Buffalo’s Main Street is tangled in construction, heavy machinery and high expectations. The pedestrian mall is being removed; curbs, pavement and sidewalks are being torn up. Main Street is undoing its 30-plus-year run of having no traffic.
But once the dust settles from the slabs of new concrete on a restructured 600 block in the fall and car traffic returns, will the strip be closer to holding the pulse of downtown the street’s businesses crave?
The city expects the return of cars to bring more private investment downtown, and points to the redevelopment of the 700 block as proof that it is working. The block went from one- to two-way traffic in 2009, and numerous buildings have been renovated since then. The 600 block is being overhauled now.
Businesses expect the presence of cars to boost revenues and revitalize the street.
Mayor Byron W. Brown’s “Cars Sharing Main Street” project is a way to help remedy what “was a mistake 30 years ago,” said Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, a nonprofit organization that advocates for downtown Buffalo.
Brown is hoping that opening the block to driving and parking will revive the long-dormant retail business in the area.
The city estimates it will cost $70 million to return traffic to the street between the Theater District and Church Street. More than $30 million of that, supplied through state and federal grants, was spent on or committed to the 700, 600 and 500 blocks, which stretch from Goodell to Mohawk Streets. The city is confident it will be able to secure the rest of the money to continue the project.
In the 1980s, it cost the state and federal governments about $535 million to put in the Metro Rail, more than $1.7 billion in today’s dollars. The train runs above ground between Tupper Street and the Canalside area, and automobile traffic has been blocked along that stretch ever since. Bringing limited car traffic back is the point of the project.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Schmand said. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Anthony Conte, president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, is thrilled that more patrons will be using the theater’s front entrance and will be able to “fully appreciate” the building’s “beautiful architecture.” He also looks forward to a drop-off zone in front of the theater, and visitors fully taking in Buffalo’s theater scene, instead of seeing the backs of buildings when driving on alternate roads.
Amanda Ramia, whose family owns and operates Sue’s N.Y. Deli, thinks the return of traffic and the shop’s increased visibility will increase sales.
Currently, construction shrouds the 600 block, or Theater District, between Tupper and Chippewa. While the new street is laid out, the NFTA is installing new Metro Rail track beds for $1.6 million.
The $8 million reconstruction of the 600 block is scheduled to be completed in the fall, as the $21 million rebuilding of the 500 block begins between Chippewa and Mohawk streets. Both projects are a continuation of a $2.2 million project in 2009 that returned two-way traffic to the 700 block.
The wide range of costs for each block reflects the work being done. The 500 block, for example, is about 30 percent longer than the 600 block and has two train stations that need to be adjusted, said Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak.
To continue the project down to Church Street, as the city intends, will cost about $40 million.
A national trend
The undoing of Buffalo’s Main Street experiment is not an isolated event.
For roughly 15 years, cities have been removing their pedestrian malls after finding they weren’t working, said Todd Barman, a senior program officer for the National Main Street Center.
He said the few places where pedestrian malls have worked in the U.S. are “exceptions to the rule,” as most have struggled to attract crowds.
The nationwide push for pedestrian malls came in the ’60s and ’70s. After the success of big shopping centers, there was a belief a “walkable Main Street” would attract shoppers back into cities, Barman explained.
But the opposite happened.
In Buffalo, “When the light rail rapid transit system was installed in the early ’80s, it essentially killed retail in downtown,” said the mayor in a July news conference.
Brown has also said traffic is essential to link the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus with growing residential and commercial areas throughout downtown. Main Street sits as the passageway between the developing Canalside and the budding Medical Campus. Mark Goldman, a patriarch of Chippewa’s revitalization, thinks traffic will create “more connectivity” for these hubs of activity.
“People here like to drive,” he said.
Not all agree
Though widely praised, the plan still has critics.
Harold Cohen, former dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, doesn’t think traffic should come back to Main Street.
Cohen oversaw Main Street more than 30 years ago as the director of a plan to revitalize the struggling street, and he zeroed in on the same block that’s being overhauled now. He also proposed the pedestrian mall.
In a sense, he still is overseeing the 600 block, as his apartment building at the corner of Chippewa looks over the Theater District and the ongoing construction below.
He said it “was not the rail that destroyed” downtown. “It was already dying.”
While the city says the new street will be “more complete” with rail, bicycle, pedestrian and car traffic, Cohen worries it will be too crowded.
The completed 600 block will have one car lane in each direction, bike lanes, 45 parking spaces, five loading zones, trees and new light and sign poles.
Cohen described Buffalo, after the steel industry collapsed, as “sort of dead.” And as shopping centers opened in the suburbs, he said the stores in the city were unable to keep up before the pedestrian mall or rail line were installed.
The only businesses he sees “flaring up” and surviving on the street are ones that support entertainment, like theaters and restaurants.
“The survival of the Theater District is not just the rail or the buildings; it’s the people,” he said. “Without people, it’s not a theater district.” He described Buffalo as the “center of culture” in Western New York.
Christopher Jacobs owns five buildings on the 700 block. Before two-way traffic was restored four years ago, the street was less marketable, he said.
One of Jacobs’ tenants is Althea Williams-Little, who has two Main Street businesses, a salon, Hair to Go Natural, in the 700 block, and a struggling consignment shop, Althea’s 2nd Time Around, amid construction on the 600 block.
She said the steady business she had before construction started on the 600 block has “slowed to a crawl.” For her, the whole situation has a hint of familiarity.
“I didn’t know it would really hurt this bad,” she said. “Now I know what they felt all those years ago.”
She said once the train was complete, everyone was gone “because it took too long” and businesses struggled.
“And for what?” Williams-Little asked. “It’s a train to nowhere.”
Cohen didn’t want the train to be above ground at the 600 block. He said it’s a deterrent to the strip, and his fight to change the placement of the underground portal failed.
Pamphlets the NFTA handed out in the early ’80s said “funding limitations” would force the rail system to be done in increments, eventually extending to serve the entirety of the Niagara Frontier. But it never happened. Conte, like many others, believes Main Street’s future would have played out differently if the rail developed into a complete system.
Now, the NFTA is conducting a feasibility study to address the traffic needs of the Amherst corridor, looking at the possibility of extending the metro rail to near the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.
Though Williams-Little is struggling to turn a profit in her new shop, she’s optimistic about a developing Buffalo and what the future of the street will hold. She got in before construction because she assumes once its complete, rent on the street will increase.
To her, things like the cranes becoming part of Buffalo’s skyline signify a positive change. She remembers Main Street when she was a little girl as “a smaller scale New York City.”
“We’re finally progressing,” she said.