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2016 census data reveals miles-long stretch of residential flight

New population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the big gainers and losers among Buffalo Niagara neighborhoods.

Often, they're right next to each other.

Twenty census tracts — either city or suburban neighborhoods or huge swaths of rural towns — showed gains of 15 percent or more over the past five years. But 11 of them adjoin tracts whose populations fell by 15 percent or more. Of the other nine tracts, five are also near big population-losing areas, a Buffalo News analysis of census figures shows.

Consider the City of Lockport. The population around the Erie Canal locks in the middle of the city dipped by nearly 24 percent, according to the census estimates. But it's sandwiched between two tracts that each gained about 16 percent.

Buffalo's Forest neighborhood — roughly bounded by Grant Street, the Scajaquada Expressway and West Delavan Avenue — grew in population by 42 percent. But the portion of the Black Rock neighborhood adjacent to the north lost 17 percent of its population, according to the estimates.

So while the region's overall population has stabilized in recent years, each neighborhood's story may be different, even from one a few blocks away. Hundreds may have left one neighborhood. And the neighborhood nearby could see skyrocketing growth thanks to student housing, immigrants and empty nesters.

"Sometimes, if there's some development taking place in a neighborhood, like a new building going up, you see a big bump in population," said Robert Silverman, a professor in the University at Buffalo's Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

It's common for communities to see population fluctuations as new developments are built and deteriorating housing comes down. When looking at census data involving small geographies, modest changes in development can have a big impact, he said.

The 2016 census estimates released last week are based on five years of sampling.

The data indicates immigrants and students are driving pockets of explosive population growth. Neighborhoods in Clarence and Lancaster are hot spots for retirees. And parts of Lockport and Wheatfield continue to grow, despite falling numbers elsewhere in Niagara County.

But the spine of Broadway, running through Buffalo and Cheektowaga, emerges as a miles-long stretch of residential flight.

Interactive map below. Story continues.

Erie County

Buffalo. Pockets of the city have seen a marked increase in population, like the Central Business District, where new apartments and lofts have opened. That's also the case in the area west of SUNY Buffalo State, where multistory buildings for student housing have been built.

But trouble spots abound.

Neighborhoods on the East Side, including Masten Park, Genesee Moselle and Kaisertown, as well as a string of neighborhoods along Broadway have lost thousands. And neighborhoods surrounding the Old First Ward have all seen declines since 2011. So have some neighborhoods in the Elmwood Village and Allentown south and west of West Ferry Street.

Neighborhoods in and around University Heights, in the northeast corner of the city, have experienced population declines ranging from 9 percent to 23 percent over the five-year period — a loss of more than 1,800 people.

That comes as a surprise to Common Council Member Rasheed Wyatt, who represents the University District, including the neighborhoods that have been the subject of complaints by residents about partying student renters.

"That's kind of startling, but something I'm quite concerned about," he said.

In the past few years, he's seen an influx into the University District from New York City transplants and immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh. The University at Buffalo is also working to encourage more professors to move into the area.

"It may be turning around now," he said.

First-ring suburbs. Population shifts are a mixed bag in the suburban towns closest to Buffalo — Tonawanda, Amherst, Cheektowaga and West Seneca. Some neighborhoods saw growth, others held steady and still others lost residents. These towns did not exhibit large townwide population swings, though Amherst saw the most growth at 2.6 percent.

Demand for off-campus student housing explains a nearly 21 percent increase in the population of the area just west and north of the University at Buffalo, said Ellen M. Kost, associate planner for the Town of Amherst.

Two developments account for the growth, she said. Twenty 91 North opened last year with 216 units containing 584 beds. And Villas on Rensch opened in 2012 with 150 units containing 610 beds.

This U-shaped area experienced the highest population growth in the town, and it borders the area of the town that saw the steepest population drop. The triangle-shaped area to the south, home to the Boulevard Mall and neighborhoods of single-family homes, saw an 8.6 percent drop, which town planners attribute to shrinking households in aging neighborhoods.

Cheektowaga saw some population growth in the northeast part of town, near the airport and Williamsville. But it saw double-digit declines in neighborhoods near the Walden Galleria. Just as in Buffalo, neighborhoods flanking Broadway showed a drop in residents.

Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski said that as a realtor, she can't fathom the reasons behind the population loss and is surprised to hear it, though many residents have complained about vacant, zombie homes that have been abandoned by homeowners and taken over by banks. With stronger, grant-funded efforts to address the zombie home crisis, she said she believes troubled neighborhoods are turning around.

"We have been working on this diligently," she said.

Lackawanna. The population in Lackawanna declined by 1 percent. The tremendous influx of immigrants, refugees and their relatives in the city's First Ward, west of the railroad tracks that run north-south through the city, prevented a steeper decline.

"There's a lot of new arrivals from different parts of the world, said Mohamed Albanna, First Ward councilman-elect and a longtime activist.

Albanna and current First Ward Councilman Abdulsalam Noman listed immigrants from West Africa, South Asia, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.

Albanna also noted that nearly 50 new, rent-to-own homes have been built in the First Ward over the past several years, which is attracting residents. As new residents gain more wealth, more are also moving into other, more affluent parts of the city.

"Without that, the loss of population would be more obvious than it is right now," he said.

The other neighborhood wards in the city either remained unchanged or lost population.

Second-ring suburbs. The second-ring suburbs, with the exception of the Town of Alden, have either remained stable or gained residents. Population growth is more obvious in the towns of Lancaster, Clarence and Newstead.

Lancaster and Clarence each had an influx of roughly 1,500 residents over the five years.

In Alden, the population fell, except for the census tract encompassing the Alden Correctional Facility and former Erie County Home, which grew by more than 900 people. The surrounding part of the town had the steepest population loss among rural towns. The town lost 1,500 residents from 2011 to 2016, according to the data.

Town Supervisor Richard Savage said he has not noticed any such decline.

In Clarence, once a largely rural town with some high-end properties, residents clearly feel the population growth of more than 5 percent. Clarence is a mix of high traffic areas, such as the Main/Transit corridors to the south, and farmland to the north.

"Our town houses are being sold almost as fast as they are being built," Clarence Supervisor Patrick Casilio said about the southern end of town where development and traffic have surged.

The population increase is not affecting the Clarence school district because it's mostly older adults past child-raising age who are looking to downsize. They're moving into moving into townhouses or patio homes.

Compared to the Northtowns, the population in the Southtowns has remained largely unchanged, with rural towns beyond Orchard Park, Hamburg and Evans showing no dramatic gains or losses.

Niagara County

Town of Lockport. The Town of Lockport has seen tremendous growth in neighborhoods within the Starpoint School District, according to the census data from 2011 to 2016.

"People like Starpoint," said Kathleen Sparks DiMillo of Hunt Real Estate. "There's been a lot of new builds."

The town reduced the minimum size for a home lot a couple of years ago in hopes of spurring residential development.

Supervisor Mark C. Crocker said the town as a whole has seen modest growth.

Until recently, Assessor Jill Lederhouse said, the newcomers were moving primarily from other places in Niagara County, but lately people are moving in from Amherst and Clarence.

"They're coming to Niagara County because they're realizing we have just as much to offer — more land, better prices," DiMillo said.

City of Lockport. Downtown Lockport is losing people. The estimates show the areas encompassing the downtown business district and the blocks immediately surrounding it have lost more than 500 residents, drop of nearly a fourth.

"We know that's an area we've got to focus on," said Brian M. Smith, the city's planning and development director.

The Greater Lockport Development Corp. is working on a plan specifically targeted for South Street, a dilapidated neighborhood in the area.

But Smith said a consultant's report connected with the project disagrees with the census estimate.

"There's actually a projected growth," Smith said, although he said that growth would be only 40 people.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey and Assessor Tracy Farrell said the overall report for Lockport, showing strong growth in the northern and southern areas and decreases everywhere else in the city, makes no sense.

Farrell said the largest number of real estate transactions is occurring in the eastern part of the city, and McCaffrey said there has been virtually no new home construction in the allegedly fastest-growing areas.

"After reviewing the census maps, I cannot explain the increase in population in the two census tracts in the City of Lockport," she said.

Porter. The neighborhoods encompassing Youngstown and areas just to the south, between the Niagara River and the Niagara Scenic Parkway, showed some population growth, though locals leaders and realtors find that hard to believe.

"I don't see much development there," Porter Supervisor Merton K. Wiepert said. "Where are they all living?"

"What I'm seeing is wealthy people buying homes — I'm talking $250,000 homes — knocking them down and building large replacement homes," Assessor Susan Driscoll said. "But there's not a lot of vacant land."

More broadly, the town is losing residents, according to the data.

Wheatfield. The more heavily populated communities in the northern sections of the Town of Wheatfield continue to grow. The areas north of Niagara Falls Boulevard added an estimated 760 residents during this time period.

Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said a chunk of that census tract lies within the Starpoint School District, which is considered attractive to young parents.

"There are several developments there," Cliffe said. "I can believe 700 [new residents] over the last seven years. That's only 100 a year."

But he said the town's building boom was squelched by the 2008 financial crisis. Wheatfield was seeing as many as 200 new houses per year before that.

"In the last couple of years, I don't think we've hit 30," Cliffe said.

Niagara Falls. The City of Niagara Falls remains the most glaring trouble spot for Niagara County. Two of the three biggest areas of population decreases countywide can be found in the city.

That includes the center city area, bounded roughly by 11th and 18th streets and Pierce and Niagara avenues.

"You look at any matrix and that's a neighborhood in need," said Seth Piccirillo, city community development director. "I would say the reasons people are leaving are a lack of quality housing options and public safety."

He noted that True Bethel Development soon will be opening an apartment building in the former Sacred Heart School on South Avenue, which should boost the neighborhood's population.

The downtown area, including several blocks as far north as Augustus Place and as far east as Eighth Street, was also shown as losing population, though Piccirillo doesn't believe the census numbers are accurate in this case.

"We've had at least 35 residential units opening there," Piccirillo said. "We know there's positive development in the city."

Reporters Nancy Fischer and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this story.

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