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Reopening Main Street to vehicles is a wish come true for merchants, city

The reopening of the 600 block of Main Street in downtown Buffalo to traffic is another significant step toward erasing a decades-old mistake and rebuilding downtown.

Returning cars to Main Street has been a multiyear project requiring cooperation and funding from local, state and federal sources. Multimillions of dollars have been allocated to the effort with the expectation it will restore vibrancy and bring economic benefits to merchants and the city as a whole.

The decision to remove cars from Main Street in the 1980s was rooted in what turned out to be a misguided belief that a pedestrian mall would be embraced. It wasn’t.

Shopkeepers today bemoan the lack of drive-by traffic. The aboveground train that runs down the middle of Main Street from Goodell to the First Niagara Center has proven to be an inadequate substitute.

Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, said the latest thinking on urban design concludes that returning cars to Main Street will add value to downtown.

That thinking coincided with the need for major, expensive maintenance work on the track bed. Forward-thinking officials determined that the track work could be done in a way that returns cars to Main Street and restores traffic past storefronts.

The blueprint for what is taking place on Main Street was contained in the “Queen City Hub,” Shibley’s proposal for revitalizing downtown published in 2003. Planners back then could not have imagined the energy now taking place on all parts of downtown’s Main Street.

The $21 million project to convert the 500 block of Main is under way. Funds are still being lined up to convert lower Main Street.

Right now, the discussion is about the return of traffic to the 600 block, between Chippewa and Tupper streets. Anticipation is high at the prospect of patrons of the arts being able to park in front of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Tralfamadore Cafe and the Irish Classical Theatre. Or to drive down Main and think of dining at the Bijou Grill or popping into the Market Arcade, many for the first time. Ever.

Returning cars to Main Street has been a methodical effort. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has had to make sure the appropriate procedures are in place for trains to safely share the street with cars, particularly near the tunnel where trains emerge from underground. Meanwhile, the Theater Station has been dismantled in favor of reconstructed stations on both sides of the Fountain Plaza stop – complete with radiant heating to ward off winter’s chill.

The change is enormous. Shop owners have been preparing for cars and more visitors. Building facades look sharper. Now, cars are sharing the track with trains. It can work here. It works in Toronto with its streetcars. In Portland, Ore., streetcars share the street with autos, even into the plaza at Portland State University where the train pulls up to the coffee shop.

Returning cars to Main Street may not save the city but it certainly will bring a little more vitality to a downtown that for years has been nearly deserted at night and on weekends. It will also make downtown more easily navigable for drivers.

For now it’s just one block, but if it goes as well as expected, it should provide incentive for finishing the job.