Almost three decades after the first subway train rumbled beneath Main Street, Buffalo's Metro Rail system is about to assume the role that was intended and transport thousands of city residents to homes, work and play.

The catalyst is the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where 17,500 people are expected to be working soon, and they will depend more than ever on the oft-maligned “train to nowhere.”

As a result, at least $91 million has or is soon to be invested in real estate projects – primarily lofts and apartments – near the subway stations. The city hopes to approve 800 to 900 new housing units along the Main Street subway spine by 2016, with as many as 2,000 to 3,000 more in later years, according to Brendan R. Mehaffy, the Brown administration's executive director of strategic planning.

“The demand is there,” he said. “On a fairly regular basis, we have housing builders come to start taking advantage of what's happening.”

And while they now see Metro Rail finally fulfilling its transit and development potential, transit officials, real estate developers, city officials and those guiding the city's burgeoning medical industry all agree the development will spawn an urban lifestyle. It is also possible many Buffalonians may choose not to own cars, they say.

“There's a change in attitude where people don't want to drive all the time,” Mehaffy said. “And won't it be easy to just hop on a train and go to work, Canalside or the theater?

“There are people who will want to live in Buffalo and in an urban environment,” he added. “That's what we're creating.”

The city planning chief echoes what everyone from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to the University at Buffalo all acknowledge: “This can't happen without Metro Rail.”

Developments sparked by the new job-growth concentration on downtown's north edge include:

• At least $91 million worth of real estate investment in hundreds of new housing units around subway stations like Utica, Amherst and LaSalle.

• A projected surge in rail ridership as thousands of Medical Campus workers commute to a facility deliberately designed without employee parking.

• Plans for a “coatless” Medical Campus connected by tunnels and skywalks, anchored by a new $350 million UB Medical School incorporated into the Allen/Medical Campus Station.

• Medical Campus ideas for car sharing that encourage mass transit-dependent employees to check out rentals for business or pleasure outside the urban core.

• Medical Campus proposals for extending Metro Rail through the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal to a parking and transit hub in the Old First Ward for longer-range commuters.

• A Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority study under way that examines extending Metro Rail or another mass transit alternative to Amherst, with much of the justification based on serving the Medical Campus.

• City Hall's new emphasis on a Main Street “knowledge corridor” encompassing Erie Community College, downtown financial and legal institutions, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Medical Campus, Canisius College, Medaille College, Sisters Hospital and UB.

“It's got all the elements of a 21st century economy, and it's all connected by Main Street and underground by Metro Rail,” Mehaffy said. “There's no question it will play an increased role in Buffalo's future.”

Forcing culture change

The impetus for Metro Rail's enhanced role lies in the growing cluster of hospitals, medical offices and research facilities on downtown's northern edge. Parking will prove a challenge, even though the campus recently constructed a $42 million, nine-story parking garage – Buffalo's biggest – featuring a one-mile drive from top to bottom.

The new downtown cluster will provide enough parking for patients and visitors, according to Medical Campus President Matthew K. Enstice. But because the campus would rather spend its resources on medical facilities than parking garages, planners are encouraging the big new influx of employees to use public transportation.

“This is how you force culture change,” Enstice said. “We're actually doing it.”

Plans call for bicycle racks placed at strategic locations, rental-car checkouts for employees, and an interconnected and walkable campus that will encourage thousands of people to live in the city near Metro Rail.

The plan “has to work” because there is no alternative, Enstice said. There is no room to park 17,500 cars on the 170-acre Medical Campus.

“By limiting supply here, you create this opportunity to live in a city,” he said. “We're committed to building a community, not just a Medical Campus.”

These plans and ideas stem from a problem the City of Buffalo has not encountered for some time – growth, said Patrick J. Whalen, chief operating officer of the Medical Campus.

“It's been a long time since there's been any real growth here,” he said. “It's refreshing to be talking about it.”

A critical role

The critical role projected for Metro Rail is attracting the attention of some of the biggest names in local development – Ciminelli, Sinatra, Legacy and Greenleaf.

All plan major housing projects near the Medical Campus or subway stations for thousands of new employees.

Legacy Development originally secured land around LaSalle Station for UB students commuting one subway hop to the South Campus, said Frank Chinnici, president of the company. But as plans for the Medical Campus got bigger, Legacy looked to medical students and downtown workers – some of whom may forsake automobiles.

Now his company plans a $40 million project with 250 apartment units in two-, three- and five-story buildings on LaSalle Avenue near William Price Parkway. He calls them “high-density” buildings that reflect an urban lifestyle.

“It's pretty rare to be able to put together a 10-acre site in an urban development,” he said. “But as a residential developer, we expect to capitalize in a big way on our relationship to the station.”

Neighbors support the new development, according to University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell.

It adds to area property value, she said, while medical students and other workers represent “serious” tenants who will stabilize the area.

“When you think about it, it's a good, saveable neighborhood,” Russell said.

Other developers are devising similar plans.

Ciminelli Development is converting the former Buffalo Meter Co. building next to Bennett High School – vacant since the 1990s – into 89 loft apartments in an $8.5 million project.

Ciminelli also has bought the 27-acre former Central Park Plaza site off Amherst Street and envisions future housing – possibly costing $30 million with several hundred housing units – within walking distance of the Amherst Station.

A fundamental change

And Sinatra and Company Realty plans 31 apartments and retail space at Main and Ferry streets, just over a block away from the Utica Station. In addition, the firm is developing a separate 34-apartment complex at Main and North for a total of $6.5 million worth of housing.

“We're making a big bet that people will want to live within walking distance of the Medical Campus or a Metro stop,” developer Nick Sinatra said. “It's a fundamental change along that corridor and the whole rental market – even into the Elmwood Village.

“Now people will come in from Denver or some place and say '$1,500 a month for this? Sign me up,' ” he added.

Jim Swiezy, president of Greenleaf and Co., is retrofitting an old horse carriage repair shop at 916 and 918 Main St. across from the Allen/Medical Campus Station into 23 one- and two-bedroom loft apartments.

He is assisted by city stabilization funds and historic tax credits in a $6.2 million project that he said will perfectly suit those connected with the Medical Campus.

“There's definitely an interest in living in the city from medical students, research and development people, and people moving in from out of town and the suburbs,” he said. “They're willing to spend money on quality housing, and we've never had that before.”

The new developments follow a surge of about 500 new housing units downtown in recent years, with hundreds more projected in the near future. And new housing interest is expected to develop in conjunction with the Medical Campus in walking-distance neighborhoods like Allentown and the Fruit Belt.

Linking UB's campuses

This development is fueled by UB Medical School's vision for a downtown campus, said Dennis R. Black, UB's vice president for student life.

And the university hopes NFTA eventually will link its downtown, South and North campuses in a “one-seat” rail system.

“This is back to the future of the early 1970s,” Black said of 40-year-old transit studies seeking to connect UB campuses.

“We thought this was vital,” Black added. “We have struggled to be two campuses connected by roadways and buses. It's inefficient and expensive.”

Work on the medical school project begins in October. When completed in 2016, Black said, the Allen Street station will serve as gateway to the entire Medical Campus as well as a key component of the university's long-range plans.

“We're a university with three campuses and we've got to be connected,” he said.

Former NFTA Chairman Raymond F. Gallagher, who oversaw Metro Rail planning and construction in the 1970s and 1980s, may understand Black's “back to the future” reference better than anyone.

Back then, he said, planners anticipated a development boom around transit stations. But the region's economy tanked at about the time the current 6.5-mile line opened.

“When we laid out the stations the way we did, we anticipated growth around them,” Gallagher said.

Thirty years later, the rail system is beginning to fulfill that promise as the Medical Campus grows.

Current NFTA officials are thankful for the trend – even if it is late.

As a result, the authority is rebuilding its Metro Rail fleet of 27 cars, designing a new Smart Card fare-collection system and ensuring enough capacity for the Allen/Medical Campus Station to handle a new commuter crush, said Thomas George, director of surface transportation.

Some day, he said, more subway cars may be needed.

Buffalo is finally realizing the development advantages stemming from its subway system, said James K. Morrell, manager of service planning for the NFTA and chairman of the city Planning Board.

“Look at Washington or New York City,” he said. “The closer to a rail station, the higher the value. It's beginning to happen here.”

As a result, the NFTA is finally putting to rest the “train to nowhere” myth that not long ago sparked talk among some elected officials about closing down the system, George said.

“It was always 'How do you fight the myth?' And it is a myth,” he said. “Now, this is exciting.”