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COMMENTARY

Caitlin Dewey: A new generation embraces downtown living

What keeps you from downtown Buffalo: the parking or the crime? So asked a local news station last month in a post hate-shared across many a Facebook timeline.

Downtowners raged against suburban stodge. Suburbanites railed against car break-ins. The warring comments suggest a startling number of Western New Yorkers believe downtown to be a crime-ridden, car-packed wasteland.

Such impressions aren’t merely demonstrably untrue, they also rasp against local and national trends. After decades of fleeing to the suburbs – in large part over concerns around parking and crime – a generation is returning to the city again.

Downtown Buffalo alone has swelled by 1,800 people in the past five years. Demand is humming for the neighborhood’s 1,000 new apartments, as well as for its nightlife, restaurants and theaters.

No parking? We say: No problem.

And car break-ins? Put your stuff in the trunk.

It’s a small price to pay for a six-block commute, a pint of Hayburner and more than 100 bars and restaurants.

“I think there are a lot of Western New Yorkers who haven’t caught up to the scale of reinvestment in the central business district, nor to the national trend of renewed interest in urban living in general,” said Daniel Sieders, an urban designer and downtown defender.

“[But] I think it’s just a matter of time before the entire region realizes that we’ve truly turned a corner,” he added. “And it’s time to look at downtown with a fresh perspective.”

Like many locals who championed downtown on Facebook last month, Sieders said he witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation firsthand. The 42-year-old Southtowns native moved onto the 500 block of Main Street in 2013, when that stretch between Mohawk and Huron still felt “like a ghost town” on evenings and weekends.

Then a Hilton Garden Inn opened one block south. Then D’Avolio Kitchen. Racklette’s. Hatchet & Hops. Earlier this year, the block added an eclectic bar-arcade and third-wave coffee shop.

Today you can see downtowners walking dogs at all hours, or skating circles at the Rotary Rink. It’s a transformation also evident in other stretches of downtown, from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to Canalside.

“Downtown used to be somewhere you went to get drunk on Chippewa or see a concert at Mohawk Place,” said Keith Szczygiel, who owns several residential properties downtown. “Now there are nearly no vacant buildings, new buildings infilling empty lots, new hotels that are almost always fully occupied [and] far more residents than ever.”

Against this backdrop, it’s hard to understand the griping about downtown’s desolation. Parking seems like a particularly trumped-up complaint. For those willing to walk more than a block or two, the neighborhood offers a mind-boggling 37,000 parking spaces.

As for crime, downtown does have more than other parts of the city. But 60 percent of those crimes are nonviolent thefts, most likely car break-ins. And anyone who has lived in a city is accustomed to that hazard, says Barbara Campagna, a preservation architect who has lived and worked on Main Street since 2012.

Further complaints unspooled in the Facebook comment threads: panhandlers, parolees, loiterers. Critics sometimes appeared to object to downtown because it forced them to engage low-income people of color.

In other words, downtown’s supposed afflictions are qualities that differentiate it from the suburbs.

“I think that people in Western New York who have never left their comfort zone in the suburbs are scared implicitly of urban areas,” Campagna said.

These fears and misconceptions are dramatically at odds with the values of downtown's new advocates. And while they have not stalled the neighborhood's unfolding renaissance, they do risk distracting local leaders from its challenges.

Downtown residents say they want a grocery store, for starters, as well as shoveled, well-paved sidewalks. They want good ways to get around without cars. They’re looking for affordable condos and apartments.

Such issues may not trouble a drive-by visitor, but they will determine whether Buffalo can continue to amass a vibrant, vital, business-sustaining population downtown. So perhaps instead of coddling the people “kept” from the city – on Facebook and off it – we should build on the wave embracing downtown’s revival.

After all, there are more people renting lofts, seeing shows and trekking to Canalside every day.

In the words of one Facebook commenter: “There is far too much on offer to keep me away.”

Staff Reporter Caitlin Dewey lives downtown and has strong opinions about her neighborhood.

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