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Efforts to lure more residents into the central business district in hopes of cultivating a "24-hour downtown" will get some help from a volunteer team of outside experts.

The American Institute of Architects plans to dispatch a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) to Buffalo within the next several months. Founded 31 years ago, the program has assisted 130 communities across the nation, providing what organizers describe as grassroots-driven approaches to dealing with community development.

Local planners said they think the effort will bring "a neutral perspective" to the process and help to identify strategies that have been used in other regions for fostering urban residential development.

Charles Redmon, a Massachusetts architect who sits on the association's R/UDAT task force, and Allan Mallach, a New Jersey housing expert, spent two days in Buffalo this week to hold a series of preliminary meetings. They will solicit additional input from all interested parties when they return for the formal visit in February or March.

Several downtown housing projects are currently in the works, including plans to transform the former Trico complex, M. Wile & Co. plant and L.L. Berger building into apartments.

"There appears to be strong interest in downtown housing, but the effort seems to be fragmented," said Redmon. "There's the chance for greater success when you create a synergy between projects and create a larger mass of living opportunities."

Redmon said bringing in six to eight volunteer fact-finders with diversity backgrounds can help to pinpoint priorities.

"Sometimes, communities have so many issues on the table, they're not sure which ones should be addressed first," said Redmon. "We'll be talking with individuals, learning about their visions for downtown and trying to find out what factors might be getting in the way."

The local chapter of the AIA worked with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's Buffalo Development Council to apply for inclusion in the R/UDAT initiative. Matthew W. Meier, a Buffalo architect who is chairing the local steering committee, said one of the immediate goals is to dispel the notion that downtown is currently a "wasteland" when it comes to residential living.

"There's the perception that there's no downtown housing and it's simply not true," said Meier. "We might not have the loft-style units that are popular in other cities, but there's already housing in the downtown core."

Planners have estimated that between 900 and 1,000 people currently live in the downtown business district. Residential complexes include the Ansonia Centre at Main and Tupper, City Centre in the 600-block of Main Street and the Market Arcade apartments, located across from Shea's Performing Arts Center.

Whenever planners discuss downtown revitalization, one question frequently surfaces: What must come first -- residential or retail?

"Housing has to come first," said Redmon. "Retail will follow. But first, you need to create a larger mass of people."

While the R/UDAT team performs its assessment on a volunteer basis, Meier said other expenses will be incurred during the process, including travel and administrative costs. He said the local steering committee plans to raise about $50,000 from a variety of sources.

The final report that will be issued shortly after the site visit will create an "action plan" for encouraging downtown housing. Redmon said past efforts have included strategies for marketing downtown districts to residential markets.

Redmon said objectivity is enhanced by the fact that team members agree in advance that they will not pursue any contracts with the municipalities being studied for at least three years.

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