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Police beef up presence in Allentown as nightlife grows

Fights. Lines. People, some with cups of beer, crowding a narrow street.

An increasing number of bars on Allen Street is drawing bigger crowds, prompting police to ramp up their late-night weekend presence in the neighborhood to address unruly behavior that sometimes turns into loud fights.

Bar owners, longtime residents and community leaders say the recent shift is akin to the active nightlife that put Chippewa Street on the map.

"It's the new Chippewa. It's actually worse than Chippewa," said Amanda Markovich, a bar tender at Nietzsche's, an Allentown fixture. "It's horrible. There's a ton of foot traffic. The bubble has got to burst at some point."

Eight new bars and restaurants have opened in the neighborhood near Allen Street and Elmwood Avenue in the last four years, according to State Liquor Authority records. Some of those have replaced older bars, while others added new bars where stores were once located.

The shift, some neighborhood advocates say, has resulted in a growing concern for a popular section of the city that has always been known for a vibrant party scene.

A Nov. 16 meeting is on tap with Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, Allentown constituents, block club members and others to discuss the issues.

"There are too many bars on Allen Street. There used to be mixed-use – a laundromat, Rust Belt Books and other kinds of businesses," said Councilman David Franczyk, who set up the meeting to talk about resolving the problem in his district. "And then it became bars, bars, bars, bars."

Shift in activity

A line forms outside Falley Allen, a popular nightspot on Allen Street. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

To be sure, Allentown for decades has had a nightlife scene that drew crowds and police. Franczyk remembers frequenting Allentown 40 years ago for shows at the Allendale Theatre and a late bite to eat. He remembers how "pretty darn rough" Allentown was then.

But Franczyk and others say there has been a marked shift in activity in Allentown, particularly in the last three to four years.

A Buffalo Police complaint list for September details calls for at least five fights, an assault, some gang reports, a slew of illegal parking and some larcenies. But some say police calls do not show the full extent of the problem, as some incidents go unreported.

In August, a video of a fight at Allen and Elmwood that drew an estimated crowd of 40 to 50 people drew attention on YouTube. Another incident in February in which two men were jumped near the same area also drew social media attention, Franczyk said.

"Everything is so saturated now," said Donald Kinsman, who has lived near Allen Street and Elmwood Avenue for 17 years. "The beautiful thing about Allentown is that it's a cool place to go out and eat and have drink, but it had felt like a neighborhood, and that's being lost."

Kinsman said he was driving home with out-of-town friends on a recent Friday night when they saw a fight in the middle of Allen Street in front of a bar, with obscenities clearly audible. He described witnessing other violent incidents, as well.

Increased law enforcement

Police and investigators from the State Liquor Authority say they have stepped up enforcement to address the concerns.

B District Police Chief Joseph A. Gramaglia, whose district includes Allentown, acknowledged an increase in manpower during the trouble times, but declined to specify the exact number.

To tackle congestion, police at times block off westbound vehicular traffic toward Wadsworth due to the size of the crowds in the narrow section of the street, where parking is limited.

Bars have begun to close their doors at 3 a.m. and turn off their lights at 3:40 a.m. to help thin the mass bar exodus by the 4 a.m. close time, Gramaglia said. "These bars are losing a little money doing this, but the turtle's pace wins the race. They're not in it for the quick buck," he said.

A Buffalo Police cruiser is parked on College Street as officer patrol Allen Street on foot, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

State Liquor Authority, fire inspectors and community police officers are also making regular rounds at bars, checking capacity, permits, patios and licensing of security guards. Warnings and tickets have been issued.

"There's definitely been an uptick in activity and business down there, so the chief reached out to our senior investigator in Buffalo," said Joe Finelli, assistant director of enforcement for the State Liquor Authority. "We get a lot of complaints. ... It's definitely on our radar more."

Unannounced inspections done last November, over St. Patrick's Day weekend, during the Allentown Art Festival and in August turned up a handful of security guard violations and minor signage problems each time, Finelli said.

"Part of our pro-active approach with the police is we want to prevent it from getting out of control," Finelli said. "We're trying to keep a presence here."

Residents recently called police attention to the nearby Family Dollar store parking lot being used as a tailgating location starting at midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. Gramaglia said police worked with the store to address that and ensure towing would be enforced.

"We have a detailed presence down there and the bar owners and managers have been very responsive," Gramaglia said.

A line forms outside Allen Street Hardware on Allen Street. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Jonathan L. White, Allentown Association vice president and a longtime College Street resident, praised police for responding to concerns and assigning officers to try to improve conditions in the neighborhood. But he expressed concern that the cause is an "unchecked proliferation of bars against the clear and loud requests of residents."

"As a resident, I am thrilled police have taken this very seriously and are working to try to stem the tide of violence and have assigned officers to try to improve the conditions in the neighborhood," White said. "But as a general taxpayer, it bothers me the city is now spending money in overtime to police a problem that the city created and allowed to exist because they ignored pleas from residents to stop the proliferation of bars in a concentrated area."

'Vulnerable ecosystem'

Some fear that patrons coming to the neighborhood for dinner before heading to an evening concert or theater event will go elsewhere.

Worries also extend east to the opposite end of Allen Street, where the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus will continue to draw more employees and medical students.

Mark Goldman, who years ago played an active part in developing the Chippewa district and now co-owns Allen Street Hardware Café with his son, has a long-time perspective. "It's not about bar fights, but the potential of losing the residential neighborhood and alienating the thousands of customers going to the BPO and the thousands pouring into the Medical Campus," Goldman said. "Wouldn't that be a shame?"

Goldman thinks of the area as a corridor as a "vulnerable ecosystem."

Revelers enjoy the mild autumn weather outside the Old Pink on Allen Street on a recent Saturday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"There are life investments in the properties," Goldman said. "How often will people want to watch people beat themselves up, before they want to leave?"

Wesley Brown, who owns Days Park Commons & Cottage Street Lofts, said continued police presence is a must.

"The infrastructure of the neighborhood is not designed for this influx of people, and that's the problem," said Brown, adding that the narrow street, sidewalks and lack of parking "hurt the quality of life."

Franczyk, the councilman who a year ago voted against allowing Falley Allen to stay open until 4 a.m., said the neighborhood needs to be a diverse mix of businesses – not "all gin mills and bars."

"I think most of the residents don't want to set out for prohibition with paddy wagons," Franczyk said. "It's not a siege, but you want to nip it in the bud because it's beyond the bud. You want to eradicate it. You want to bring peace and do whatever it takes."

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