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City steps up $11.25 million in public money will help redevelop vacant buildings downtown

A new and welcome downtown redevelopment plan for Buffalo brings to life ideas that have been sitting on the shelf for years. The aim is to do something about the 2 million square feet of office space sitting vacant, including 10 empty buildings.

Critical to this mission is $11.25 million in funding from the city. Public money at a time when funding is generally scarce should help private developers deal with such problems as small floor plates, structural and environmental problems and a general lack of parking.

Last week, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership unveiled the Buffalo Building Reuse Project designed to pave the way for private sector investors to complete redevelopment projects. Such redevelopment would increase downtown's competitiveness for 21st century commercial, residential and retail use.

More than 30 business and development leaders volunteered to study the problem. They built upon the city's award-winning Queen City Hub strategic plan, with target areas for residential development, and examined the best practices in peer cities such as Cincinnati.

Mayor Byron W. Brown asked the Partnership in December 2010 to study downtown's oversupply of commercial office space. In the best-practice cities, every one had a dedicated government funding stream to pay for public infrastructure and amenities and cover gaps in project financing.

It's also important that the project designates a lead entity for downtown redevelopment. There needs to be a single agency committed to downtown development. The Buffalo Urban Development Corp. will have that responsibility, and will get expanded resources to ensure that it can take the lead on redevelopment.

The Building Reuse Project will take a market-based approach to dealing with the 2 million square feet of vacant space in the downtown area and filling it with residential,retail-related and commercial use.

Most of the downtown buildings that were easy to redevelop have been redeveloped. Now, the challenge is to remake smaller, older and less-desirable space by taking on targeted areas to build critical mass. Focusing on residential in-fill is important in the short run, because that's where demand will continue to be. Developing new living spaces creates neighborhoods and a critical mass of people, which then creates the demand for retail.

The just-announced downtown redevelopment plan expands upon the success of both the Buffalo Medical Campus and Larkinville. And, as Brown said, the new plan goes hand-in-hand with the $30 million in federal and state funding for returning cars to Main Street, improving Ellicott and Pearl streets and the Chippewa Streetscape project.

Improvements such as making streets two-way, slowing traffic or adding trees are necessary to downtown redevelopment of older cities. The Buffalo Building Reuse Project will work with those improvements and help developers overcome the challenges of transforming tired, vacant buildings into vibrant residential and commercial space.