The three best new sites for a Buffalo Bills stadium are all on the fringes of downtown Buffalo, according to a long-awaited report commissioned by New York State. The study also identifies a major renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park – or construction of a replacement next door – as viable possibilities without the potential for economic spin-off offered at the city sites.
A site east of First Niagara Center in the Cobblestone District and a site at the northeast corner of Exchange Street and Michigan Avenue made the shortlist, as did a location to the southeast of the South Park Avenue-Louisiana Street intersection along the Buffalo River in South Buffalo.
Because of natural lighting issues, though, only a domed stadium would likely meet NFL requirements at the Cobblestone site, whereas either a dome or an open-air stadium would work at the other two city sites, said a source who was involved in compiling the study.
The study estimates the cost of the Cobblestone domed stadium to be $787.6 million.
A similar stadium at the Exchange Street site would cost $784.6 million, while a domed facility at South Park would cost $911.9 million, due in large part to the higher site development costs there. Building an open-air stadium at either Exchange Street or South Park would reduce those costs by $188.6 million.
Meanwhile, renovating Ralph Wilson Stadium to modern NFL standards would cost $554.9 million, thanks largely to the fact that much of the seating bowl would probably have to be replaced.
Prepared by AECOM, a Los Angeles-based architectural consulting firm, the site evaluations do not recommend one site over any other. In addition, state sources said the study’s results should not be seen as a state endorsement for any particular stadium site, or for even building a new stadium.
The report also identifies nine other potential stadium sites – including Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, the Central Terminal area, West Seneca and Niagara Falls – as posing complications that make them less attractive than the three sites on the edges of downtown and the Ralph Wilson Stadium site.
“This analysis identifies, based on the information available as of the date hereof, a shortlist of sites that have the best potential for successfully hosting a modern NFL stadium and benefiting the community,” said the report, which was obtained by The Buffalo News before its official release by the state. “This report is intended to serve as a platform for a broader discussion of the potential of each potential site and the costs and benefits to the community of potential stadium and ancillary development on each such site.”
The report is likely to jump-start community conversation about a new Bills stadium, which NFL officials have said the team needs to guarantee its long-term financial success.
NFL officials also have privately said they prefer a downtown Buffalo site to allow the team to be closer to Canada and Rochester, but AECOM noted in its report that it did its work without consulting either the NFL or the Bills.
Even so, the report may well come as good news to Terry and Kim Pegula, who purchased the Bills this year from the estate of the team’s founder, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. That’s because all three Buffalo sites are within walking distance of the area nicknamed “Pegulaville,” the burgeoning area that includes First Niagara Center – home of the Pegula-owned Buffalo Sabres – as well as the Pegulas’ new HarborCenter development.
The Cobblestone District is the closest to Pegulaville, and according to the consultants who did the study, the site has much to offer.
“The Cobblestone District’s adjacencies with the First Niagara Center Arena, HarborCenter and Coca-Cola Field create the potential for a new stadium to develop an iconic sports district and further the development and renewal of downtown Buffalo,” the study said.
“This connection to other retail and mixed use development make the Cobblestone District site a good candidate for construction of a domed, multi-purpose stadium” that would attract far more non-football events than any open-air stadium, the study added.
At the same time, though, the consultants acknowledged that a Cobblestone District stadium, sandwiched between Mississippi Street and Michigan Avenue, also would pose some challenges.
“The constricted site area will result in a stadium placement outside the optimal stadium orientation, meaning the site will only accommodate a fixed roof facility due to weather considerations,” they wrote.
A source involved in the study later clarified that the weather issue involved the natural lighting required for outdoor football games.
A stadium at that location also should be planned to allow existing buildings along Illinois and Mississippi streets to remain standing, and perhaps somehow be incorporated into the stadium’s design.
Exchange Street site
The study also has plenty of good things to say about the Exchange Street site.
“The Exchange Street site, bounded by Swan Street to the north, Chicago Street to the east, Exchange Street to the south and Michigan Avenue to the west, is the most accessible, in terms of ingress and egress, of any of the proposed urban sites and also best access to existing parking inventories,” the study said.
In addition, its location near Coca-Cola Field and downtown means a multipurpose dome would work there, although the site also meets NFL standards for an open-air stadium.
“Its location at the edge of the downtown Buffalo core offers spin-off development potential without the costly demolition of major buildings,” the study said.
Yet the Exchange Street site also could raise concerns for nearby residents, the study said.
The Exchange Street site would require that Seneca Street be closed between Michigan Avenue and Chicago Street, thereby cutting off the direct route from downtown to the burgeoning Larkinville area as well as the iconic Chef’s Restaurant. A source involved in the report said, though, that access to Larkinville – which was developed by Howard Zemsky, now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s economic development czar – was not a major concern.
South Park site
This site, to the southeast of Pegulaville, is the largest of the three city sites, and it offers great development potential, the consultants said.
“The site would ... place a stadium between the Cobblestone District and other development projects,” they wrote. “With the appropriately scaled mixed-use development surrounding the potential stadium, both areas would likely realize an increase in activity and value.”
At the same time, though, they said the South Park site poses plenty of potential concerns. It’s at least a quarter-mile farther from Buffalo’s downtown parking lots. It’s next to a residential neighborhood, and the stadium would be located on what is now Conway Park, which could be relocated.
And perhaps most importantly, the South Park site is by far the most expensive of the shortlisted sites, thanks to the more extensive roadwork that would be required there to handle football traffic. The study calls for Louisiana and Hamburg streets to be expanded and the nearby ramps to and from the Niagara Thruway to be widened, meaning infrastructure improvements at the South Park site would cost at least $200 million – four times as much as the minimum at Cobblestone and twice as much as at the Exchange Street site.
Ralph Wilson Stadium site
In contrast, renovating Ralph Wilson Stadium would be, by far, the cheapest option, the consultants said.
But it wouldn’t be cheap. Despite $130 million in renovations completed this year, “The Ralph” needs more than a half-billion dollars of additional work just to bring it in line with the more extensive renovations done at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., and Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo,. the consultants said.
The Ralph still needs upgrades to its premium seating areas, additional restroom and concourse improvements and a better concessions system, and the entire stadium must be made compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
And then there’s “the additional complexity of rebuilding the upper deck structures to accommodate the required premium suites and modern media facilities,” the consultants said.
The consultants acknowledged that game-day traditions weigh in favor of keeping The Ralph, but they also said fan surveys express concerns about road access at the facility.
What’s more, “we do not believe the Orchard Park site will promote ancillary retail or destination development due to its roadway challenges and the remote nature of the location,” the study said.
For that reason, the consultants said that if the Bills remain in Orchard Park, renovating The Ralph would be the most cost-effective option, because there would not be enough economic payback for building an expensive brand-new facility there.
The consultants had more negative things to say about the other nine sites they considered, including four – Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, Central Terminal, West Seneca and Niagara Falls – that have garnered significant community attention.
Calling them “non-shortlisted sites,” the study went on about the shortcomings of each.
Road access, for example, proved to be a central concern regarding a stadium at the Outer Harbor, an idea that’s been pushed by Amherst businessman George F. Hasiotis. New bridges and roads to link that potential stadium site to the rest of downtown would cost between $800 million and $1 billion, the consultants said – meaning an Outer Harbor stadium would cost about twice as much as one at Cobblestone or Exchange Street.
A new stadium in Niagara Falls would face the same issue. Between $800 million and $1 billion in roadwork would be needed, the report said, as the Grand Island bridges likely would have to be expanded to handle game-day traffic from the Buffalo area.
Meanwhile, a stadium at Central Terminal is a nonstarter, just because the site isn’t big enough to accommodate such a facility.
And a stadium at the former Seneca Mall site in West Seneca, which has been proposed by developer Scott R. Congel, faces several challenges, the report said. There is uncertainty about the development proposed there, there may not be enough nearby parking, and a stadium there may not fit in with the region’s development plans.
Other non-shortlisted sites include LaSalle Park, the former Republic Steel site in Buffalo, a site on Tonawanda Street near the Scajaquada Expressway, the University at Buffalo North Campus and Batavia.
The study comes in the second year of the Bills’ latest 10-year lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and it’s unclear whether the report will prompt a genuine move toward replacing or rebuilding Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Both Cuomo and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz have voiced caution over a new stadium, citing cost concerns.
And while the Pegulas have committed to a new stadium, they haven’t offered any specifics.
“Well, there’s going to be a new stadium somewhere, that’s all I know,” Terry Pegula told the Associated Press late last year. “The league was pretty emphatic that Buffalo, we’re a small market, needs to be as competitive as we can.”