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What Really Killed Downtown Retail?

The following comment was submitted in response to Steel’s post, ‘Tearing Down Our Future‘. It was suggested by a reader that we post it as a separate article due to its interesting viewpoint. Here’s Dan’s comment:
Slightly off-topic, but I want to disprove the old “Metro Rail killed downtown retail” meme once and for all. It’s among Buffalo’s great myths, just like the casino Frank Sinatra was going to build in Niagara Falls, the sinking Walden Galleria, the Ellicott Complex design being based on the plans for a French prison, and the 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge with 20 miles on the odometer what was owned by a kid who was shipped off to Vietnam and killed in combat, that is now sitting in his parents’ garage in West Seneca, and they refuse to sell it.
The common belief is that “Metro Rail killed downtown retail, because people couldn’t see the stores from their cars”, but it’s a bit more complex then that. No Buffalo-based department store chain ever closed just their downtown Buffalo store, while leaving the suburban stores open. The changing face of retail, with smaller chains going bankrupt and the survivors being consolidated into larger national chains, ultimately killed retail in downtown Buffalo. A minor factor was the changing demographics in some city neighborhoods. From the late 1980s through the 1990s, many once-comfortable but solidly working class and lower middle-class neighborhoods — Polonia, St. John Kanty, Kensington, Delavan-Bailey and Riverside — experienced massive socioeconomic transition. The residents of those neighborhoods, making up a good part of downtown retail’s customer base, fled to the suburbs. A suburban location didn’t guarantee success for a chain, as the following shows:
W.T. Grant: entire chain closed; not just the downtown store. The national chain went bust, and the downtown store closed about 1978, along with every other Grant’s in the nation.
Sattler’s: entire chain closed; not just the downtown store. Small low-end full-service department store chain with three stores. The downtown store closed around 1982, along with the other two stores (one at the very popular Boulevard Mall, the other in an inner city neighborhood). The Sattler’s store in Boulevard Mall became a Hengerer’s (see below).
Hens and Kelly: entire chain closed; not just the downtown store. local mid-end, locally owned department store chain with about ten stores. The chain went bust in the mid-1980s. Their suburban stores were usually located in 1950s-era outdoor plazas or malls that were then dying; they weren’t in the bigger, more popular malls. The downtown store was the last in the chain to close. Some suburban stores were reused by AM&As; others sat vacant for years and were demolished or converted to other uses.
L.L. Berger: entire chain closed; not just the downtown store. high-end, locally-owned department store chain with about five stores. The entire chain went bust in the late 1980s. The downtown store was the last in the chain to close, in 1991. The stores in the suburbs weren’t later occupied by national department store chains; the buildings were divided into smaller retail spaces and leased to smaller stores.
Hengerer’s: upper mid-end, locally owned department store chain with about ten stores. The chain was sold to the Rochester-based Sibley’s chain in the mid-1980s. The downtown store was closed in 1989, before the Sibley’s chain was absorbed into Kauffmans.
Adam Meldrum and Anderson: middle-end, locally-owned department store chain with about 15 stores. The chain was sold to Pennsylvania-based Bon Ton in 1994. Bon Ton promised to keep the downtown store, but a year later decided to close the 300,000 square foot flagship; the chain’s policy was “we don’t do downtowns”. Bon Ton even closed their flagship store in downtown York, Pennsylvania. A Toronto businessman opened an upscale department store in the former AM&As building in 1998 (Taylor’s), but it failed a year later.
What about the large junior department stores downtown?
Kleinhans: entire chain closed; not just the downtown store.
Woolworth’s: entire chain closed; not just the downtown store.
There were other department stores in the city limits in the 1970s, too; a giant Sears store north of downtown, The Sample in North Buffalo, and the flagship Kobackers and Sattler’s stores in Polonia. Sears closed most of their urban stores nationwide in the 1970s; Buffalo’s huge Sears store closed in 1980. The Sample chain died in 1990 (city store was the last one to close; the previous owner of the chain died, and the children didn’t want to run the business). The Kobackers and Sattlers chains both went bust, with suburban and city stores closing. Flint and Kent, a very upscale downtown department store that is increasingly lost to history, closed int he late 1950s. The high-end Jenss chain died off without having a single store in the city limits.
During the time downtown Buffalo lost much of its retail base, more prosperous cities also lost their downtown department stores; Denver, Kansas City, Dallas and Houston come to mind. Even Rust Belt cities without transit malls lost downtown department stores; Cleveland, Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo and Detroit. Also there’s no transit mall that can be blamed for the death of Como Mall, Seneca Mall, and Thruway Mall, and the closure of suburban department store branches like the Hengerer’s/Sibleys in Eggertsville and AM&As in University Plaza.
Retail in downtown Buffalo was a victim of general trends in the retail industry — poorly managed local chains (where all stores closed, not just city locations), and national chains that “didn’t do downtowns” which bought out locals — and the decline of the region as a while. The impact of the transit mall was minimal. Nonetheless, outside of cities that have a temperate climate, I think pedestrian malls are a horrid idea, for many reasons.

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