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As cars return to Main Street, ‘difference is like night and day’

First in a two-part series

The cars came back – and now the diners, renters and shoppers are beginning to come, too.

The signs of resurgence are evident from outside the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

In March, Paul and Sandra Wilkins opened Raclettes, what they describe as a Parisian-style casual bistro, in a renovated brick building across from the hotel, on a block that wraps around Genesee Street and is fast becoming known as downtown’s Restaurant Row. D’Avolio Kitchen and Jerk’s Soda Fountain and Ice Cream also opened this year.

Just Fries will open in June. And a Martin Cooks restaurant also is planned.

“Having cars return to Main Street was huge to us,” said Paul Wilkins, who lives above Raclettes. “The difference on the street is like night and day.”

And business?

“Raclettes is doing better than we expected, and better than most people told us it would,” Wilkins said.

For years, Main Street’s appearance outside the centrally located hotel put Buffalo’s worst foot forward.

“Visitors would see desolation. It was like a ghost town,” Wilkins recalled with a cringe. “You’d see people come out of the Hyatt, take one look around and go right back into the hotel.”

The return of vehicle traffic has become a major impetus for the turnaround. Cars were last allowed on Main Street in 1982. As the automobiles, which share the road with Metro Rail, slowly make a comeback, so, too, does the commercial heart of downtown itself.

Making downtown more accessible was the idea behind the city’s Cars Sharing Main Street program when the first shovel hit the ground in 2009.

Now, the three long city blocks where cars have returned – the 700, 600 and 500 blocks of Main, between Goodell and Mohawk streets, near the Hyatt – are springing back to life, bringing the first signs of revitalization in years. The incremental program, with its aim to bring vehicles to the end of Main, near Canalside, begins a new phase as federal funds become available.

“With opening Main Street to vehicular traffic, we’re seeing Main Street rise again,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who made returning cars to Main Street a priority since taking office 10 years ago.

In the early 1980s, the downtown stretch of Main became a pedestrian mall and a free-fare zone for the new Metro Rail system, which arrived two years later. But instead of reversing downtown’s fortunes, the removal of cars may have hastened the decline.

The long construction period doomed many of the street’s businesses, and the restricted access to Main Street contributed to diminished occupancy and development, especially for first-floor storefronts.

In the end, though, none of the changes may have mattered: Department stores and other retailers abandoned downtowns across the country to relocate to the suburbs, closer to more affluent residents and booming populations.

Buffalo’s downtown decline was no different from what happened in many other medium-size cities across the country.

‘Businesses being developed’

Lynne LaMattina, who owns Papillon hair salon at 723 Main, said improving vehicular traffic has had a big impact on her businesses.

Two-way traffic’s return to the 700 block, between Goodell and Tupper streets, was the first phase.

“The street completely had a resurgence as soon as it opened up,” LaMattina said. “It’s made a huge difference. There’s a definite difference in foot traffic, and a lot more vitality.

“You’re seeing businesses being redeveloped. I don’t think you would have seen that without the return of cars.”

Developer Christopher L. Jacobs, who owns six properties on the east side of the 700 block, and co-owns two more on the 600 block, credits the return of two-way traffic and the conversion of nearby Tupper, Ellicott and Washington streets to two-way streets for providing the foundation for a more navigable downtown.

The return of cars on the 600 block, between Tupper and Chippewa streets, was completed in January 2015. It’s that block where rail cars surface from underground, near the entrance to Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The changes brought new roadwork, sidewalks, landscaping and lighting.

“The opening up of that block has had a big impact,” said Jacobs, who serves as Erie County clerk.

“The details, in terms of design, just look great. Aesthetically, it is head and shoulders over what Main Street looked like before.”

Anthony C. Conte, president of Shea’s, said the return of cars has also made the area feel less isolated.

“Main Street became scary to walk down, even when there were things going on, because it just seemed so empty,” Conte said.

He estimated about 10 percent more people now come through the theater’s front doors since cars returned, based on ticket scans. That number, Conte said, should only get higher as more people realize they can now drive on the street.

Jason Maclin, who operates Sinclair Salon & Spa and Yar Mo’s Muse, a vintage and modern clothing store under the same roof, likes that people can now drive by and see what’s occurring on the street.

“People can see different facades and storefronts, and see we have retail down here,” Maclin said. “I’m definitely seeing the difference, including more walk-in traffic.”

So is Bea Militello, who has co-owned Bijou Grille for 25 years. She said the return of cars made a believer out of her. “The biggest difference is that it makes all the businesses on Main Street more visible,” Militello said. “It’s surprisingly a big plus – and I was kind of skeptical.”

The stretch of Main from Chippewa to Mohawk streets – which includes the gold-domed M&T Center, the Hyatt and Roosevelt Plaza – was completed last December. There are parking spaces alongside the street, and cylindrical parking barriers with lights that can be moved to widen the sidewalk or allow more on-street parking.

While there is more commercial and developer activity than seen in many years, Debra L. Chernoff, planning director for Buffalo Place, said the return of cars to Main began paying dividends before the new road was even poured.

Reawakening from slumber

“It is more than surpassing all the goals in the short time that we’ve had,” Chernoff said. “We thought the impact would happen once the street opened, but it started to happen once Cars Sharing Main Street projects were announced. Properties started changing hands, and development started to occur as soon as funding was announced.”

The drive on the few blocks of Main that have reopened to cars is leisurely. The speed limit is 15 miles per hour, less than that on surrounding streets.

“If you were choosing to get somewhere quickly, you wouldn’t choose Main Street,” said Steven J. Stepniak, the city’s public works commissioner who oversees Cars Sharing Main Street. “Only a few blocks are open. It’s designed to be a slow street, where you may very well have to wait behind a train.”

Returning cars to the rest of Main downtown is going to take years. The project is one-third of the way through nine planned phases that come with hefty price tags. Work on each phase can start only when federal transportation dollars are obtained.

The first three projects cost nearly $28.9 million, with $23.1 million coming from the federal government. The state picked up $5.2 million, and the city added $500,000.

The money is there for the next phase – at the other end of Main, from Exchange to Scott streets. Construction is slated to start in 2017 at a cost of $22.5 million, with the federal government paying $18 million and the state picking up the rest.

That will leave five more sections of Main in between to complete, at a cost of $75.4 million.

The federal dollars were secured by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and come from sources of funding that can be used only for projects such as this one.

They include two competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants.

“Buffalo is one of the only municipalities I’m aware of that has receive two TIGER grants in such a short period of time,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, the executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning. “I think it’s also a reflection of the journey Buffalo has been on in the last five or six years.”

The changes to downtown include the development of Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and a new wave of millennials and empty-nesters who are moving into once-rundown industrial buildings in and around the central business district.

Some 643 apartment units – many of them loft-style spaces – have opened downtown in the last five years, with 294 under construction and 520 more units on the drawing board. The surge has pushed downtown’s occupancy rate to 97 percent, according to an estimate from city officials.

Mehaffy said it’s exciting to see Main start to reawaken from a decades-long slumber.

“There are the images of what Main Street was for the last 35 and 40 years, of empty and abandoned buildings, but now we are seeing the vibrancy that people would expect more of a Main Street,” Mehaffy said.

“It is a more welcoming environment. There is a greater feeling of safety and there is more activity. And all of those attributes are leading to greater confidence in investment.

“When I came into this job six years ago, the 500 block was one of the hot topics in terms of what could be done to make it better. What it came down to, fundamentally, was changing the physical environment. The strategy was improving the public infrastructure, and that has led to significant private investment.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are building from a good foundation.”

The Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council is responsible for traffic studies on the return of cars to Main, a requirement of the TIGER grants. Transportation planner Volney Powell said there are plans to do hourly counts on Main in coming months, during what are considered to be the busiest time periods and after drivers are more accustomed to the new traffic patterns.

Bringing ‘life to the street’

For now, there is only data that shows cars turning north or south from Tupper onto Main, and north only onto Main at Chippewa Street, before the area south of Chippewa opened to cars. A Nov. 2, 2015, survey of cars turning right to travel the one block that passes Shea’s before having to turn at Chippewa showed that 95 people did so during the peak hours surveyed. The study recorded 392 people turning left onto the 700 block.

“The count we have shows vehicles are using Main Street, but we have nothing to compare it to,” Powell said, noting that it has been decades since there was automobile activity.

At one time, John Volpé, who co-owns Jerk’s and lives downtown, didn’t want to see cars return to Main; he preferred the pedestrian mall. However, his views have changed.

“As I have lived here longer and noticed the deadness in the area after 5, I thought cars could bring life to the street, and I think that has proven to be the case,” Volpé said.

“They also bring more eyes to the street. I think it’s a positive – 100 percent,” Volpé added, noting the drivers who are parking outside his soda and ice cream shop and coming right in.

“Seeing how much it has changed this block, I really hope they don’t take too long to do the 400 block.”