Many politicians and The News have lined up behind building a new convention center on the Mohawk site. Richard Geiger, executive director of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau, says this isn't really about where the community wants it built, but where the end-user wants it built. So, we're going to tear down part of Main Street -- again -- and throw up yet one more downtown-planning mistake.
This, even as we talk of little else but our past planning mistakes and even as we're just starting to meet with success on Main Street. Restaurants and nightclubs are expanding because the theaters are pulling audiences. The new police station nears completion, and residential development is beginning. New businesses are trickling in and the Chippewa strip is expanding.
Now, picture a Main Street in 10 years where we've built on this success and erased many past mistakes. The trolleys run down the middle but cars have come back. Hundreds make their homes in renovated upper floors, and retail business has earned a toehold below. The playhouses, the movie show and the bars pack 'em in, and it's still the place the whole region flocks to for the big events: A Taste of Buffalo, First Night and New Year's Eve.
In the middle of this, we'll put a convention center? Main Street doesn't need it. Blocks long and self-contained, the planned center is so vast that it will divide east from west as thoroughly as Main Place hides Niagara Square from M&T. It will strain parking, leaving fewer spaces for other downtown events. Traffic on Washington Street will crawl under the strain, and when it's time to expand the building, we'll have to rip apart even more of what, we hope, is by then a thriving area.
Geiger is only half-right. Convention-goers' needs must be met. But we do have a stake in making sure that this building does no harm. It must help downtown. Let's build it where it won't result in future hand-wringing over another shortsighted decision.
Some suggest the Cobblestone District. But there's nothing there. We cannot afford to gamble this investment on the hope that hotels and restaurants will spring up there. And imagine a convention agreeing to have its thousands of attendees bused or trained a mile or more from their hotels each day.
This leaves lower Delaware Avenue. This area is largely empty but, unlike Cobblestone, is a site no one has plans for. It sits only a couple blocks farther from the Hyatt than the Mohawk site and is several blocks closer to other hotels.
Delaware Avenue has the four-lane capacity to handle traffic and to park dozens of buses during events. And lower Elmwood can serve as a sturdy alternate route when the streets around the center are clogged. Building here also begins to spread downtown to the west toward Niagara Street.
Geiger's concern that we'll argue this to death is well-founded. The existing center is obsolete and Buffalo needs the business that conventions can bring -- fast. The new building will be state-of-the-art and the proven skills of the Convention and Visitors Bureau staff will keep it filled.
By building on Delaware, we can improve an empty section of downtown, expand the central city, make the best use of our existing hotels and do no harm to Main Street -- an area that slowly is coming back to life.
CRAIG HOWARD lives in Buffalo.
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