Last week, in an interview with former News reporter Jim Heaney on his website Investigative Post, developer Rocco Termini said that his wish for downtown Buffalo was "Manhattan rents."
Termini, who accomplished his stunning restoration of the Hotel @ Lafayette with the help of historic tax credits from New York State, was hoping aloud that the burgeoning downtown economy would eventually be able to sustain places like the Lafayette and create new ones without huge public subsidies.
That is, of course, a laudable goal. But Termini's desire for the sort of rents you see in Manhattan - which have made it next to impossible for emerging artists to live and work there - raises a small red flag.
It points up the need for a cohesive plan to make sure that the cultural organizations and individual artists now driving the city's renaissance and buffering its national image will have a place in the city they are helping to reshape.
Downtown, a depressing plywood jungle only a few years ago, has already priced most artists out of the real estate market. Though there are a few bright spots, like the Western New York Book Arts Center and Main Street Studios, the idea of living and working downtown is already out of reach for most local artists.
Frits Abell, founder of the Buffalo Expat Network and the Echo Art Fair, has been banging the drum on this issue for some time. Having lived in New York City for 18 years, he has seen artists driven from neighborhoods they helped to revive, like the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, into new artistic territory. Territory, as the world is becoming increasingly aware, like Buffalo.
"Not only is New York cost-prohibitive and Brooklyn cost-prohibitive, but they're also becoming culturally prohibitive for artists and young people," Abell said, referencing a recent Salon.com piece that pointed to Detroit and Buffalo as new artistic frontiers. "I've seen this dramatic change, and so I'm very sensitive to the fact that quality of life encompasses a very diverse offering, where you have [multiple] income levels, but also you create space and lock in real estate for those cultural organizations that are helping with the revival so that it's not just a phenomenon where artists come in, clean up parts of the city and then get pushed out."
Downtown, where Termini has suggested the wise idea of a sales tax-free zone to encourage retail, could benefit from a cohesive plan to make sure that the idea of "mixed-use" extends to affordable housing and space for organizations.
Earlier in the summer, Mayor Byron Brown suggested as much to me in a meeting at City Hall, pointing to the success of projects like the Artspace lofts on Main Street and wondering whether there couldn't be more such projects on the horizon. The answer? Yes, but only if City Hall and County Hall work together to make it happen.
"In a very short amount of time, we've seen property values increase, we've seen a resurgence of development in downtown," Abell said. "What a great opportunity for Buffalo to be very proactive and strategic and learn from what cities like New York, San Francisco and Paris, and [all] these cities with these great arts communities have gone through."
The secret about Buffalo is out. The artists are coming, the property values already are rising. Despite the cynical cries of those who are terminally bearish on Buffalo, this is happening. Let's make sure the revival continues with the active participation of the people responsible for launching it.
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