Buffalo police propose closing the popular West Chippewa Street club strip to motor vehicles on weekend nights, and that leaves some bar owners fuming.
"It's absolutely horrible," said John Brinkworth, president of the Chippewa Business Association and manager of the House O'Quinn. "You need traffic on the street because people like to drive by and see who's busy. Nobody that I've talked to wants this."
What's particularly galling to Brinkworth and other entrepreneurs is that police and city officials have met twice in the past two weeks about closing Chippewa between Pearl Street and Delaware Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights and haven't approached them about how it might affect their businesses.
"It's typical of the way the city is being handled these days," Brinkworth said Monday. "Doing stuff without consulting the people involved. We have something on this street that's like nothing else in Erie County. I don't think it's right."
West Chippewa, which for many years was a seedy area of gin mills and populated by prostitutes, has blossomed in the 1990s to become a popular bar and club scene attracting thousands of young adults from throughout the region.
Deputy Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina said his department is responding to complaints the two-way street can become so congested on weekends that emergency vehicles and other traffic can't get through without significant delays.
"Our inspectors and captains are telling us the situation down there is dangerous," Diina said. "This isn't a Police Department decision. We're working with public works, parking violations and the bus company. Our next step is to reach out to the business community."
Diina added that downtown theater patrons are complaining about getting caught in traffic on West Chippewa. He said simply enforcing traffic laws against double-parked cars and other violators leads to complaints from limousine operators and bar owners.
"Having congestion in downtown Buffalo is a very nice problem to have," he said. "The last thing we want to do is disrupt business, but our concern is public safety and sometimes there's a clash."
The proposal being considered would have police install barricades to close West Chippewa between Pearl and Franklin streets, and between Franklin and Delaware between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Franklin and Pearl streets would remain open.
Mark Goldman, owner of the Calumet Arts Cafe, described the city plan as a "tempest in a teapot" but added he opposes closing West Chippewa.
"It's not a good idea," he said, "but it's something that can be handled with a phone call."
He may be underestimating the momentum behind the idea, however.
A police memorandum by Lt. Sal Losi obtained by The Buffalo News stated, in part: "It seems like it will be a question of 'when' rather than 'if' this closing will occur. The city is moving faster on this project than I have ever seen."
The city public works commissioner has the authority to close a street temporarily without obtaining Common Council approval, said Daniel E. Kreuz, city engineer.
That doesn't sit well with Council Member at Large Barbra A. Kavanaugh, who is a frequent daytime visitor at Spot Coffee, a West Chippewa coffee house.
"I'd hate to see us do what government does all too often," she said. "When the private sector has been successful, we start changing the rules."
She added that the idea of closing the street to facilitate emergency access also doesn't make sense.
"I don't know how they'll plow through the bodies that will then use it as a plaza," Ms. Kavanaugh said.
Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, said his downtown organization, which has an agreement with West Chippewa operators to clean the street, doesn't believe it needs to be closed.
"We already have a pedestrian mall, we don't need another one," he said. "If you turn that street into one big party central, you'll have all kinds of bottles and cups to clean up. I think it's important to keep the street open because it adds to the excitement."
Diina emphasized no decision will be made until everyone has had an opportunity to speak. He plans to meet with Brinkworth today and also wants to consult with Goldman and Buffalo Place.
"If they have a plausible reason not to do it," he said, "it won't be done."