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For downtown, a renaissance without retail

The store sat at downtown’s busiest pedestrian corner, a mere three blocks from City Hall. But earlier this month, after 41 years in business, the CVS at Main and Court streets abruptly closed.

Sales at the location had fallen for years. A bump in nearby residents didn’t help. Now the store’s vacant windows testify to the messy challenge of rebuilding downtown at a time of upheaval in brick-and-mortar retail.

Such retailers have long been considered a critical thread in the downtown fabric, dating back to the halcyon age of Buffalo’s department stores. But today urban chains and local shops alike struggle to draw business even as restaurants, bars and barbershops flourish in the neighborhood.

“You have funky, independent restaurants. You have brewpubs and fitness centers and yoga studios,” said Dave Huntoon, a retail consultant. “You probably got some small, fun stores, but not a lot. And you’re going to be hard-pressed to find traditional, Main Street retailers.”

More than 10 prime storefronts along Main Street sit empty, their glass doors papered over with leasing posters. Vacancy rates at the Main Place Mall approach 80 percent, buoyed by a food court and a small cluster of stores, including a dollar store and Payless Shoe Source.

The CVS at Main and Court Streets, just three blocks from City Hall, closed a couple weeks ago after 41 years in business, leaving another vacant storefront on Main Street. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The situation may improve with more residents, retail analysts say. But downtown-boosters are also embracing a radical possibility: that the district’s renaissance may proceed without the sorts of businesses that defined it over the past century.

“We’re finding different ways to look at what retail could be,” said Brandye Merriweather, the vice president of downtown development for the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. “Retail in general has changed.

"We don’t have to always have a brick-and-mortar shop, in the traditional sense,” Merriweather said.

'Challenging area' 

Such businesses do exist downtown today, but in isolated pockets. In the renovated Market Arcade across from Shea’s Performing Arts Center, half a dozen small businesses sell letterpress cards and gourmet dog treats to weekday shoppers. Oxford Pennant opened near the Theatre District in September 2018, on the same block as D.C. Theatricks and City Wine Merchant. Further south on Main, a stone’s throw from the Main Place Mall, women can find unusual clothes and accessories at MWW Style Studio and Phenomenal Xpressions.

But rental inquiries at the mall itself plummeted over the past three years, said Michael Manning, the facility’s leasing manager. In that same period, downtown lost five clothing boutiques, two home stores, a food market, a flower shop, a toy store and a scooter dealership.

A single storefront in the Ellicott Square Building has cycled through three businesses in roughly six years.

“It’s a challenging area for sure,” said Caitlin Krumm, the space’s current occupant. “But I think the store is a great amenity for the area. We just don’t have enough places in the heart of downtown yet.”

Much of the problem lies in the neighborhood’s demographics, retail industry analysts and shop owners say. While the central business district and waterfront added 700 people between 2012 and 2017, according to December census figures, its resident population still barely clears 5,500.

More than 55,000 people also work downtown. But they typically shop near their homes in the suburbs, a preference that has drained retail dollars from the district since the first plazas went up in the 1930s. In-office cafeterias and gyms further slashed the number of commuters out on the street.

“People just park, go into their little tomb for the day and leave,” said Susan McCartney, director of the SUNY Buffalo State Small Business Development Center. “That’s not helpful, in terms of the retail environment.”

A vacant storefront on Main and Mohawk.  Downtown-boosters are also embracing a radical possibility: that the district’s renaissance may proceed without the sorts of businesses that defined it over the past century. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

To further complicate matters, it’s no longer certain these issues will vanish as more people move downtown. Developers long insisted “retail follows rooftops.” But traditional Main Street brick-and-mortars now face tighter financing and an overbuilt market, on top of Instacart and Amazon.

Federal data show the number of U.S. clothing shops, book stores and supermarkets is dwindling: New York State alone lost more than 1,000 between 2014 and 2018. And tellingly, cities years into their revivals have also struggled to attract a critical mass of downtown stores: Consider Cleveland, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

For Danielle Blount, a Buffalo business owner who recently decided against a downtown location, the internet model just makes more sense. Blount and her sister Melissa run Lily and Grey, which curates gift boxes for weddings and other events.

While the pair like the area – they completed a two-month pop-up there in December – they couldn’t justify the cost of a storefront, Blount said.

“Overall, it was a great experience,” Blount said. “But we didn’t see enough [business] to say, ‘let’s quit our jobs and open a brick-and-mortar location.’ ”

Rethinking retail

Such calculations don’t necessarily doom downtown retail – but they do suggest the businesses that rebuild the neighborhood will differ from the ones that first built it. Gone are the glory days of Kobacker’s, Kleinhans, Hengerer’s and AM&A’s, their storefronts long since demolished or converted to hotels, restaurants, salons and offices.

Those sorts of businesses fuel the neighborhood today, said Mike Schmand, the director of BuffaloPlace, a nonprofit organization. They have also replaced old-school retailers as the bedrock of other resurgent downtowns, said Huntoon, a principal consultant with the retail site-selection firm Intalytics.

Dreams of a brick-and-mortar revival have not died in Buffalo yet. Joe Heins, a commercial real estate attorney, predicts chains will someday follow residents downtown, even if it takes years to reach “critical mass.” Manning, of the Main Place Mall, said he hopes the city’s “Cars on Main Street” project will renew commercial interest in the 500 block. And the city itself has fought to fill the neighborhood’s most gaping retail hole by demanding a grocery store open on Ellicott Street as part of a forthcoming Ciminelli Real Estate project.

But local development groups have also thrown their weight behind less conventional models, such as pop-ups and a seasonal farmers market that flex with the flow of downtown shoppers. Lily and Grey belonged to the eighth class of a program, Queen City Pop-Up, designed to temporarily fill storefronts by providing them rent-free to entrepreneurs and artisans.

In five cases, graduates of the program stayed on to open their own small Main Street shops, several of them in the Market Arcade. Cheryl Lamparelli, the co-owner of upscale pet store Buffalo Barkery, said those vendors have now banded together to promote downtown as a destination for shopping.

Cheryl Lamparelli, right, says she and sister-in-law Maggie Lamparelli  left, are "committed" to their Buffalo Barkery pet shop in the Market Arcade. “We’ll have people come in and tell us, 'oh, I really wish you were in such-and-such a place,' ” Lamparelli said. “We’re like, ‘no, we’re not moving." (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

“We’ll have people come in and tell us, 'oh, I really wish you were in such-and-such a place,' ” Lamparelli said. “We’re like, ‘no, we’re not moving.’ This is home. We’re committed.”

Today, Buffalo Barkery, which will celebrate its third anniversary in April, does a good lunchtime business, Lamparelli said. Some customers now even drive in for visits on weekends.

Still, Lamparelli admits, the street can feel abandoned when commuters go home.

“We’re still in the resurgence phase,” she said. “But we’re moving forward.”

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