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The Future Of Buffalo’s Main Street

I was wondering how the community feels about the renewed push to introduce traffic back to the Main Street Pedestrian Mall. Currently, I live in the Minneapolis, MN area (although desperately missing Buffalo) which has a large, thriving Pedestrian Mall in the downtown core called Nicollet Mall. While there are a number of minor differences between the two pedestrian malls, I believe that our leadership may be making a HUGE mistake by initiating a long-term project to bring automobiles back to this district.
First, let me point out a few of the differences between the Buffalo and Minneapolis Malls…
– While the Nicollet Mall does not include the city’s light rail line, it limits traffic to public transportation (buses and taxis only). The light rail line is situated at the north end of the mall.
– All of the streets that cross the Nicollet Mall have remained open, allowing vehicular traffic to cross at each block. This is unlike Buffalo, where many cross streets were blocked from crossing Main either due to the light rail project or others such as the Main Place Mall.
– Residential and commercial development in the Minneapolis core has help support this district on a 24/7 basis. While some strides have been made in bringing residents back to downtown Buffalo, much more is needed to support a thriving community.
Other than this, many of the characteristics are the same. Both pedestrian malls are in close proximity to major arenas (Target Center in MN/HSBC in Buffalo), both are close to their respective convention centers and hotels and both have designated shopping space, although the quality of shopping is much better in Minneapolis.
I just recently had the chance to compare these two destinations as I was home in Buffalo and walked around the Main Place Mall on Saturday, 3/15/08. I was back in MN and then went to the Nicollet Mall the following week on 3/22/08. While the character of Buffalo’s architecture far exceeds that in Minneapolis, it is sad to see all of the boarded up and underutilized structures along this major stretch. While there were more people than I expected to see downtown that Saturday, very few were residents that were shopping, dining or enjoying what downtown had to offer (other than those skating at Fountain Plaza). Along the way, I stopped into the Main Place mall for a cup of coffee and luckily entered the shop just before they closed at 3PM to get my cup o’ joe. Being from Buffalo, I was not surprised that the shop was closing at 3PM, but couldn’t help myself from thinking what others from outside the Buffalo area must think when in town for a weekend.
During my stroll down Nicollet Mall, the experience was very different. There were many people out and almost all of the shops and restaurants were open for business. New residential development was sprouting up on every corner, so it seemed. When I wanted a cup of coffee, I had numerous choices…. should I go to Starbucks (NO!), Caribou or Dunn Brothers (local is better!)? If so, which one of the 20 should I go to? I was also able to shop at Target, Macy’s and hundreds of other shops.
Don’t get me wrong, I realize that Minneapolis and Buffalo are very different cities. Minneapolis is home to several Fortune 500 companies and has a fairly proficient government managing itself. But, that is kind of my point. It isn’t a lack of vehicular traffic that killed Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Main Street was the victim of Buffalo’s economic decline in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I would argue that whether traffic was removed or not, the situation would be very similar. As Buffalo’s fortunes change, so will Main Street’s.
While it it easy for politicians to blame the lack of traffic and champion themselves as the ones that will save Main Street by bringing back traffic, I think if it is done, it will be as big of a blunder as the Main Place Mall or any other “Urban Renewal” project Buffalo has implemented in the past.
Main Street offers Buffalo a unique opportunity that most other cities do not have. By increasing residential development, adding additional green space, opening as many closed cross streets as possible over Main Street and improving vehicular traffic flow in all other areas of downtown, Buffalo can create a truly unique urban experience that will not only support itself, but be a destination for area residents and visitors alike.

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