Who would have thought the East Side of Buffalo would be the next big frontier for redevelopment?
Mayor Byron W. Brown doesn't think the area will be recognizable in five years.
Common Council President Darius Pridgen never imagined construction cranes or two bank branches on Jefferson Avenue again — one built from scratch.
And developers like Rhonda Ricks say changes for the better are inevitable on the East Side.
It seems hard to believe, especially for residents of those neighborhoods. Streets like Jefferson, Fillmore Avenue, William Street and Broadway — and lots of smaller streets in between — are pockmarked with derelict buildings, vacant lots, dilapidated fences and debris-strewn grass. In some areas, entire swaths of land look like war zones.
So it would be hard to blame residents for being skeptical that they would ever see development.
Yet that is exactly what's starting to happen — and it actually isn't surprising.
Over the last six years, Buffalo and its suburbs have seen more than $6.5 billion in redevelopment activity.
Riverbend. HarborCenter. One Canalside. Catholic Health System's headquarters. Conventus. John R. Oishei Children's Hospital. Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Clinical Sciences Center. The Delaware North Building. And those are just some of the big projects.
Still to come or already in progress: the Trico Building, AM&A Department Store conversion to a Wyndham Hotel, Queen City Landing, Campus Square, Lancaster Square at Gates Circle, Highland Park at the former Central Park Plaza and Elmwood Crossing at the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, to name a few.
Much of that has been in downtown Buffalo, which is to be expected. It is the heart of the region. But as big downtown projects have been picked off, developers have turned north, south and west to target a host of properties along Hertel, Delaware, Elmwood and Kenmore avenues, and Niagara and Seneca streets.
Old warehouses along the Niagara River and in Larkinville are now apartment buildings. New restaurants, chic offices and housing are popping up in former schools, churches and commercial buildings. And vacant parking lots are being eyed for multi-story construction projects.
Amherst, Tonawanda, Clarence, Cheektowaga, Orchard Park, West Seneca, Hamburg, East Aurora, Lancaster — all have seen new development.
Only the East Side was largely untouched, until more recently. Now affordable housing developers are tackling new projects on Jefferson Avenue — People Inc.'s Jefferson Avenue Apartments, in conjunction with developers Nick Sinatra and David Pawlik — and on Broadway, where Stuart Alexander & Associates, Rhonda Ricks and SCG Development are converting an old factory into the Forge.
The Buffalo Urban Development Corp. is spearheading the creation of a 35-acre light-industrial economic development hub at the Northland Corridor, anchored by the Western New York Workforce Training Center. Northwest Bank opened a new East Side branch on Jefferson, in a building newly constructed by Sinatra and Pawlik.
Significant government funding, tax credits and pressure from politicians and community leaders are driving some of the development. Northwest, for example, included a new branch as part of the "community benefits agreement" it signed when it bought 17 First Niagara Bank branches. That's often how development starts in areas of poverty, distress and neglect.
But old-fashioned profit motive is also at work. Sinatra and Pawlik are traditional developers. So is Dr. Fadi Dagher, whose Cedarland Development bought the former Sattler's Department Store building at 998 Broadway and the former Eckhardt Building at 950 Broadway, with an eye to redevelopment. While they will likely rely on tax credits and other incentives, just as they do elsewhere in the city, they wouldn't take on such projects if they didn't see opportunities.
City leaders say there's more to follow. Land and buildings are still cheap on the East Side. Empty lots are plentiful. There's a need for better housing and shops. And there's a population that wants a better life.