Spring skipped Buffalo this year. We went from ice pellet storms to 75 degrees literally over night. The next two weeks will average 70 degrees with sun every day. In the mean time, my fella in North Carolina has been suffering with 50 degree weather and gray for two weeks. I believe the weather gods are rewarding Buffalonians for surviving an exceedingly gray six months of winter or else it is just the chaos of climate change (or both!). I woke up on Saturday morning to glorious sun and decided to borrow one of my sister’s dogs to roam around downtown and figure out what’s really going on here. I have not walked further than two blocks in any direction of my loft since I moved here November 1st. So, off Kolby and I went. Destination: Canalside, whatever that is.
The 500 Block to the 100 Block
Walking from the 500 Block of Main Street, where I live and work, to the 100 Block of Main Street, the last metro stop and the edge of Canalside, showed both the possibilities and horrors of downtown Buffalo. There was almost no one besides me enjoying the weather and sights (2 pm on Saturday, sun and 76 degrees). I said hello to one other woman walking her dog. I did not see one bicyclist, runner, skateboarder, or rollerblader in my hour ramble down and back.
The Possibilities and the Fabulous: Along that half mile walk at the heart of downtown Buffalo I observed: the rehabilitated Belesario/Gamler’s complex where I live, the just restored spectacular Lafayette Hotel, the currently under renovation Emory Roth-designed Tishman Building (becoming a Hilton Garden with some residential), several small scale commercial buildings that have been bought and rehabbed by my neighbors for living, the beautifully restored National Historic Landmark Louis Sullivan Guaranty Building and its neighbor, the phenomenal NHL Gothic Revival masterpiece, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, by Richard Upjohn, Minoru Yamasaki’s M&T Bank Headquarters with its fanciful Bertoia fountain, Daniel Burnham’s Ellicott Square Building, Edward Durrell Stone’s restrained brutalist Buffalo News Headquarters, our downtown Triple A Baseball stadium and professional hockey arena, glimpses of our iconic grain elevators and the start of Canalside. Kolby was in heaven, so many new smells and places to stop and consider relieving himself!
The Horrors: In the half-mile walk down and back to Canalside, I also experienced the worst of a not-yet-revived downtown. I was verbally accosted three times, with requests for money two other times. I saw two police actions. I’d say on average every other building was vacant or underused. Almost no streetside cafes or stores other than two lotto places, one convenience store, an OTB, a Dollar store, a Tim Horton’s which closed at 3 pm, several banks (all closed), and one coffee shop (closed at 3 pm). That was it. It was an eerie and uncomfortable walk – some of the best architecture in the world with almost no infrastructure to connect it. Very little green space. Whenever Kolby spotted a green slice he dragged me over to it.
Canalside – Buffalo’s New Cultural Heritage Destination
The Canalside project area covers approximately 20 acres of idle land in Buffalo’s historic former canal district. The master plan proposes nearly 725,000 square feet of mixed-use space for entertainment, hotel, office, retail, residential, restaurant, and other uses. This new district is wrapped around the historic end (or beginning) of the Erie Canal. Archaeological ruins and reconstructed canal buildings plus the Buffalo & Erie County Military and Naval Park anchor Canalside. All the people who were NOT walking on Main Street were here at Canalside. The Buffalo & Erie County Military & Naval Park houses two ships and a submarine and has been a draw to this area for many years. All summer long concerts and events make this area even more active. Brightly colored Adirondack chairs dot the landscape. I was delighted to see so much activity, particularly after my dreary walk from my apartment. This revitalization is State and private funding driven, with an estimated price tag of $400 M which means to me that half a billion is more like it.
Do you detect some cynicism? Yes, I’m afraid you do. Although maybe it’s not so much cynicism as disappointment and impatience. And it’s because the City of Buffalo is nowhere to be found as a player here in this revitalization. How do you get to Canalside? Very few people take public transportation; it’s really not reasonable to do so. Yes, it’s great to have a growing cultural heritage destination remaking our waterfront, but still, there is little infrastructure or planning to connect the dots of the great singular neighborhoods in Buffalo, let alone Niagara Falls. Will the new Buffalo Green Code remedy this? Maybe a bit, but how long will this take and will it really impact downtown? Will the influx of new professionals for the Buffalo Niagara medical campus just north of my place provide the population to revive downtown? Maybe, but how long will this take? And what happens if the HSBC building at the foot of Main Street (Buffalo’s largest office building) does indeed default on its mortgage and no one moves in? If this happens, I fear downtown has no hope. And sadly, at 50, not sure that I have the energy to wait it out again. New York City or the Pacific Northwest might be calling again instead.
Can Downtown Business Cores Really Become Lively Residential Neighborhoods?
Houston has an astonishing amount of construction including a massive school construction bond and a growing residential population. But still no downtown grocery store. Philadelphia has become one of the most spectacular downtowns anywhere, and it wasn’t like this 20 years ago when I started going regularly. It does have the mass now to draw grocery stores and even the hallowed Trader Joe’s. New York City’s financial district has more and more residential, and more and more services. It’s still rather quiet on weekends except for tourists but New York City’s amazing transportation system and pedestrian friendly streets makes it really easy to quickly get from neighborhood to neighborhood. These cities are, of course, the largest and most vibrant in America. And despite its cultural growth with some of the best architecture in the world, Buffalo still sits at the top of the poverty list among American cities. Darn it, city, get your act together. It’s so great we have neighborhoods like the Delaware District, the Elmwood Village, Parkside and Hertel, but if our tourists and downtown residents can’t easily get to them and all they see from their downtown hotel windows is a desert of vacant buildings, then how do we expect to move forward?
What I See From My Window
I will be the first to admit that I sit in my ivory loft and pass judgment on what I see and what I do not see from my 10-foot high 15-foot wide commercial windows. I will also be the first to admit that I am fairly privileged and calling my sister each morning to give her a count of the less fortunate “hobos” I see from my windows is not a sympathetic or kind thing to do. If 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30, does that mean I have found myself back at 30? In some respects it would seem so. When I was 30 I had just started my first architecture firm in a fabulous loft in SoHo (Prince and Broadway). My business partner and I got a 600 foot space with original wood floors, soaring 12 foot high ceilings with two cast iron Corinthian columns and windows facing Broadway. We paid $600 a month (about $12/sq.ft) – that same space would be in the $7,500/month range (about $150/sq.ft) today. Manhattan’s SoHo was gritty then, the perfect place for thirty somethings in the creative class to make our mark and change the world. My hair stylist opened her studio the same month we opened ours. She now has an international brand. We were all young and had no money but that didn’t stop any of us. So that’s why in some respects I find myself frustrated when I look out my windows on Main Street in downtown Buffalo and see it 20 years behind NYC, Philadelphia, Seattle, Houston, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. I was an urban pioneer at 30, do I really want to be one again at 50? Whether I like it or not I guess I am.
And if you’d like to “subscribe” or follow my blog, True Green Cities, please sign up through the “Subscribe” button at the bottom left of this page. You’ll receive a daily recap when new blogs are posted. Or Sign up for the Feed.