto repair shop guarded by snarling dogs.

They heard about it from a friend, called the owner, asked if they could live there.

It was the size of a basketball court, with 14-foot ceilings, brick walls and a cascade of drafty windows. It was theirs for $725 a month, plus utilities and a vow to keep the illegal digs on the down-low.

For nearly three years in the late 1990s, they and two dogs called it home.

“There weren’t any places like that in downtown then,” Mark Wisz told me. “We’d drive around, looking at abandoned warehouses, hoping to find something.”

I spoke with them last week in the Elmwood Village office of OtherWisz Creative, their marketing/design studio. Her quick smile, multipierced ears and dark eyes convey an elegant-but-everyday vibe. His spiky hair and designer eyewear, mashed with an aw-shucks congeniality, reflect a DJ/bartender/techie résumé. Still hip, after all these years.

Downtown was different then. They knew homeless people by name. Skateboarders set up a half-pipe in vacant space above them. There wasn’t a laundromat for miles. The street was deserted after hours. But they were steps from Shea’s, a pre-juvenile Chippewa Street, the Metro Rail and a seeding of bars and restaurants that has grown into a bumper crop.

“I loved downtown, the look and scale of the buildings,” Jill Wisz said. “It was great, being able to walk everywhere.”

Mark Wisz nodded.

“It was a cool place to live,” he said, “even though there weren’t many people around.”

More than a blip on the radar, they were evidence of a market waiting to happen. There were plenty more like them, without the savvy or desire to live under the radar.

Study after study showed a demand for downtown living, but little supply. Reasons ranged from a byzantine City Hall permit process that punished investors, to an overly cautious development community, to the unbalanced equation of high rehab costs coupled with low rental return.

But similarly sized cities, from Cleveland to St. Louis, had hyperventilating downtowns. Ours remained on life support. It didn’t compute.

That changed, in typical Buffalo fashion, when outsiders validated downtown’s worth. Architect/activist Matt Meier, frustrated with downtown inertia, arranged in 2001 for a SWAT team of out-of-town developers to parachute in for a long weekend. They came, saw, and – in a milestone moment – said we had a great stock of great old buildings, and were nuts not to fill them with lofts, apartments and condos.

Six months after the RUDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team) gathering, the late Bernie Obletz jump-started downtown’s revival by opening Elk Terminal lofts, near what’s now Canalside. Within six years, according to a 2008 News story, the number of new apartments quadrupled from the previous two decades. The revival was in gear.

It upshifted again after state-backed historic tax credits cut rehab costs. Now, new downtown space fills as it opens. Restaurants, bars and hotels sprout like daisies. A long-awaited supermarket is promised.

All of which confirmed what many said decades ago: Rehab it, and they will come.

The barren landscape where Mark and Jill Wisz once settled is no more. They long ago left the loft to start a family. But biking now with their two kids from Elmwood Village to Canalside, they roll past the old block. It’s bookended by an apartment building, restaurant and wine store. Their loft is in the only yet-undeveloped building.

“It’s exciting, to see all these people living downtown,” said Mark Wisz. “What we had to search for, people can easily find now.”

The urban frontier has been settled. The pioneers couldn’t be happier.