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Summer start eyed for work on Main Street ; Project will return car traffic to 600 block

Construction will likely begin late this summer or early this fall on a long-discussed project that will return traffic to the 600 block of Main Street in the Theater District, downtown leaders predicted.

Following delays, crews are expected to begin work on the newest phase of the Cars Sharing Main Street project before winter. They will begin at the northern end of the block, between Tupper Street and the portal where Metro Rail trains enter and exit the surface track, said Debra L. Chernoff, planning manager for Buffalo Place.

"They'll get new pavement down before the snow flies," said Chernoff, whose group has been working closely with the city and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on the project.

Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael T. Schmand said that, depending on how much work winter's weather will accommodate, he's cautiously optimistic that traffic will return to the 600 block by late next spring or in the summer.

People need only visit the 700 block of Main between Tupper and Goodell streets to get a sense of how the changes will look, Schmand said. Two-way traffic returned to that stretch of Main in 2009.

Preliminary design work is also beginning for changes that will eventually return vehicles to the 500 block, which runs between Chippewa and Mohawk streets.

The work is part of the long-term blueprint that would return traffic to Main Street from Goodell to the Buffalo River at a cost that is expected to exceed $40 million.

Buffalo Place officials said the project is largely funded by the federal and state governments. Schmand said funds are in place for work on the 500 and 600 blocks of Main. He expressed confidence that funds will be secured for additional phases.

"Once we get these projects going and show people the results, I think [future phases] will be very fundable," Schmand said.

When the pedestrian mall was built in the 1980s, planners trumpeted it as a step that would attract businesses and customers to the business district. The opposite occurred, and most have branded the project a failed experiment.

"I want to be able to drive from this point at Main and Tupper all the way down to our beautiful downtown Buffalo waterfront," Schmand said as he surveyed the 600 block of Main. "I imagine within the next four years, I'll be able to do that."

The city is serving as the lead agency for the Cars Sharing Main Street initiative. City officials have declined to comment on the status of the project twice in the past month.

The planned changes along the 600 block triggered controversy last year. A citizens transit group was unsuccessful in efforts to prod planners to revise blueprints. Citizens for Regional Transit opposed plans to eliminate the Theater Station on the Metro Rail line. When the next phase of the project is completed, the first station on the surface portion of the line will be at Fountain Plaza. The group also voiced concerns that having vehicles share the right of way with Metro Rail trains would spur service delays and undermine public safety.

Schmand said he's convinced the design is sound and has overwhelming support.

"You'll never get a unanimous vote on a lot of things, but I think we're as near unanimous as we possibly could get," said Schmand, who insisted that the project has been the focus of extensive public input.

Returning vehicles to Main Street will bring new vitality to the district, Schmand added.

"It's not a silver bullet, but I believe it's going to be a game-changer," he said.

The owner of one of the city's oldest businesses said returning vehicles to the stretch of Main Street where her shop is located has been positive.

However, Linda L. Steffan of M. Steffan's Sons Leather Supplies doesn't believe the project by itself will revive the area.

"It's a start, but there are so many buildings that are not rented," Steffan said.

People must be given more reasons to trek downtown, said Steffan, whose family has operated the leather supplies business since the early 1850s.

"There's nothing really here," she lamented, adding that people who flock to hockey games, baseball games and theatrical performances often leave after the events end.

Planners must try to replicate on Main Street the type of retail activity that has blossomed in the Elmwood Village, Steffan said.

"Elmwood is kind of a lot of little shops -- a lot of quaint shops. I think that's what we need to really do [on Main Street]," she said.