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Rod Watson: The 'other part' of Central Terminal report is key

No silver bullets.

That was supposed to have been the lesson learned from the Bass Pro Shops debacle.

But after it was reinforced by the Urban Land Institute’s report on what to do with the Central Terminal, the local reaction could leave one wondering just how teachable we are.

“Waste of time” and “disappointed and underwhelmed” were some of the public reactions,  after the institute made the common-sense observation that you rebuild desolate neighborhoods by rebuilding the people, housing and small businesses in them, not with magic projects.

But if the people in Broadway-Fillmore already know that and were looking for something more, the institute’s emphasis on bottom-up development should resonate with public officials in a city that has put most of its focus elsewhere – as these outsiders were quick to notice.

Pointing to the vacancies, loss of housing, population decline, poverty and other challenges in Broadway-Fillmore, the report called the neighborhood “the hole in the doughnut” surrounded by vibrancy downtown, in Larkinville and on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Despite the interest shown by a Canadian developer, the institute hit on a bottom-line truth when it said, “The rebirth of the Central Terminal must happen concurrently with the rebirth of the surrounding Broadway-Fillmore community.” It talked about the need to “support development of human capital and community identity, (and) establish a positive environment for Terminal redevelopment.”

That part of the report seems to have gotten a lot less attention than the recommendation that the terminal host concerts, art shows and other one-day events to change the perception of the neighborhood and “create interest in the area.”

Of course, the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. already has been doing that, as the jazz concerts, car and train shows and other events on its 2017 schedule attest. What its backers were expecting were recommendations for permanent attractions with a wow factor, like Alexandria, Va.’s Torpedo Factory Art Center or Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which – in Buffalo’s case – could be linked to the Broadway Market, said Marlies A. Wesolowski, executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center, located not far from the terminal.

As someone whose agency has been out front providing job training, housing and other services in Broadway-Fillmore, she is well aware of the neighborhood’s challenges.

“The East Side, in my opinion, has been neglected for a very, very long time,” she said, even while dismissing the types of initiatives the institute proposes as yielding only low-paying service jobs, not the higher-paying jobs that could come with anchor projects. “The only way you’re going to break poverty is through good-paying jobs.”

Still, it seems like a challenge to lure a credible developer to such a massive, deteriorated structure that looks out onto boarded-up houses with abandoned easy chairs and computer monitors in the front yard weeds.

The Brown administration has demolished tons of dilapidated houses, which Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk agrees was necessary.

The study also noted the city has spent or committed $1.4 million to enhancing the Broadway Market.

But even with all that, outsiders who came to analyze the area were struck by what still needs to be done. Franczyk said the neighborhood ”cannot be treated like a self-cleaning oven.”

The temporary focus on the Central Terminal as a revived train station elevated its profile and, as a consolation prize, the state and city put up $50,000 each for the institute’s study. In Franczyk’s eyes, that means state development czar Howard Zemsky and Mayor Byron W. Brown now “own” the problem and have to follow through to keep egg off their faces.

But that has to mean more than just trying to put something eye-popping in the terminal.

If the neighborhood – with household incomes 36 percent below the city as a whole, rents 18 percent below, and 59 percent of the residents in poverty, according to – gets as much public attention as the terminal itself, conditions might be ripe for the kinds of game-changing projects advocates envision.

In other words, the institute told us what we already were supposed to know: There are no shortcuts.

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