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From Buffalo Beast....a critique of the state of downtown Buffalo:

THE 10 CRAPPIEST THINGS
About Downtown Buffalo
by Gabe Armstrong
Lets face it: These days, our downtown often makes one cringe, laugh, cry or better yet, stay the hell away.
Downtown was the thriving hub of the city’s commercial activity prior the rise of extreme car culture and the mass exodus to the suburbs. This obsession with total automotive convenience and a fear of city’s the growing black and Latino underclass drove middle class residents and countless businesses to the once-rural fringe.

During the massive urban renewal fever of the postwar decades, a number of mega-projects were imposed upon downtown with false hopes of closing the wounds suffered as a result of the explosion of suburban sprawl. On a smaller scale, yet still in line with the renewal craze, many beautifully detailed old buildings were torn down and replaced with either surface parking lots or bleak, architecturally modern hellholes that did a better job resembling a UFO than a functional piece of urban fabric.

When a critical mass of downtown employees had moved to the suburbs, everything possible had to be done to accommodate their automobile usage downtown. Countless buildings were ripped down and replaced with surface parking lots. Once-vibrant streets came to look like glorified office parks.

After all this mess, people are pretty cynical about downtown. To address some of these concerns, we at the BEAST proudly present The Ten Crappiest Things About Downtown.

10. Surface Parking Lots

A quick glance at a satellite image of downtown shows that almost half of its surface area is blanketed in grey. Countless surface parking lots riddle the downtown landscape, causing many streets to resemble an old boxer’s smile—a sad grin with plenty of missing teeth. This gap-toothed arrangement turns streets into hostile pedestrian environments, with cars constantly crossing over the sidewalk. Parking lots turn away pedestrians because there is nothing more boring to walk by than, well…parking Lots.

West Chippewa Street, one of downtown’s few remaining intact streetscapes, draws large crowds (on drinking nights) because all the street activity provides for interesting sights and sounds. Few bare parking lots exist on the revitalized portion of the strip. Every few steps taken reveal another interesting building.

Downtown’s parking lot surplus becomes most apparent when walking down Franklin Street south from Allentown, well into the core of downtown. Upper Franklin, in Allentown, offers a glimpse at some of Buffalo’s finest vintage architecture dating from the 1860s-70s. This urban continuum comes to an abrupt halt upon crossing Edward Street as neatly preserved houses and small apartment buildings give way to a vast sea of parking lots stretching all the way to adjacent streets (restaurateur Mark Croce, ostensibly the savior of Franklin Street, owns most of these lots and makes a killing on them). Toward the end of the block are a few remaining buildings, housing the Tudor Lounge, Croce’s newly fixed-up Laughlin’s, and some beautiful, 19th century walkup apartments. Once a lively, interesting streetscape, this entire block was lined with a solid wall of these buildings. Now this mostly-bleak stretch is one big parking lot hell. Oh, and I almost forgot Croce’s Buffalo Chophouse. But that is easy to miss thanks to it being obscured by, yes, a parking lot!

These lots offer a cheap and extremely profitable business venture, thanks to our regressive tax code which taxes land solely on its built improvements rather than its development potential. Lot owners get away with paying minuscule property taxes while collecting a steady stream of parking revenue each month. Often, owners of multiple parking lots sit on their land for speculation, waiting for a major developer to come in, buy their lot for a small fortune and plop down an office tower. If this doesn’t happen, the lot owner will still make a killing from parking fees. Either way, it’s a win-win situation for them. If Buffalo really cares about quashing the proliferation of surface parking downtown, they just might want to enable a land-value taxation system that would tax parking lots at the same rate as a next door office tower.

9. Convention Center

This architectural death star is a prime example of a silver-bullet megaproject imposed on a dying downtown that, of course, didn’t deliver on its original promises. The mere construction of this sprawling, concrete monolith threw a monkey wrench in the tight-knit grid of downtown streets by cutting off Mohawk and Genesee streets from Niagara Square. This effectively severed downtown into two isolated halves, with the help of the Main Place Mall (mentioned below). The truncation of those vital streets creates a massive, bleak superblock which disrespects proper urban form and the pedestrian, human scale of a functional urban district.

Let’s not kid ourselves; Buffalo’s convention center is fucking ugly as sin. It was plopped in the ‘60s during the heyday of the architectural style known as Brutalism (no, really—that vertical concrete slab we call the City Courthouse is another example). Edifices constructed using this tormenting blend of blank concrete walls and lego-block like structures did everything possible to turn once-thriving streets into bleak places that no pedestrian would dare wish to venture. The convention center lives up to the Brutalism tag very well. I must give credit to the honesty in that name. Most postwar Modernist architectural styles were intended to punish the denizens of the unfortunate recipient environments—and be cheap—rather than create a captivating place.

Most postwar Modernist architectural styles were intended to punish the denizens of the unfortunate recipient environments—and be cheap—rather than create a captivating place

Rebel pilot Chewbacca flees from Imperial Forces by flying the wrong way down Pearl Street, narrowly escaping from Hangar 17 of the Death Star battlestation...
The unremarkable glass doors facing Franklin Street barely qualify as a true entrance to such an ostensibly important building. All other sides of this hulking concrete mass are even worse-- blank walls and enormous loading bays line a tiring stretch of Pearl Street

The best plan would have been to move the convention center into the old Aud and demolish this abomination of a building. By purging downtown of this urban atrocity, we can restore the original streets that once connected downtown in a coherent grid and make attractive shovel-ready sites for a mixed use of residential, retail and office space. Some dynamite and a few bulldozers should do the trick.

8. Main Place Mall

Speaking of massive blunders, let’s not forget another hulking eyesore built around the same time as the convention center mentioned above. This was yet another “urban renewal” megaproject disaster birthed in the name of progress. Like the convention center, it cuts off a vital cross street (Eagle Street), creating a long block less pleasing and efficient for pedestrian navigation. This happened also during the “mall craze” days that favored an indoor shopping environment as opposed to traditional street and storefront urbanism. Often resulting in the demolition of many vital old, human-scaled buildings, downtown malls became all the rage under the false premise that they could somehow compete with their suburban counterparts. No chance in hell.

Suburban malls offer the convenience of plentiful free parking and an easy excuse to avoid downtown like the plague. Downtown malls stung in too many ways possible, removing retail establishments from the already-emptying streets, while offering a convenient food court which killed off a number of curbside eateries. Since urban malls like the Main Place could not compete with free parking and an absence of colored people, many of its stores eventually closed. Far more than half of the available space in the Main Place Mall is now vacant. But it’s still a great place to watch people smack their kids.

The building itself is another example of gut-wrenching modernist architecture that should have no place in cities. The back side of the mall gives a double-block long blank wall to Pearl Street. The front, on Main Street, is not much better; the mall’s only storefronts are a liquor store and dollar mart.

Let’s fix this catastrophe. Choked-off Eagle street, like the other connecting streets stifled by the convention center, must be restored. I recommend immediate demolition of this hulking eyesore.

7. Main St. Pedestrian Mall

Probably the biggest downtown blunder that comes to peoples minds the quickest is the back-alley abortion downtown’s Main Street suffered in the mid-eighties—better known as the pedestrian mall, or Buffalo Place.
Such pedestrian malls were all the hype at the time and, like in Buffalo, they failed almost everywhere they were built.

Main Street was once the commercial heart of downtown. Many impressive buildings still remain, but the life of this street has been sucked out by a prolonged bombardment of all the other problems that downtown has faced in the postwar decades. Removing vehicular traffic from Main Street and surrendering it to a light rail line was the final nail in the street’s coffin. Since by that time most of downtown had lost its pedestrian character, city planners should have known better than removing automobiles from a street which actually still had some hope.

Most of the time on this portion of Main Street, there is only a very light dusting of actual pedestrians. Look at the picture above of Main Street around the turn of the century, then look at it now.

In the old picture, the street was teeming with a variety of traffic. Limiting a street to one form of traffic (in this case, light rail vehicles) kills most needed diversity for activity to take place. Yes, we even need cars on the street. We have to face the reality that people will not give up their cars anytime soon and that many businesses need auto access in order to survive.

Unlike some other critics, I will not argue that the Metro Rail was a complete failure. At rush hour the trains are well used by downtown commuters. Even during off-peak hours the rail offers a convenient way for office workers to traverse downtown during lunch breaks. However, vehicular traffic can and should be returned to Main Street. Local politicians have been talking about restoring traffic for years now, yet somehow can’t act on this. This is a no-brainer, and it’s time for these people to get off their sorry asses and do something right for a change.

6. Surrounding Neighborhods: Ghetto Unfabulous

With the exception of Allentown, the neighborhoods surrounding downtown range from desolate and dingy to downright abysmal.

Flanking downtown’s industrial district to the southeast is the Old First Ward, a dumpy old area adorned with weed-choked vacant lots, abandoned industrial sites and a crumbling housing stock. This neighborhood was always a working class Irish district and due to its industrial nature was never very attractive. It’s a complete shit hole now.

Directly East of downtown is the oldest part of the East Side, a neighborhood that deteriorated long ago and which is now partially filled in with high-rise housing projects and rows of newer government subsidized suburban-style houses.

These new clusters of infill housing can be thought of as horizontal projects, as they house the same impoverished residents that have been living in this area for quite a while. Sooner or later the property “owners” will default on their mortgages and these new houses will enter the same cycle of neglect, abandonment and decay as older ghetto houses. The people running the city’s planning office obviously know little about cities if they insist on placing low-density housing adjacent to downtown. Come to think of it, building high-rise projects adjacent to downtown was a big mistake as well.

To the northeast lies the fruit belt, a neighborhood with a name that evokes images of Buffalo’s worst ghettos, although the situation there has stabilized a bit in recent years. It’s a shame that a neighborhood situated right next to Buffalo’s booming medical campus still looks like such a dump. The original housing stock, consisting of small working class cottages, doesn’t lend itself to well to gentrification. Unlike its neighbor, Allentown, the Fruit Belt lacks a mix of high-density brick apartment buildings, storefronts, and delicately ornamented Victorian houses. The one thing this area has going for it are its heavily tree-lined streets. Ripping down the crumbling homes and building townhouse/brownstone style houses along with retail on Michigan Ave. would be the only real way of making this neighborhood come alive. Higher densities bring more people onto the streets (and more eyes watching it), therefore making it safer.

Finally, northwest of downtown is a lower west side neighborhood with some exceptional architecture yet overwhelmed by a slum-like atmosphere. The area has a few exceptional blocks, but many more run down ones. If the good blocks were somehow weaved together by redeveloping the shitty blocks, the neighborhood would really recover.

Right now the city needs to find a way to sell downtown living to retirees, childless couples and empty nesters. Bringing back middle-class families to the city core is a tough sell, but those without children are the hottest residential market for cities on the rebound. When people with disposable income move into an area, retail and services will follow suit. It’s a simple formula that local politicians don’t seem to understand. The key to bringing back downtown is building up a residential population, not plunking down costly silver-bullet megaprojects that render downtown even more devoid of life.

5. One-Way Streets

I will credit the city for restoring a number of downtown’s one-way streets to two-way traffic, but there is still a number of remaining one-ways.

Probably the worst is what I dub the “Elm-Oak speedway.” This twin artery consisting of two one-way streets (opposite direction of course) is fed by traffic coming off the 33 expressway, en route to the I-190, and vice-versa. Traffic engineers obviously planned this as a de-facto connector between the two highways. The traffic lights along these streets are geared for a constant flow of vehicular traffic. Pedestrians, beware.

I guess one could argue that there are few uses on these streets that attract pedestrians. Indeed an entire strip of tacky, one-story, suburb-style urban renewal office buildings was built between the dual arterials, rendering this section of downtown a no-go zone for those on foot. So why bother tinkering with this auto-friendly configuration? Well, there have been plans to convert some of the surviving buildings along this stretch into lofts and apartments. If these streets ever wish to become places worth taking a stroll and spending money, the one-way speedways must be nixed. Otherwise who the hell would want to live next to a noisy expressway? Remember what happened to Humboldt Parkway?

4. Chippewa District

Yes, the revitalization of West Chippewa Street has helped bring people downtown once again. Even if for one purpose—to get shitfaced, it’s still an overall plus for the city. But man, the people who patronize those bars leave much to be desired.
You don't remember, but this is where you threw up last weekend
Chippewa’s clientele primarily includes tasteless suburban trash, frat-type meatheads, and 30-40ish professionals who still think they are young. On this three-block strip we get a monoculture of noisy bars that spin the same tired Top 40 booty-shaking tunes and pander to the shallow culture of suburban jocks and fake-boobed hussies.

By day, Chippewa is a quiet street with a primary use of small offices above the sleeping bars. By nightfall, on weekends, the street caters to some theater district patrons, soon to be replaced an hour or two later by the younger, sloppy drunk crowd.

So what is so horrible about all of this? Not a whole lot, except the lesson of trying to avoid single-use districts. At night Chippewa qualifies as a single-use district because just about every establishment on the street offers the same use and caters to the same crowd. Take a busy district at night like Greenwich Village in NYC for example. Its major streets are filled nearly every night, with as many people, if not more than Chippewa on a typical weekend evening. But each street in the Village has a mix of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, retail stores, small emporiums, and apartments. Not a single street is occupied primarily by bars.

If downtown Buffalo is to eventually build up a sizable population, streets like Chippewa will have to diversify and accommodate residential and retail uses. City planners and officials should be doing their best to lure popular retail outlets onto the street and the general area. This could turn the Chippewa area and theater district into a 24-hour destination, which would be much better than an urban theme park, only active on weekend nights.

3. The Amtrak Station

The miserable excuse for an Amtrak station we have downtown looks like a tool shed about to collapse upon itself. The long and short of it is that train travel no longer makes sense in America. For long distance travel we take airplanes. For short and moderate distance we drive cars. Those too poor to fly or drive go Greyhound. Enough said. America has a passenger rail system even the Bulgarians would laugh at. It’s almost as slow as driving or taking a bus and it is sometimes twice as expensive as flying Jet Blue. The federal government seems hell bent on choking Amtrak’s funding and letting it die a slow, painful death. Buffalo once had a grand Art Deco masterpiece of train station, which now stands dormant as a rotting mass in a rotting East Side neighborhood. What we get is a rotting tool shed for a downtown train station on Exchange Street, right in the backyard of The Buffalo News.

2. The Waterfront

We all know our waterfront sucks. Let’s forget for a second about the outer harbor (that vast expanse of scrub land under the skyway and along route 5) and concentrate on the section directly abutting downtown. Thanks to the ugly presence of the I-190, there are few downtown streets which connect to the scenic portion of the waterfront. There we have the Erie Basin Marina which offers some nice scenic views but is surrounded by parking lots and has poor pedestrian connectivity with downtown. The rest of the waterfront is marred by a strange mix of isolated luxury condos, subsidized housing towers and suburb-like office parks (Adelphia and Channel 7 News are two of the occupants). What in the hell were they thinking here? Just about every function of our waterfront caters to automobile-dominated uses that one could find anywhere in the twenty gazillion suburban moonscapes that scar this nation. The biggest problem here overall is the lack of connectivity.

On the subject of the outer harbor, most of these “plans” I have seen are pure rubbish. Most of them call for creating a mix of high rise-luxury condos and offices in some sort of ecotopian park-like setting. Let’s first not forget that the outer harbor’s soil is still contaminated by a number of heavy metals. Secondly, if downtown has enough problems retaining office tenants (around a 40% office vacancy rate) and attracting new residents, who the hell would think that businesses and home-seekers will suddenly flock downtown in huge numbers if a bunch of towers were erected overnight on the waterfront? Dream on.

Our local politicians have little ability to think beyond the typical silver-bullet megaprojects. They make for cute soundbites on the evening news; that’s about it. Fixing an ailing city requires a gradual, long-term sequence of small steps. It means luring in a delicate combination of small businesses, retail chains, offices, places to live. It means working on one neighborhood at a time or even one block at a time. The changes add up slowly.

Our politicians lack the will, the patience, and a genuine understanding of how cities function. Sometimes I don’t think they even care. Whatever makes flashy headlines, gets them reelected and pleases their moneyed friends is what flies. Our waterfront is a case in point. My recommendation: Rip down the 190 and restore a connective street pattern to the waterfront. Likeliness of this to happen? When Red Bull will actually give you wings.

1. The Suburbs

If they never existed, I wouldn’t have had to go through the trouble of writing this article.
 

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The article is an entertaining and funny read. And unfortunately there's a lot of truth in it. Sometimes the truth hurts, especially when it's delivered by the Beast. They can be quite harsh. I do think that some of the critique oversimplifies the issues, but overall I'd have to say they make some good points. One inconsistency is in the way they seemed to condemn suburbanites who prefer shopping in suburban malls because "urban malls like the Main Place [downtown] could not compete with free parking and an absence of colored people." I don't know if people shop on Main Street in Williamsville solely to be able to park their cars and avoid "colored people." It seems like a strong accusation to make without backing it up with something. Then they go on to talk about the Lower West Side's "exceptional architecture yet overwhelmed by a slum-like atmosphere." If it's not the architecture making the neighborhood "slum-like" it's implied that they're making reference to the people, who in this case, happen to be largely "colored." I guess so anyway; are Puerto Ricans "colored?" Maybe people in Amherst and/or Orchard Park are just avoiding the slum-like atmosphere, and whatever or whoever is the cause of it. It does seem like people are afraid to mention race and/or ethnicity when they talk about the health of downtown neighborhoods--even the Buffalo Beast in this case. I mean most people will agree that the Elmwood Village and North Buffalo are the best Buffalo neighborhoods to live in, and they both happen to be mostly white. And few would deny that the East Side and the far West Side are the worst, and they're black and hispanic, respectively. I know a lot of people who like to act like they're all for so-called diversity, but when it comes down to it, they'd rather live in the 'burbs and occasionally hang out at a martini bar in the city or go to the theatre downtown. I'd like to see more people truthfully deal with the problems in the city and actually live there, and not in suburban hell.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
That was pretty much my take on it also. Sometimes a good, harsh slap in the face is needed to see what the real issues are. I'd like to see a follow-up article about what is right with downtown, however short it may be. I think he pretty much nailed the planning mistakes that we all know about too but was a little short on solutions besides demolitions.
 

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Buffalo as a whole...I'm still gonna run with my basic idea that lower taxes will infill the city with businesses and working people and shuffle out (sometimes forcibly) the welfare, drugs and crime. With all this comes private investment in the city, but government NO, they need to give up holdings in favor of downsizing and putting bonds away for future "city projects" so that taxes are not increased everytime....thus cycling thru the same process.

One thing I have noticed is that Buffalo feels sorry about itself compared to Amherst and Orchard Park, if they could only "not give a ****" and build on the many things that lie in the city limits, eventually things combined with above would steamroll the entire city into a huge success once again.

a few notes on Buffalo

-the mayor should try to play Sim City 4 once or twice...so we can really can his ass for good with an excuse.

-The Buffalo forumers seem to have more of a clue as to whats going on, have more appreciation and more outlook for the city than the politicians, developers or land owners...thats god damn scary, so I propose we all run the city from here on out.

-the city has so many strong points, a huge cultural center for food, art and fashion...as well as architecture that holds a candle to none...history to celebrate and even a border crossing, this city should not be in the shape it is...it takes alot of shitty mistakes and morons to cut the population of a city in half and lose all the industry and commerce.


Buffalo will always be "Buffalo" but the details of growth are what need to be addressed, it's not supposed to be as small as it is, and it's not supposed to have to deal with bullshit excuses as to why things are always shot-down and canceled, withdrawn, or left as broke.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Buff- have you ever vistited the speakoutwny.com forums? I try to keep people talking about the good things happening in the city, but that forum has the biggest nay-sayers you'll ever find. Typical Buffalo. Complain about nothing getting done and then complain when a developerwants to do something. Its frustrating, comical, and entertaining but usually pisses me off. So I blast people and then I feel good again. :)
 

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I actually disagree, the obly hope for Buffalo is newer generations and people who choose to educate themselves about the city...the common local hates Buffalo as a city because it's not perfect. (no city is)

People have been loathing over Buffalo for 30 years, generations...and it's gonna take smart people, skyscrapercity forumers, and honester* lol politicians to fix the issues, so all we can do is hope for that sooner than later.
 

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BuffCity said:
... t's gonna take smart people, skyscrapercity forumers, and honester* lol politicians to fix the issues, so all we can do is hope for that sooner than later...
Sign me up. It's official, I'm moving back to Buffalo in a month. It'll be great to be back, and let's fix the damn place!
 

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maybe if all the nice cheap electricity from NF didn't go down state the city would be a bit more competitive for industry and corporations... also some help on the tax side and of course city hall needs to get their act in order... it has been far too long that the same people just trade positions in the local and county government
 

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actually NF power lights up....Montreal (thanks to a wise treaty in the 70's) so now Buffalo Niagara pay more for power than most other places nationwide, and we have the biggest source for hydroelectricity within out MSA.

Bullshit!

*I think it was the NYC Blackout in the 70's that forced the powergrid to be redrawn, and in that Montreal got ours.

There has been some talk of pulling out of that agreement here in the next few years when it expires, hopefully they do so that the Canadians can build they're of facilities.
 

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The convention center was built in the late seventies (not the sixties). The Statler Hilton insisted that it be built next to their hotel. Then the proceeded to move the hotel to the present location of the Adams Mark
 

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the closing of downtown streets for pedestrian malls is a huge mistake. buffalo should undertake some sort of enterprise zone or property tax-free zone or something with financial incentives to jump start re-investment. city hall should reach out to neighborhood associations quite aggressively and positively, and it should rigorously pursue code enforcement violations against absentee landlords. neighborhoods need to start a reduction in housing units within structures that were originally built as single-family houses. city hall should also aggressively sell non-whites on the importance of home ownership.
 

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As someone who has taken several business trips to Buffalo over the past 10 years, I have to say that I mostly agree with the author. I really think he hit the nail on the head though I would have changed the order of some things. For instance, I think the parking lots do way more damage to the fabric of the city than the pedestrian mall does. But all in all, I think he is being relatively honest.

Don't get me wrong, I like Buffalo and I've seen many improvements every time I go back. I expect they will continue to happen so that is a good thing. Some of the older buildings are quite nice but need a little TLC, and if they don't demolish them, I'm sure they will eventually be restored (NYC Terminal for ex.) And I have always found the people to be very nice so that is an additional plus.

The one thing I disagree with the author about is this:

"On the subject of the outer harbor, most of these “plans” I have seen are pure rubbish. Most of them call for creating a mix of high rise-luxury condos and offices in some sort of ecotopian park-like setting. Let’s first not forget that the outer harbor’s soil is still contaminated by a number of heavy metals. Secondly, if downtown has enough problems retaining office tenants (around a 40% office vacancy rate) and attracting new residents, who the hell would think that businesses and home-seekers will suddenly flock downtown in huge numbers if a bunch of towers were erected overnight on the waterfront? Dream on."

He very much underestimates the power of waterfront property. If done properly, you will be surprised what can happen. Just look at Baltimore. We had the exact same problem with chromium contamination and rotting slums along our waterfront. But now, that same waterfront is responsible for much of the growth we are seeing. People, and companies, love to be by the water.

I wish you all well. Keep the politicians honest and hold them accountable.
 
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