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BUFFALO'S downtown, despite the progress it has made, is still nearly deserted except when office workers are coming and going at rush hours or lunch time. What can change that most readily -- and change it for good -- is a population living downtown.

The problem now is that there aren't very many places to live in the area near Buffalo Place, the downtown transit mall. Neighborhoods are out and away; and downtown reflects that, with little weekend street life and a dearth of small stores and services.

That is why it is good news that the city is apparently proceeding with success in a condominium project for Pearl Street. The new housing for middle-income people -- probably mostly young singles or couples -- is to be right behind Shea's Buffalo in the Theater District.

Toronto's Robert C. Benia, has won designation as the project's developer and will proceed to detailed planning on the $5 million, 32-unit project. First-floor retail space would also be included.

City planners have been saying for years that one of downtown's problems is that it lacks a natural constituency. Residents of a neighborhood speak up for their areas, both in the political wars and day-to-day, to the public as well as the government.

Residents know what would make their neighborhoods better and fight for it. They bring an intimate knowledge and fund of ideas to the planning and developing process. And most importantly, services follow them. Stores and shops will spring up downtown when there are enough people there to make them profitable.

This new condominium project will be most successful if it is eventually seen as one of downtown's early pioneers -- joining the Ansonia project and the planned condominiums in the Nemmer Building -- both nearby. The pioneer projects should serve as catalysts to bring more private residential developers to the area.

Benia has six months to complete plans for the project. Buffalo residents can hope for the kind of solid plan and buyer interest that will allow them to heartily wish this developer success.

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