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The building blocks of Buffalo’s revival

It’s hard to see the roots of a renaissance when you’re standing in the garden. ¶ Though it’s tempting to think of Buffalo’s renewal as the result of a spontaneous awakening, or from the infusion of millennial residents since 2007, the reality isn’t that simple. ¶ The success stories have roots that extend deeper than its flowering might suggest. They reach back to a time long before Buffalo began appearing on top-10 lists for culture, career changes, happiness or food. In fact, what’s generally thought of as Buffalo’s revival is attributable, as SUNY Buffalo State economist Bruce Fisher put it, to “a multifaceted, long-term set of public policy inputs that have really made all the difference.” ¶ Alongside Buffalo’s rising economic prospects, there also has been a grass-roots cultural renaissance and psychological shift that is harder to quantify. ¶ But what we think of as the major features and figures of Buffalo’s renewal – from the ferocious rise of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to the appearance of “Shark Girl” on the waterfront – can be traced back to concrete moments, movements and documents crafted by citizens, academics and elected officials. Without those contributions, “The New Buffalo” as we know it would look a whole lot different. In fact, it might not exist at all.

1. Power Authority settlement A decade ago, a winter walk along Buffalo’s waterfront could seem like a trek across Hoth, the desolate ice planet of “Star Wars” fame. The abandoned shell of Memorial Auditorium cast shadows over a vast, riverside nothingness interrupted only by the concrete pylons of the Skyway.

Canalside was a concept, HarborCenter a dream. People were nowhere in sight.

But the fate of the waterfront changed in 2006, when Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, succeeded in a long and contentious campaign to wrest a $279 settlement from the New York Power Authority. Before that, according to a Buffalo News investigation, the Power Authority’s relatively paltry local subsidies “dated to the 1950s and favored declining Cold War industries with dim job prospects at the expense of new-economy enterprises.”

Not so much anymore.

Higgins’ win, while less lucrative than many hoped for, was key in the transformation of downtown into a destination attractive to tourists, residents and private investors alike.

The settlement, doled out in $3.5 million annual payments over 50 years, begat the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. With a grass-roots push for “lighter, quicker, cheaper” projects from history-minded activists like Mark Goldman and Tim Tielman, that historic settlement begat Canalside as we know it.

2. State historic tax credits Before 2009, when historic preservation and development advocates succeeded in persuading New York State to increase the tax credit for historic properties it had established three years earlier from 6 to 20 percent, investment in downtown Buffalo was a tough sell.

That changed almost overnight, when banks and private investors realized they could buy tax credits from Buffalo developers that would allow them to write off substantial portions of their income. This simple if significant change in tax law, which adds up to a 40 percent write-off when combined with the federal historic tax credit, opened the floodgates for downtown Buffalo’s rampant revival.

“It’s like going to a fundraiser where you buy a $100 gift certificate and only pay $75,” local tax credit expert Steven Weiss told The News in 2015.

And investors have bought a lot of gift certificates.

The results are too many to count. Among them are Rocco Termini’s meticulously restored Hotel @ the Lafayette and a handful of other pioneering downtown projects, Nick Sinatra’s Phoenix Brewery Apartments, Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.’s Bethune Lofts, Ellicott Development’s Graystone Apartments and its mammoth planned expansion of the Buffalo Christian Center and Jake Schneider’s Hub project on Swan Street. Many more are planned.

The result, while modest in comparison to growing cities, has been the rapid and radical transformation of a moribund downtown into a breathing organism after decades of stagnation.

3. Federal Refugee Act

Economically, the introduction of refugees and immigrants from conflict-torn regions around the world into Buffalo’s population has begun to move the needle.

Culturally, it’s been transformative.

That change is most visible on Buffalo’s West Side and particularly along Grant Street. There, the restaurants that serve hungry customers in the West Side Bazaar and the international groceries and small businesses that pepper the streets contribute to one of the most diverse pockets of activity in the city.

While Buffalo’s function as a gateway for immigrants extends well back into the 19th century, Grant Street might look a lot different today if not for the Federal Refugee Act of 1980, which paved the way for the global diversity that now characterizes the neighborhood and the city. Before that 1980 law, the federal government largely limited its haphazard refugee resettlement programs to those fleeing the communist countries of Eastern Europe or repressive Middle East regimes.

The new legislation opened the door for a flood of refugees from across the globe and raised the annual cap to 50,000, allowing for the systematic relocation of citizens from war-torn regions in Burma (also known as Myanmar), Somalia, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere.

“Over the last 10 years, I think there has been an increasing realization about the positive impact that refugees and immigrants have on cities,” said Eva Hasset, executive director of Buffalo’s International Institute. “You see the connection of a city’s resurgence and immigrants starting to happen all over the country.”

Without the geographical restrictions and quotas shattered by that law and its subsequent updates, the role of refugees in Buffalo’s resurgence might have been much less dramatic.

4. Comprehensive planning

The framework for downtown Buffalo’s revival can be traced back to a public summit held in the WNED studios in 1994.

At that meeting, Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and University at Buffalo architecture and urban planning professor and now dean Robert G. Shibley kicked off the process that led to the much-praised Queen City Hub plan of 2003 and Buffalo’s wide-ranging Comprehensive Plan in 2006. That same year, Shibley’s UB Urban Design Project also released a master plan for the transformation of the Larkin District from a rusty network of abandoned buildings into the bustling center for business and culture it is today.

These landmark documents incorporated the work of historians like Mark Goldman and Reyner Banham, 50 earlier plans going back to the 1970s and thousands of Buffalo citizens who participated in the exhaustive planning process. And they mapped out five areas for “strategic investment” that are instantly recognizable: the Erie Canal Harbor; the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus; the Theatre District; the financial and government district; and the area surrounding Erie Community College.

Given the recent progress in each of those areas – most notably the Medical Campus and Erie Canal Harbor – the plans Shibley shepherded into existence, along with highly praised plans for the Larkin District and the Erie Canal Harbor, now sound prophetic, if slightly under the mark:

Development around the Theatre District, for instance, should focus on “reducing the large percentage of surface parking lots in favor of mixed-use commercial and residential development with parking integral to the new structures.” The plan also predicted that the Medical Campus could count on “as many as 3,000 new well-paying jobs in the area.” The campus is now projecting 20,000 jobs by 2020.

5. Architectural heritage

A major feature of Buffalo’s renaissance is the widespread reclamation of the city’s built heritage as a national asset, and that feature owes a great deal to the work of architectural historian Reyner Banham.

As part of a project launched by the Buffalo Architecture Foundation, his slim but potent volume “Buffalo Architecture: A Guide” helped to indoctrinate an entire generation of urban thinkers, preservationists and true believers in the great unfulfilled dream of the American city.

Banham’s work, along with that of architectural historian Frank Kowsky and many others, helped to inspire the local preservation movement and set off a renewed interest and pride in the city’s architecture, its Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park system and its potential as a destination for design-minded tourists most visible during the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference held here in 2011.

Christopher Puchalski, a local preservationist, called the book “an architectural eternal flame,” which “inspired a generation of urban explorers long before the days of Instagram and selfies.”

Similarly, Banham’s noted book, “A Concrete Atlantis,” which took up the influence of American industrial architecture on modernist European architecture and was updated in 2006 with the UB Urban Design Project’s “Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis,” got the ball rolling on Buffalo’s transformation of its concrete grain elevators.

Numerous contributors

Beyond the five central examples listed in this article, there are countless other important documents, people and movements that contributed substantially to Buffalo’s current revival. A few among many:

• The pioneering work of Toronto-based developer Elgin M. Wolfe and his partners in the early 1990s transformed a former Trico factory into a mixed-use development and provided an important blueprint for the adaptive reuse movement that would explode here in the early 2000s.

• Buffalo’s Joint Schools Construction project, launched in 2001, has spent some $1.3 billion to upgrade the city’s many aging school buildings and thus ranks as one of the largest preservation projects in the city’s history.

• Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s overhaul of New York State’s economic development policy, which included the creation of Regional Economic Development Councils in 2011 and the justly ballyhooed Buffalo Billion, is a bit too recent to make it onto the main list. But its effects, from the rising SolarCity factory to Buffalo’s new startup culture as exemplified by 43North, are already being felt.

• The formation of the Fund for the Arts during the 2005 Erie County fiscal crisis by a consortium of local foundations, whose contributions have fueled every aspect of Buffalo’s revival, helped to sustain the cultural vitality Western New York had been building for decades. It also set the stage for the creation of organizations like Arts Services Initiative and Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, which gave the arts a bigger voice in the community.

• Mark Goldman’s books “City on the Lake” and “City on the Edge” serve as documents of the city’s built and cultural heritage. What’s more, his work to bring new life to Chippewa Street in the 1990s with the opening of his legendary Calumet Arts Cafe and Third Room helped to foster one of the city’s most popular entertainment districts.