It's a balmy summer day in Buffalo in the year 2001. A woman stares out the living room window of her new home, her sofa in the same spot where customers of L.L. Berger's used to try on silk blouses.
She watches her neighbors, the Joneses, meandering up Main Street toward the Arcade apartments. She's reminded of a cocktail party she'll attend next week at a friend's home in the old Root Building, now called the Metropole. From there, the group will hit a new restaurant, one of several trendy new downtown eateries.
The woman pauses a moment and can't help but think that it's a beautiful day in the "neighborhood."
Sound like pie-in-the-sky stuff?
It should, considering how years of efforts to lure more residents downtown have been faltering. Officials estimate that fewer than 900 people live in the downtown business district, commonly viewed as the area bordered by Tupper, Seneca, Elmwood and Michigan.
But many local planners are saying it's not that far from reality -- a new reality they're touting as downtown's residential turnaround.
What's fueling the optimism? Several new residential projects are in the works, and several others are in conceptual stages. Developers from as far as Cleveland have shown keen interest in downtown Buffalo over the past three months. If all of their plans pan out, more than 200 new residential units could be built within the next two years.
Janet Sackett and her husband, J. Russell Sackett, have lived in the heart of downtown for three years, first in City Centre at Main and Chippewa, and now in the Ansonia Centre at Main and Tupper. Prior to their move from Sarasota, Fla., they never lived in an urban area.
"One of the biggest benefits is the trolley," she said. "We're also avid theatergoers. Everything is so convenient down here."
Local planners are convinced that Buffalo is on the brink of bringing more Janet Sacketts into the downtown core. Why should anyone buy it?
Community Development Commissioner Joseph Ryan says believe it, it's true. He predicts big things. "I think we're on the verge of doing it," he said. "We're going to see some real movement in the next 12 to 24 months in terms of establishing a very real, economically integrated neighborhood within downtown."
Here's some of what's going on.
Developers are building 10 apartments on the second and third floors of a building in the 600 block of Main Street, the home of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. Nestled between the Market Arcade and the Breckenridge Brew Pub, the Arcade Apartments would offer the typical resident about 1,200 square feet of living space on one or two floors. Rents would be about $700. Planners say there's already a waiting list for the apartments, which should be finished by late summer.
The Root Building, a six-story structure at 86 W. Chippewa, is being converted into a residential complex called the Metropole. The top three floors will house 27 apartments that will rent for between $450 and $550. The residential units should be completed in the late fall.
The Emerson High School culinary and hospitality program is located on the first two floors, and 10,000 square feet of space on the third floor will be rented as office space.
City planners are seeking proposals for redevelopment of the long-vacant L.L. Berger Building at 500-518 Main St. One plan being considered is transforming the complex into a 36-unit apartment complex, with retail or office space on the first floor. The development would offer on-site parking for tenants who would live in apartments ranging from 1,200- to 1,700-square-feet, renting for between $1,000 and $1,200 a month. Developers from as far as Cleveland have expressed an interest in the site.
A local developer has been meeting with downtown planners to discuss the feasibility of converting two buildings on Franklin Street near the Theater District into loft-style apartments.
Meanwhile, the Ansonia Centre at Main and Tupper has 100 percent occupancy in its 58 rental apartment units, with 10 would-be tenants waiting for two-bedroom apartments to become available. In 1986, the 67-year-old building was refurbished and opened as a luxury apartment complex.
Is the optimism justified? Or, is it merely what some are calling fantasy. Cynics scoff, calling all the hoopla over housing just a case of deja vu. They say there was much talk about a downtown residential renaissance back in the late 1980s, when developers of City Centre launched plans to convert the old Nemmer Building into a luxury condominium complex. The goal was to market 40 upscale condos in a building that would also accommodate one floor of retail and four floors of commercial development.
City Centre was plagued by cost overruns and a weak demand for the upscale condos, which were priced at as much as $625,000. In 1994, developers filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy laws. Two years later, a reorganization plan was approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court allowing for completion of the project. To date, 23 of the 40 available condos are occupied.
But planners have since questioned City Centre's decision to court the high-end market. Ryan says the difference this time is important: Planners are trying to cater to a larger pool of prospective city dwellers.
It's different this time, officials say, listing a number of reasons. They're targeting a different market. There is a successful trend around the country of developing downtown residential areas. Local officials are pushing for changes in state building safety codes to make projects more feasible. And, with the success of the Chippewa area, there is a new attitude among younger people toward downtown.
"We're looking for the person who is willing to spend between $600 and $900 a month for an apartment with some basic amenities," Ryan said. "We're looking for the person who wants to live in comfort and who probably works downtown."
It's clear that emphasis is being put on the younger crowd -- twentysomething professionals, single or married without children -- who are anxious to sample city life. Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, believes the under-30 crowd is the most likely group of urban pioneers.
"These are young people who grew up in the suburbs and were told that downtown is dirty, dead and unsafe," Schmand said. "Now, they're coming down to Chippewa Street or to our theaters, and they're getting a very different picture. This is a new downtown. It's not the place that their parents remember."
Which came first?
One of downtown Buffalo's residential success stories has been the Ansonia Centre, a complex that's practically in earshot of the stage at Studio Arena Theater. Property manager E. Ross Arundell said most of the residents work at downtown banks, insurance companies and other businesses. The Ansonia also rents residential units to several local companies.
While some think the complex has been showing its age in recent years, Arundell points to low apartment turnover as a sign of good health for Ansonia. He says Metro Rail's free-fare zone and live theater are big selling points for downtown living.
"But I wish we had more retail downtown. We no longer have a flagship department store, and the nearest full-size grocery store is way over on Elmwood," he laments.
Just how important is a retail infrastructure to urban dwellers? Nobody knows for sure, according to Common Council President James Pitts. He wants to see a survey launched that would determine how much time and money downtown residents actually spend in their neighborhoods. Call it a chicken-and-egg puzzle, urban planning-style. Which needs to come first, the people or the retail businesses?
Luring retail into downtown corridors would be one of the toughest tasks facing planners.
Carl Paladino, whose ownership of 1.5 million square feet of space makes him the largest private landlord in downtown Buffalo, says the people must come first.
"You can't convince a retailer to move downtown on 'if-comes.' They're a lot smarter than that. They want to see critical mass."
Commercial real estate agent Linda Staing, a member of the Building Owners Management Association (BOMA) said most retailers want to see demographic studies within a certain radius before moving into an area. And most grocery store-type businesses aren't sold by the fact that 53,000 people work downtown.
Timothy Jones has lived in the Hotel Lafayette for five years. He serves as building manager in the seven-story building, which is home to 135 residents, most of them single blue-collar workers.
"I like living downtown, but it's more difficult now that Woolworth's and the Bon Ton have closed. Plus, there's no grocery store. Sometimes it gets a little trying."
Clifford Bell, a board member of the Buffalo Enterprise Development Corporation and a former council member-at-large, is among the skeptics of some blueprints for bringing residents into the downtown district. In his words, public officials sometimes let their imaginations take over where logic should prevail.
"If people come downtown to live, where are they going to shop? Where will they park? If there's no comprehensive plan for dealing with these issues, it's not going to work."
To lure stores, you need people. But to bring new residents into downtown, most authorities think Buffalo still has work to do in the area of public safety.
Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske claims it's a battle against the demon of perception.
"Our crime statistics in the downtown area are amazingly low. There isn't a real problem," he says, noting that most crimes are of a minor nature and occur around bars or near vehicles.
Mary A. Rolfes, who has lived in Rivermist on the waterfront for about two years, thinks planners must do more to deal with empty lots and vacant buildings.
But transforming vacant buildings into bustling apartment complexes can be expensive. Developers have long grumbled that state building codes make it cost-prohibitive to convert upper-floor space into residential units.
Local officials are trying to build support in Albany for revisions that would give developers more flexibility when dealing with safety codes. For example, instead of mandating the costly installation of an additional exit, give developers the option of putting in a sprinkler system.
New Jersey recently revised its codes for rehabilitating the upper floors of older buildings, a move that has reportedly reduced costs of renovation by anywhere from 4 to 40 percent. The state's largest business lobbying group claims that the more flexible guidelines have triggered economic development in Trenton and other urban areas.
Is planning the answer?
Henry Taylor, director for urban studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, thinks government leaders are so worried about being viewed as suffering from "analysis paralysis" that they fail to craft long-term visions.
"There's a very powerful anti-planning segment in this community," he said. "There's a 'just do it' mentality which permeates the area. Until we get out of the shovel-in-the-dirt mindset, there will be no true appreciation for planning."
Taylor urges planners to think in terms of "clustering" as they try to attract residential units into the downtown core. Taylor thinks breaking the market down into subsets would help the city tailor neighborhoods to specific pockets of the population.
For example, the Cobblestone District might be suited to artsy types who are looking for funky lofts in an urban setting, but not too close to bars and nightspots. The bustling Chippewa strip might be labeled "the student zone." Other areas might be tailored to government and hospital workers, and still other zones would cater to the upscale crowd, a la City Centre.
The clustering approach has worked in other cities. In Peekskill, for example, budding painters and sculptors live and work in affordable lofts in the "Artists' District." Chicago has found an upscale clientele for the loft-style apartments and luxury condos in Printer's Row, a once-thriving mecca for publishing houses that suffered a slow decline heightened by the Depression and the war years.
Denver has managed to market new downtown housing to younger professionals. About 1,000 residential units were in some stage of planning last year alone, and upbeat developers predict that the pace will continue through 1998.
Cleveland planners boast that by the end of the year, 2,400 new units of residential housing will have been built in the downtown core since 1990. And the trends are encouraging: 97 percent of the individuals who have moving into Cleveland's "Warehouse District" and around the Gateway sports complex hail from outside the city.
"It has been a pretty successful effort. Initially, most of the people moving downtown were doing so to be closer to work. But these days, one in four people are actually commuting out to suburban work places," says Mike Thomas, an official with Downtown Development Coordinators, a Cleveland-based non-profit corporation.
Janet Sackett is no expert in urban planning, but she thinks downtown has a lot to offer residents. She lives and works in the Ansonia Centre. Her fitness consulting firm, Body and Soul, is based at 712 Main.
"I can walk to the theater, the post office, even to the veterinarian. Sure, I'd like a supermarket, but living downtown is convenient."
Ms. Sackett likes life in her neighborhood. All that's missing are neighbors.