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It is time to start telling a new story about downtown Buffalo. We know the old one. We have told it to each other over and over again. Downtown is dead. Nobody goes there. Everyone is leaving. There is no plan or vision for downtown.

There are just two problems with the old story. First, it's not true anymore. Second, continuing to tell this out-of-date story works against efforts to make downtown better because it discounts work already accomplished and in progress.

Civic stories are self-fulfilling prophecies. If we tell a story that emphasizes only problems and failures, then we make our work even more daunting. But if we also tell a new story about recent accomplishments and opportunities along with the challenges, we make our success more likely.

This is not a call for wishful thinking or denial. It's a call for a new attitude. The subway in Portland, Ore., has about the same ridership per capita as Buffalo's, but theirs is seen as a success, ours a failure. Why? Some of the answer is in our attitude, and attitude makes a difference.

Yes, there are serious problems to overcome to make downtown the place we all want it to be -- like an office vacancy rate of about 25 percent. But we have a much better chance of whittling that number down if we acknowledge the strides we have taken and work together to build on that positive energy.

Planning and action

Contrary to stories you may have heard, Mayor Anthony Masiello has established a consensus plan for downtown Buffalo, and business and government are working together to implement it. It is a plan that makes difficult choices about where to invest public resources, builds on a successful history of past investments and is expanding the critical mass of mixed-use places we need for a great downtown.

"The new Queen City Hub: A Regional Action Plan for Downtown Buffalo," to be released early next month, was built on a foundation laid by the Strategic Plan for Downtown Buffalo issued by the mayor in September 1999. The new Queen City Hub plan was created by Downtown Buffalo 2002! even as its participants implemented the earlier plan. The planning team worked with 18 public and private sector organizations and the broader downtown constituency to identify and implement priorities on living, working and accessing downtown. For example:

* Living: More than $90 million is being invested in priority neighborhoods to create more than 700 housing units in existing buildings and related infrastructure. A new Downtown Neighborhood Development Corp. is linking private and public action. Local and state codes and permit procedures have been revised to make it easier to rehabilitate and reuse existing buildings. Recent construction includes Ellicott Lofts by Burke Brothers Development, the Elk Terminal lofts by First Amherst, work on several sites by Ellicott Development Corp. and work in progress on many other projects.

* Working: Adaptive reuse projects are helping create new vitality through the reincarnation of the old Jackson Building as the new Hampton Inn and Suites at Chippewa and Delaware and the rehabilitation of the former M. Wile facility as the Century City I office building at Washington and Goodell. The historic Guaranty Building is under restoration for renewed occupancy. There are two new office buildings in the Theater District, one completed last year and one breaking ground this spring.

* Access: Several one-way streets are now two-way. Main Street will be opened to automobile traffic, and there is new lighting on the street. The intermodal transportation center is moving ahead, and a comprehensive approach to parking has already freed up 2,000 spaces in the core through revised on-street parking zones, shuttle system implementation and the creation of new incentives for transit users. And new capacity in the core is coming on line in a mixed use facility on Huron.

Based on the pace of public and private sector development in the first three years of this decade, the 2000s are projected to see more than twice the level of investment that occurred during the 1990s. Such concrete action is heartening precisely because it adheres to the strategic vision of the Queen City Hub plan.

Strategic investment areas

The new Queen City Hub plan directs investment to five strategic areas that represent our current economic base and best potential for future job growth.

1. The Theater District is one of downtown's most important success stories. The district -- from Chippewa to Tupper on Main -- has been almost completely reconstructed with 15 significant projects in two decades. Chippewa and nearby streets continue to attract investments following 10 significant projects from 1990 to 2002 on those blocks. All of these build on the Fountain Plaza redevelopments of the 1980s.

2. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus on the northeast corner of downtown is one of the region's most important economic ventures. Investments by partner institutions will exceed $250 million in this decade. They promise to generate 3,000 to 5,000 new jobs, related economic spin-offs, and help adjacent neighborhoods improve. This is in addition to $250 million invested in the 1990s at places like the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Pillars Hotel.

3. The Downtown Education and Public Safety Campus, an initiative announced just last year, already in the planning stages, will bring thousands more regular daytime visitors to downtown and boost markets for housing, restaurants, entertainment and shopping. This investment will enable the redevelopment of a large corner of downtown and help further connect it to near East Side neighborhoods.

4. The Erie Canal Harbor and Waterfront District, with a combination of heritage, recreation, sports, entertainment, transportation, housing and retail attractions, will leverage more than $100 million in private investment and provide another economic anchor in the tourism industry.

5. The Government and Finance District, long the mainstay of the regional center economy, is the site of several hundred million dollars of reinvestment. The new Erie County Family Court Building, a planned U.S. Federal Court, a new office building and renovations to the Rath Building, Old County Hall, the historic Guaranty Building and 25 Delaware are important reinforcements of Downtown's role as a regional government and business center.

Principles for action

The plan also calls for investments in key downtown activities that link the strategic investment areas to the surrounding ring of neighborhoods and to the waterfront.

Buffalonians understand that new residents are required for downtown to be great. The plan identifies four priority areas for neighborhood development -- and that's exactly where developers and the city are investing.

Shopping has suffered a long-term decline. The plan says how to rebuild shopping by attracting daytime workers, nighttime residents, visitors and residents of adjacent neighborhoods as the combined market for new stores in the core. Strategies for investing in "working downtown" and visitor-based economies will support this growing retail market. For example, new restaurants were more numerous downtown than anywhere else in the region last year.

The key to continued success is disciplined and detailed planning, implementation and monitoring endorsed by the people who are responsible for making it happen. They will carry each one of these principles forward. Every strategic investment area, key activity and principle for making a good downtown is connected to action items, schedules and key participants.

Finally, "The new Queen City Hub: A Regional Action Plan for Downtown Buffalo" is a key part of "The Queen City in the 21st Century: The Buffalo Comprehensive Plan." As such, it will be part of the legal framework for planning in our city and builds on relationships among the waterfront and our access to it, a 21st century interpretation of the 1804 Ellicott radial street plan as well as the Olmsted Park and Parkway System.

Challenges ahead

Downtown Buffalo has some difficult challenges ahead: filling empty buildings, implementing an integrated parking and access strategy, improving the pedestrian experience, as well as improving its planning and economic development delivery system.

Increased office tenancy in the center city requires available space in desirable locations and configurations. So we need a judicious expansion of technologically up-to-date space combined with the reuse of older office buildings, all tailored to meet new demands. This approach is helping reduce the vacancy rate without stunting economic growth.

That is what happened with the Hampton Inn transformation on Chippewa, and it is what is happening right now with the renovation of the Sidway building at Main and Goodell for apartments. The approach is reinforced with new office space at several other sites.

Downtown Buffalo suffers from an overabundance of surface parking, something that threatens to suburbanize what should be a uniquely urban and pedestrian environment. Twenty-eight percent of the land area of downtown is parking, mostly surface lots and a few parking structures. Buildings cover only 27 percent of the land area. This means that the reasons to come downtown -- offices, shops, restaurants, theaters and other places -- are dominated by the places to put your car when you get there. Parking lots don't make for a very appealing downtown environment.

The solution is to redevelop our expansive surface parking lots as mixed-use buildings that incorporate structured parking with retail and entertainment space, offices and housing. Such buildings use downtown property much more efficiently, make it possible to create lively streetscapes, and put parking capacity where it is needed. In concert with a new emphasis on transit, this will create a new urban density and improve access.

All of downtown faces a continuing shortfall in the resources needed to maintain a quality public realm. While Main Street gets special care from Buffalo Place Inc., Metro Rail capital improvements and cars sharing Main Street will also reinforce the transit mall soon. Even so, much of downtown needs additional capital and maintenance attention.

Sidewalks, crosswalks, bus shelters, street lights, sidewalk lighting, building lighting, benches, landscaping, trees, flower baskets, banners and trash receptacles -- all high-quality -- are needed, both for those who live downtown and those who visit. Imagine such investments on key radial and grid streets in the Ellicott plan -- all as envisioned in the call for different levels of "Great Streets" in the Queen City Hub plan.

A shared responsibility

There will always be people who want to know "Who lost National Fuel?" or whatever institution has decided to relocate from downtown. Part of telling a new story about downtown has to involve an end to simplistic finger pointing and blaming. The process of city-making is too complicated and involves too much multiparty collaboration to allow for that.

Instead, we need to embrace a shared responsibility for the future of our city center. We need to learn from and accept responsibility for our collective successes and failures. We also need to continue to implement the structural reforms that support collaboration and efficiency in economic development, business retention and planning. Finally, we need to stop greeting success with the cynical, "It is about time!" and start cheering while we work still harder on the challenges.

Those of us who support downtown think institutions that choose other locations will miss the identity, excitement, centrality and conveniences of downtown. Some decision-makers have obviously made a different calculation. Downtown isn't for everyone. Still, some also believe that departing corporations often leave with unmet civic responsibilities.

Even as National Fuel departs, we see new commitments by M&T Bank and Blue Cross/Blue Shield and by all levels of government to find new space downtown. Sensing this enthusiasm, developers have provided the first new office buildings in more than a decade.

Concentrating on making downtown increasingly competitive with other business locations means not demanding charity from governments or companies. Downtown is a unique product and must compete in the market on its own merits. We need to increase our uniqueness as a regional center instead of trying to be more like our suburban campus and car-culture alternatives.

Urban analysts from Toronto's Jane Jacobs to Charleston's Mayor Joe Riley agree: Downtowns are vital to the fate of their regions. Many examples around the country demonstrate that healthy regions have healthy central cities, and healthy central cities have strong and vibrant downtowns.

Downtown remains the economic core of the region. Forty percent of all business activity in the city occurs there. It is the heart of our job base and tax base. It is also the hub that holds together an array of regional cultural entertainment resources and revitalizing neighborhoods. Downtown is the neighborhood of neighborhoods for all of Buffalo Niagara.

Downtown is the special-event capital of the region, drawing over 2.2 million visitors annually. More than 7 million a year visit downtown for sports, festivals, theater, libraries, conventions, religious services and special events. Downtown is the core of our identity as a regional community.

So we have a new story to tell about downtown. It is that things are changing. Downtown is reviving and restructuring to meet the demands of the new century. We have a plan, and we are working together to make it real. "We" is a consortium of business, government, colleges and universities, and citizen organizations. No one of us can do it alone. All of us need to do it better.

ROBERT SHIBLEY, who heads the University at Buffalo urban design department, was the director of Downtown Buffalo 2002!

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