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How Buffalo’s Downtown Scores on 12-point ‘Vibrant Downtown Strategies’… And are those Strategies Appropriate for Buffalo

This post takes a look at the how the City of Buffalo compares to a recent post on Planetizen.com, here, of 12 Strategies that will improve the vibrancy of a downtown.  This post will focus only on the strategies applied to the City of Buffalo – the reasons for why these strategies contribute to a vibrant Downtown are explained in the original article.

Buffalo’s Downtown is generally considered the inclusive area bordered by Tupper Street to the north, Michigan Avenue to the east, the Waterfront to the south, and Elmwood Avenue to the west.  This post will focus on that geographic area, but taking into account the relatively small geographic area of the City of Buffalo, its Downtown, and the intimate knowledge of other areas within the city limits by residents, some of the strategies will include areas outside of the Downtown that contribute to the vibrancy of the City of Buffalo.

1.  Turn one-way streets into two-way streets.

Current Developments:  The City of Buffalo has gone one step further by returning vehicle traffic to Main Street, which will greatly increase activity and investment along the corridor.  Washington, Ellicott, and Tupper have recently been converted from one-way to two-way streets.  Adding a bike lane to Pearl Street will help to reduce traffic speeds and the priority to automobiles only along the corridor.  While Downtown generally extends to Michigan Avenue, the one-way streets of Elm and Oak create a significant barrier between Downtown and the East Side.  Strategies for improving downtown should include disinvested areas of the East Side as well.

Applicability: Yes.  In Buffalo the use of two-way streets instead of one-way streets helps to reduce the confusion of combining a radial and grid street systems that also changes in orientation west of Elmwood Avenue.  On the other hand, by overlapping those two road systems, one-way street are more effective in specific situations and should not be completely eliminated.

Grade: A-

2.  Establish a regularly occurring public event with showcasing downtown merchants, music, and food.

Current Developments:  Formerly Thursday in the Square (TITS), now the Summer Concert Series at Canalside and the Larkinville summer concert series are two exemplary summer events.  The Taste of Buffalo, Gus Macker, and First Night events are single day/weekend but are very popular.  Additionally, the Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament and Powder Keg festival showcase Buffalo during the Winter.

Applicability: We already know how popular these events are.  Still, an event is needed to promote downtown merchants and restaurants like a Restaurant Week.  While still fairly new, growth of the Powder Keg Festival could showcase the positives of Buffalo’s winter.

 Grade: B-

 IMG_48753.  Create more land for development (landfill into a body of water, remove land from a floodplain, take back land from a freeway, etc).

Current Developments: In recent years a significant amount of land has been created for development.  This includes, Canalside, Larkin District, Brownfield Opportunity Areas, and the Outer Harbor.  In addition, Governor Cuomo’s Billion for Buffalo will stimulate major development projects in these locations like the Riverbend High Tech Hub.  Furthermore, Downtown has many surface parking lots that are shovel-ready and infill developments would encourage a more active and walkable downtown.  On the negative side, the 190 and 33 still occupy large amounts of land that cut off residents from the waterfront and separates urban neighborhoods.  There are no feasible plans or economic strategies available yet to reclaim these land areas.

Applicability: Yes.  Buffalo, has a lot of vacant land – especially on the East Side – that could desperately use reinvestment.  Reinvestment includes smaller-scale, programs and development in the spirit of Jane Jacobs to restore a traditional urban fabric, not the failed redevelopment strategies of the 60’s.

Applicable to every city, lands located within a floodplain, and other important natural areas should not be made available for development.  Smart Growth Strategies and urban infill are better options than the detrimental environmental effects that would occur by reducing the amount of natural land in and around urban areas.

Grade: A-

 4.  Make under-utilized public land available for private sector development.

Current Developments:  This strategy is more complicated given the nature of politics in the City of Buffalo and New York State.  Still, large amounts of land in the Outer Harbor have been made available for development.

Applicability:  This strategy is controversial and should only be used sparingly because of a great need.  Time and time again we have seen that planners, city officials, architects, and developers have created terrible results with the best intentions and knowledge available at that time.  Allowing public land to be turned into private development is applicable in certain situations, but usually a greater good could be accomplished by repurposing that public land into useable park space.  For Buffalo, there is enough vacant land ready for redevelopment that makes this strategy unnecessary at this time.

 Grade:  Incomplete

 5.  Consolidate regional economic development partner organizations into a single downtown location.

Current Developments:  The ECIDA and Empire State have consolidated at 95 Perry.  The Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and Visit Buffalo Niagara are located in the Theatre District.

Applicability:  Yes.  Halfway there.

Grade:  C

 6.  Create a permanent public market.

Current Developments:  There is a farmers market on the Main Street Pedestrian Mall in front of the Main Place Mall on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer.  The farmers market is limited in its products and its fate after vehicle traffic is returned to Main Street is unknown at this time.  A market is planned on the Aud block of Canalside.

Applicability:  There are many surface parking lots that could be converted to a full-time covered market that would improve walkability and provide fresh food for residents.  Pike’s Place in Seattle is an excellent example of a full-time, covered market in a poor weather city.  Pike’s Place also has an urban design that would complement Buffalo’s urban character.

Grade:  D

 newmedschool7.  Open a downtown satellite campus of a local university.

Current Developments:  Located just north of Downtown, the growth of Medical Campus is a huge economic boost for the City and Downtown.  In addition to job creation it will help investment in the surrounding neighborhoods.  D’Youville and ECC have also experienced growth in their Downtown area campuses recently.

Applicability:  Yes.  While Downtown missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to completely transform for the better when UB built its second campus in Amherst rather than Downtown, the growth of the Medical campus is the best available option for this strategy at this time.  Sadly, ECC is making the same mistakes today that UB made over 40 years ago by locating their new $30 Million Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Building on the ECC Amherst Campus.  It is another example of how many public and development leaders in Buffalo have not evolved a better understanding of planning and development, which can enhance both the region and City of Buffalo.

Grade: C+

 8.  Build a streetcar line connecting your downtown to an adjacent urban neighborhood.

Current Developments: None.  James Sandoro has proposed a historic themed rail line between the Larkin District and Downtown here.  It would also travel past his Pierce-Arrow Mueseum.

Applicability:  Probably not.  Other than Sandoro’s small scale, use specific concept, at this point another light rail or streetcar line would be to cost prohibitive.  A better option may be to look at Bus Rapid Transit lines and a better-branded bus system like the Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, CA.

Grade: D

 IMG_43859.  Create an awesome downtown playground to make your downtown more kid-friendly and family-friendly.

Current Developments: Canalside and the Harborcenter are a first step to create uses that are kid and family-friendly with the Children’s Museum and year round hockey facility for youths.  Downtown would benefit from a use such as a dog park, play park, or new event park that can serve the expanding downtown residential neighborhood.  Many of the current park spaces within Downtown are small, underutilized, or not designed to be destinations for family or children activities.

Applicability:  Of course.  There are many locations throughout Downtown for the location for parks that range in size from pocket parks to neighborhood parks.

Grade: C-

 10.  Create a branded downtown entertainment district.

Current Developments:  There are a few districts that have already been branded in downtown including the Theatre District, Cobblestone District, Chippewa Street, Canalside, and Larkin District.  However, some of these districts such as Larkin District, Cobblestone District, Canalside have not defined themselves and their market yet.

Applicability:  Yes.

Grade: B

 IMG_442711.  Establish maximum parking standards for new downtown developments, or at least remove minimum parking requirements for new buildings.

Current Developments:  The Buffalo Green Code will update parking regulations within the City.  While a needed change, the Buffalo Green Code does not go far enough in terms of is treatment towards parking.  A parking management strategy is needed.

Applicability:  Yes! There is an over supply of parking in downtown, especially in surface parking lots.

Grade: D

 12.  Set up a downtown bike share program.

Current Developments:  Buffalo Bike Share is a new program to Buffalo.  The program is currently located within downtown and both UB campuses.  It provides a low cost way for convenient travel.  More information is located on its site, http://www.buffalobikeshare.org.

Applicability:  Of course.  However, a larger system and better bicycle infrastructure needs to be developed for this program to become more effective.

Grade: C+

Summary: Buffalo scored very high on 2 important strategies, very poorly on 4 strategies and average or slightly below average on the remaining 6.  Based on these strategies Buffalo’s Downtown is currently slightly below average.  This is also supported by behavior of local residents within the City of Buffalo.  Located outside of Downtown, the Elmwood Village and Allentown are the most successful and vibrant neighborhoods in the City.

In the past decade downtown Buffalo has experienced a renaissance.  For the most part, Buffalo has used quality developments to revive its downtown and stimulate population growth within the City and Downtown.  Buffalo has the bones to create a vibrant and dynamic Downtown neighborhood for residents and visitors but it is not nearly there yet.  In addition to improving the strategies above, Buffalo needs to encourage higher-density housing downtown that is concentrated.  Current developments are too stretched out and small in number of units created to create a critical mass that can support retail.  But higher density residential development should be not demolish the existing urban fabric and should be located on surface parking lots.  Buffalo is on the right track to creating a vibrant downtown.

Written by Ryan Kucinski

Ryan believes urban environments should be designed for people. A native of Buffalo who studied Environmental Design at UB before receiving a Master's of Urban Planning at the University of Southern California, Ryan is currently working to improve the livability of his hometown as urban planner in Downtown Buffalo.

View All Articles by Ryan Kucinski
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