For the first time in Buffalo’s history, residents are considering selling single-family homes to live in downtown hotels, tiny urban villages, luxurious lofts and massive industrial structures. No wonder. These are exciting times in the Queen City, and the charge is coming from downtown.
But as a move to Main Street is considered, particularly by those accustomed to suburban living, many questions arise. Where will we buy groceries, park the car, place our gardens, have holiday dinners? How will the new downtown accommodate young families, empty-nesters, retirees, the physically handicapped and the routines of daily lives?
The immediate short answer is “not well.” But the better answer is “not well, yet.”
The area we’re talking about is the Central Business District. The CBD is a rectangle a mile long and a half-mile wide. It has Main Street at its core, and is edged on the north end by Goodell Street, on the south by Seneca Tower, on the east by the Elm-Oak arterial and on the west by Elmwood Avenue. And it is true that there aren’t any real grocery stores in the CBD, housing-specific parking is poor, backyard terraces are tiny and few, and the streets offer little in green space. Full walkability isn’t quite there yet either. The gaps between enlivened buildings on important streets like Elm and Oak, Ellicott and Michigan, Washington and Pearl are large and uninviting. The bet, though, is that these deficiencies will vanish in no time.
There is a residential plan in place driving the current wave of downtown energy. It is a component of the ambitious Queen City Hub: A regional Action Plan for Downtown Buffalo (2000-2007). The significant progress we are now seeing results only from the plan’s first set of housing objectives. Several others are still in the works. If the level of commitment by city leaders, developers, architects and other partners stays at the fever pitch it has held since 2006, the new downtown will eventually expand to offer many more options.
But at this point, downtown living is for the urban pioneer, said Robert G. Shibley, FAIA, AICP, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, and a leader in developing the Queen City Hub plan. He defines urban pioneers as singles and couples who work and play downtown, who are likely to walk or bike to places they want to go and who are OK with convenience store shopping and lots of takeout food. These downtown dwellers are the necessary settlers, Shibley said. Their presence gives the city’s core the density it needs to attract essential commerce – the stores, restaurants and service providers – needed to form a fully functioning downtown.
Toward the goal of density, the Queen City Hub plan challenged developers to build living space that could be rented at $1 a foot. Styling the space as lofts – with exposed mechanicals, high ceilings and open floor plans – allowed most developers to meet that price point, one thought to be market-appropriate for current and anticipated downtown workers.
The pioneering developers, like Rocco Termini and Carl Paladino, met the challenge. Now, with nearly every principal area developer buying abandoned buildings and converting them into lofts, the area is on fire. Buffalo Place, a partner in planning the Queen City Hub, lists on its website 59 multi-unit residential buildings located in the city core, and notes that the list is growing daily.
While there are exceptions, the downtown lofts are typically 700 to 900 square feet, have one or two bedrooms, efficiency kitchens and a main living room. Some are equipped with air conditioning and in-unit laundry rooms. Most are not. A few offer off-street parking for one car. Monthly rents start at about $750 per month. Shibley recognizes that current downtown housing styles address a narrow market.
“If you see the market as a pyramid“ he explained, “think of high-end housing at the top and low-end at the base – those are the areas of our focus right now.”
The middle of the market pyramid, where most families and suburbanites would want to be, won’t get filled in until the Queen City Hub plan progresses to a later phase that aims at redeveloping the shoulder neighborhoods. Shoulder neighborhoods are the streets surrounding the Main Street core.
The aim, Shibley said, is to develop “a diverse array of housing types in and around Buffalo’s CBD. When we think of living in the Central Business District, we ought to expect it to be true urban living: small apartments, lots of walking, tight parking, easy access to entertainment.”
Think New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, he said. Conversely, living in the shoulder neighborhoods, Shibley said, will be better suited to families and others desiring additional private space. That’s where you’ll find cozy backyards, modest lawns, driveways, places for children to play and dining rooms large enough to throw a dinner party.
Shibley warned that while we are building new communities, “we should avoid grouping for economic likeness. Diversity in all forms is what we should strive for.” As an example, he offered: “If I live in say Seattle’s downtown Pike’s Place, I may live in a $1 million condo next door to a guy who lives in an $800-a-month loft, and we both can walk down the street to buy a cup of coffee at 25 cents or one that costs $2.35. That is good urban practice, and it is what all great cities have in common.”
He said this with no trace of doubt that Buffalo will soon regain its place among those cities the world ranks as great.
In the meantime, we ought to thank the pioneers – those who are settling into downtown, those building it and those on their way to moving in.
While thinking of downtown, we ought also to experience its potential. Walk past the Sidway Building at 775 Main St. near Goodell just to see how a refined, adapted building bordered by trees can enrich a city one block at a time. Stroll a couple of blocks farther south to Ellicott Street, then west toward Genesee Street, to experience what is shaping up to be a true neighborhood. There you’ll find a few upscale apartments known as Ellicott Commons, plus the Ellicott Lofts. Both are flanked by busy offices, a convenience store, a small animal hospital, an outdoor patio for casual dinning, a seafood restaurant, a bar, a flower shop, suits and sneakers, pets and strollers.
Then walk west to Lafayette Square, stroll its perimeter of grand buildings and step into its center – an impressive piece of the Joseph Ellicott urban plan. Likely, if you’ve been a longtime resident, you’ll end up very, very grateful that Buffalo has remained your home.
Marilyn Cappellino is a freelance writer living in East Amherst.