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The Rock: A Look at Buffalo’s Black Rock Neighborhood Through the Eyes of Jane Jacobs

UB Law School’s Regional Economic Development class is bringing fresh economic development ideas to neighborhoods that need a boost.  The course lets students attempt to identify a real need in the community, apply the theory learned in the classroom and then design a plan that would address this need.  The following is a summary of a project completed by David Burress, Megan VanWie and Christina Akers with simulations by Troy Joseph.  It is one of five reports completed by the students last semester.

Over the past eight years, Black Rock has emerged as a cultural and social hub for local artisans and musicians.  The neighborhood has attracted a new bakery and a restaurant while renewing local nightlife.  Starting in 2003, Doreen DeBoth opened the Artsphere studio located at 447 Amherst Street.  The arts culture of Black Rock attracted local entrepreneurs Mark Goldman of the Hardware Café on Allen Street and Deborah Clark of Delish, formerly on Elmwood Avenue.   One local business owner observed how “we can feel it in our bones that our neighborhood is really starting to make an impact in becoming a cool place to listen to music and check out the arts.”  Goldman remarked how, “that’s really our future economy — it’s the arts.” “The Rock” neighborhood now boasts several art exhibition spaces, bars featuring local musicians, and the Rediscover Amherst Street Art Festival currently in its thirteenth year.  Arguably, the arts industry has been the root of development in this neighborhood.   Although the area has experienced various types of economic development in recent years, it has made the area ripe for consideration.

Our group chose to consider this area because of its historical nature, mixed-use development and changing demographics, in addition to the recent growth of new businesses along Amherst Street.  It was also chosen because of its dense network of residential streets, abandoned industry, functioning railway, bike path, strong interconnectivity to two thruways, and close proximity to a local state college.

Most critically, Black Rock has the necessary conditions for a successful urban neighborhood as defined by Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs argues that creating diversity requires “effective economic pools of use”.   An effective city must have four conditions: mixed-use buildings, small streets, aged structures, and concentrated public spaces.  These are required for a city district to “realize its best potential.”

This paper attempts to identify these four elements in Black Rock, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, supported by our report findings.  Based on our observations we made recommendations on ways to improve to the neighborhood.

rock1.bmpLAND USE
The land use of the area helped attract our group to this region in Buffalo. The area has a diversity of uses including industry, residential, recreation, commercial, community services, and some vacant lots.  The majority of the land use north of Amherst Street and south of Chandler Street is used for residential purposes.  Within that area there are twenty-one vacant lots within the residential area. north of Grote Street the area has the highest level of mixed use because it includes residential, industrial, commercial, recreation, and some vacant lots.  The area around the railroad tracks once had much more industry but now has a lot more vacant lots.
The majority of the land use along Amherst Street is mixed-use commercial due to the variety of stores placed directly on the street.  Many storefronts on Amherst Street appear to have living quarters upstairs.  On visits, the individuals living above the storefronts came to our attention because the lights were on in almost all of the upstairs apartments in the evening.

Within the neighborhood, some of the land is used for community services.  One of the most prevalent community services in the neighborhood is Habitat for Humanity Restore which is located on Amherst Street.  There are also recreational uses in Black Rock.  One of the major recreational uses was along the Erie Canal with the bike path. The bike path runs along the Erie Canal above the 198.  On visits to the neighborhood, individuals had been working on the bike path, replanting grass seed.

The variety of uses makes this neighborhood extremely interesting and helps to understand a place which Jane Jacobs referred to. Black Rock is not the caliber of neighborhood as Jane Jacobs described, but has many of the important aspects that Jane stated were needed for a successful neighborhood.

The first step in our analysis was creating a local inventory of the Black Rock neighborhood. This was developed primarily from observation from visits to the street, conversations with neighborhood stakeholders, and Internet searches. At first blush, the neighborhood has equal part commercial businesses and cultural resources, with two major infrastructure assets: the 198 and railway. Black Rock is fortunate to also have strong community associations in place.

rock2.bmpWithin our neighborhood there are key anchor businesses that help to draw outside individuals into Black Rock. For example, Wegmans is one of the largest players because it is the only store of its kind throughout Buffalo.   Another is Voelker’s Bowling alley located at the intersection of Amherst Street and Elmwood Avenue.  Voelker’s brings a large amount of different individuals into the neighborhood seeking recreation.  The major weakness of both of these large anchors is their ability to draw individuals into the neighborhood, but not getting the individuals to stay. Part of Voelker’s problem is that it is located at the very corner of the street at a very busy intersection and is isolated from other businesses along Amherst Street by residential housing. The weaknesses could be addressed to try and incorporate these larger players more into the neighborhood to get individuals to do more business on Amherst Street.

Here, we will analyze the neighborhood inventory against Jacob’s elements of what makes a strong city neighborhood, and by extension, local economy. First, we will look at the conditions for generating diversity; second, analyze how the neighborhood sidewalks lend to safety, human contact, and assimilating children; and finally, the role of neighborhood parks.

rock3.bmpFirst Condition: Mixed-Uses
Black Rock is a mixed-use neighborhood. According to Jacobs, the first condition for creating diversity in a city neighborhood is having mixed primary uses. 

In Black Rock, mixed use is most evident between Grant Street and Bridgeman Street and includes Graser’s Florist, Spars European Sausage & Meats, Delish!, American Legion Post 1041, Assumption of the Blessed Church, and Salon Daneen. This part of the neighborhood demonstrates successful mixed-use development.

We also observed this mixed-use development during our visits to the neighborhood. In particular, one evening while walking on Amherst Street we observed many second floors lights on, indicating residential and after-hour commercial uses.

rock4.bmpPart of the neighborhood between Bridgeman Street and Elmwood Avenue, however, has weak mixed-use development along the southern boundary. Specifically, Wegmans is a large, “big box” styled development and is set back from Amherst Street. A large parking lot separates the store from the street with a significant elevated green space between the sidewalk and parking lot. This space is largely empty with some landscaping, and during our visits we did not witness people using this space in any capacity. Across the street are small, mixed-use buildings including a law office and residential homes.

Also, between Reservation Street and Bridgeman along the southern boundary is weak mixed-use development. Here, an approximately sixty-car parking lot for the American Legion Post 1041 runs along the sidewalk. Between this parking lot and the large, empty green space in front of Wegmans, this section of the neighborhood has low mixed-use.

rock5.bmpSecond Condition: Small Blocks
According to Jacobs, “most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.”  Unlike New York City where Jacobs lived and developed her economic theories, Buffalo does not have large neighborhood blocks especially outside of downtown.  This neighborhood in Black Rock has a small commercial bock between Grant and Bridgeman Streets, and also many small residential blocks that follow a mostly grid-like pattern. Our neighborhood is approximately 0.61 miles from Grant Street to Elmwood Avenue.  From Bridgeman Street to Grant Street is the densest section of the street and is approximately 0.38 miles long and lined with mixed-use commercial and residential buildings.
When walking in this neighborhood we observed how the “frequent streets and short blocks” contribute to the “fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood.”  Here, residents have quick access to the services provided by the business on Amherst Street. The short streets in this neighborhood prevent economic isolation between the residents and businesses

rock6.bmpThird Condition: Aged Buildings
According to Jacobs, the third condition for generating diversity is variety in the age of buildings. Jacobs describes this condition as “The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.”  She argued for “a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”  This is because unlike new construction, old buildings value increase over a period of time.  This economic value is “created by time.”  In the case of Black Rock, old, mixed-use commercial, industrial and residential buildings dominate the neighborhood.

The availability of aged mixed-use and industrial buildings provides ample opportunity here for smaller business to open up.  However, the neighborhood is challenged by the lack of diversity in the age of neighborhood buildings. This is particularly noticeable in the neighborhood housing stock. The majority of homes in the neighborhood are small split-level, multi-family homes built in the early 1900s.  Although there are some vacancies in the neighborhood, the majority of residential units are occupied. Many of the residents have occupied their homes for a number of years.  However, the small layout of the houses and the small lots size make these houses unpopular with individuals seeking to return to cities from the suburbs. 

The disincentive for young people to buy starter homes in the neighborhood can be demonstrated by the slow appreciation rate of homes values. For example, two real estate listings from the early 1950s, uncovered at the Buffalo Historical Society show buildings at 197 and 128 Howell St listing for $10,600 and $9,200, respectively.  Today, the estimated value of these buildings are $27,200 and $28,700.  After more than 50 years, the values of both homes are still very low.

Fourth Condition: Concentration
Finally, Jacobs calls for the need for concentration to generate neighborhood diversity. She describes this condition as “The district must have a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there. This includes people there because of residence.”  Black Rock is a dense urban neighborhood. For example, 2,915 residents live in the immediate neighborhood.

The only park that currently exists in the neighborhood is a green space and bike path running along the Scajaquada Creek at the southern border of the neighborhood between McKinley High School at Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street.  The paved path is a continuation of the paths which begin at Delaware Park. However, travel from the Delaware Park is a relatively long journey, at just over 1.25 miles.  Travelers must also cross a busy intersection at Elmwood Avenue if taking the path from the Park.  From Elmwood Avenue to Howell Street is approximately 0.4 miles along the path.  Although the park exhibits several dysfunctional attributes in its current state, there are some examples of use that help generate diversity, such as the play area adjacent to the Assumption Parish school. There are also several areas where the park may be more integrated into the neighborhood, providing additional opportunities to use the park in ways that encourage diversity.

The principle affliction of the Scajaquada bike bath is underuse.  For example, the basketball court near Wegmans is a typical “demand good.”  Although “demand goods” specialized use should help draw visitors to the park, the park edges do not contain enough diversity of uses to permit the demand goods to enhance a “general” use of the park.  Because of the limitations of heavy traffic roads blocking the ends of the park, and fences and lack of diversity along its northern edge, the expense put into “demand goods” cannot counter the absence of users that plagues the park for most of the day. This creates a vacuum effect that makes the park even less attractive for the limited potential number of users of the demand goods.  This is evident by the graffiti on the court’s playing surface. Rather than being used for competitive play between visitors to the park, the court is used to mark turf.  Notably absent is any kind of seating for spectators.

In order for a general park to function successfully (and not as a vacuum) the uses adjacent to the park must provide a reservoir of users who enter the park at different times of the day.

However, the Scajaquada park is plagued by borders, cutting it off from its potential reservoir of users. For example, not one, but two, fences separate the basketball court from Wegmans.  Players seeking refreshment from the café on the western side of Wegmans, or café patrons seeking a place to eat their lunch in summertime are completely blocked, except for a narrow, overgrown opening in the fence.  At the southern end of Howell Street, an attempt to create a seam between the park and the neighborhood has been created.  Here, though, the closest bordering use is the abandoned Terminal Petroleum building, itself surrounded by layers of fences (which seem to be only symbolic boundaries, as the building is covered with graffiti within them).  There are no parking spaces near the entrance, and it is located several blocks from any foot traffic along Amherst Street.

Despite its problems, the Scajaquada path has the potential for greater integration with the neighborhood with very minimal cost implications.  General parks “mean nothing divorced from their practical, tangible uses…[or] of the city districts and uses touching them.”  In other words, the success of a general park as a place of vitality comes with the enrichment of what is around it, not within it.  An example of the park being enriched and revitalized by its border use can be seen near the Assumption Parish Parochial School. Here, a playground has been extended behind the school and into the park.  The park has been supplemented by small “demand goods” such as play equipment and benches for parents to supervise children, all of which remain in good repair.

Thumbnail image for rock8.bmpRECOMMENDATIONS

 Streetscape improvements on Amherst Street should build upon the existing assets and minimize the current weaknesses. As mentioned, Amherst Street has mixed-use commercial and residential uses, few vacant lots, and is a two-lane street. Currently, metered and unmetered parking is on both sides of the street.  Bi-modal transportation is at least considered by city planners, as multiple bus stops are plotted along the street.  However, public benches, flower planters, trees, and public art; and adequate street light at night are lacking in this neighborhood. By incorporating these amenities, we believe more people would be drawn to and remain on the street.

Public Benches
Public benches are not along Amherst Street. When walking along the street, people were sitting on steps leading up to businesses or at the bus stop in front of Wegmans.  During a conversation with one shop owner, it was mentioned there is advocacy among street stakeholders install public benches along the street.  We recommend more public benches to help increase presence of neighbors and strangers alike on the street.

We recommend an increase of beautification efforts along Amherst Street to draw both visitors and neighbors to the street. Hanging planters are not along utility poles on Amherst Street, and ground planters were not noticed to be consistent on the block. In some cases, private shop owners had their own ground planters outside of their shops.  In other cases, flower gardens were planted around trees on the street but not well maintained.  Trees were small to medium sized, and there generally could have been more shade on the street.  Also, more public art could be incorporated in the neighborhood.  While the public mural on Grant and Amherst Streets recently was painted on the side of a commercial building, examples of public art would help draw more artists and attention to this emerging arts district.

On October 20th, our group members walked along Amherst Street and noticed the need for more light during evening hours.  According to one shop owner, the street was widened and highway-style streetlamps were installed to accommodate freight trucks when Wegmans opened.  There is a movement among stakeholders to replace these streetlights with more historically-styled designed streetlights.  We agree with this neighborhood recommendation, and further recommend adding more streetlights to improve evening visibility.

As mentioned, on the northern boundary of our neighborhood is a functioning railroad. Currently it borders and runs parallel to Chandler Street, which has multiple vacant and functioning industrial sites and is also immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood. During our trips to the neighborhood we observed there was very little blocking the residential areas from the railroad besides piles of dirt, debris, and high grass on elevated ground.  We also observed many children in the neighborhood, and thought a fence could be built to block the railway from the sightline of the residential neighborhood.  This would not only help protect neighborhood children from this hazard but also contribute to the visual experience of being in the neighborhood.

One of the challenges to this neighborhood, as described above, is lack of mixed-use and concentration between Bridgeman Street and the eastern boundary line of Wegmans along the southern side of Amherst Street. Another challenge to the neighborhood is a traditional recreational space. While the large green space in front of Wegmans presents a challenge, it was suggested by M.U.P. candidate Troy Joseph to consider recommending a new park in this location.

Several aspects to this park would include benches, landscaping, and gardens.  The eastern side of the park would have places where neighborhood kids could stake board but also serve as a location for open concerts and a farmer’s market. A section of this market could be dedicated for Wegmans in order to draw stronger pedestrian connections between the store and its surrounding neighborhood.
rock10.bmpOn neighborhood parks, Jacobs stated how “in cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life. And this is a principle vital not only to the ways cities behave socially, but also to the ways they behave economically.”

Here, a new park would help connect the neighborhood to Wegmans, which now is isolated by parking lots and a far setback from the street.  It would also convert an unused space into a functional space drawing neighbors and visitors to the street.  It would help the street economically by bringing liveliness to the street in a location where no activity occurs.


Phase II projects would require massive amounts of time, economic spending, and grants to successfully complete the projects. These would be projects may or may not take place due to the components and acceptance that the large scale projects would require. There would be three proposed phase II projects that include; a pedestrian bridge linking Buffalo State College and the bike path along the Scajaquada Creek and cleaning up environmental contamination associated with the Chandler Street industrial fire.

Buffalo State College is located about one and a half miles from the Wegmans on Amherst Street. Based on trips to the neighborhood it seems that many college students are not utilizing the things that Amherst Street has to offer.  Due to the close proximity of Buffalo State, the students and Black Rock could better utilize Amherst Street to increase commerce in the area.  The Scajaquada Creek and the 198 are the things currently separating Buffalo State College and Amherst Street.  There are bridges over the canal and 198 for driving, but there is nothing for individuals to walk.  The recommendation would include a pedestrian bridge that would like the resource that Buffalo State College could be to Black Rock.  The pedestrian bridge would be enclosed to allow the students to utilize the bridge throughout the year.  Specifically noting the amounts of snow and cold weather, the bridge would most likely not be used otherwise.

This bridge could also be used to supplement the park proposed in Phase I.  Wegmans may have an issue with transforming the front of their store and utilizing some of their parking lot.  This pedestrian bridge may help with that proposal because it would increase the foot traffic into the Wegmans store Buffalo State University students.  The pedestrian bridge could actually help the proposed project in phase I, which would help the pedestrian foot bridge.

On July 13, 2011 the Niagara Lubricant industrial site caught on fire.  The company manufactured industrial oils, greases, lubricating oils, and tire care products.  The fire burned for twenty-three hours and caused severe pollution to be emitted into the air.  The company started to tear down the site on October 11, 2011, but the remnants of eighty-eight years of industrial manufacturing will play a toll on the quality of the environment.  The exact costs for cleaning up such a site are unknown at this time. Individuals estimate the costs would range between $6 and $8 million dollars.

There would be obvious benefits to cleaning up the contamination site. It would benefit the local community to have the soil contamination cleaned.  Then such a site could be re-utilized for similar or the same purpose.  This project would be extremely costly and time consuming, but could be extremely beneficial to Black Rock for future growth and prosperity.

The Phase II projects require more time for approval and require large amounts of money.  These projects are most likely not going to occur in the near future in Black Rock.  These projects if approved could have a positive effect on the local community and economy.  They would be extremely beneficial to Black Rock and to help continue its growing successes.


As demonstrated, Black Rock has the potential to become a powerhouse in Buffalo.  There are already aspects of Black Rock that make the community strong.  The new business growth helps illustrate the potential economic prosperity that Black Rock could offer the community and surrounding areas.  Black Rock contains many elements that Jane Jacobs stated was required for a community to be strong and prosper. 

There are ways that the Black Rock neighborhood can be improved.  After many visits, discussions, and research, we proposed improvements that would help better the neighborhood.  The improvements would help increase the appearance, alluring more visitors, as well as increasing economic growth.  The proposed improvements would build on current community anchors to further strengthen the area.    

In the past five years, many businesses have been drawn to Amherst Street which has brought more people to the neighborhood.  Delish offers cooking classes to individuals within Buffalo.  During a visit we discussed the success of the café and determined that the classes were largely full until the end of December.  This illustrates that the neighborhood is luring outsiders, getting more community involvement, and promoting new businesses.

Written by WCPerspective


Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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