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This is Not My Uncle’s Buffalo

A family get together this weekend brought me back to my beloved city where I spent time with expat relatives visiting from out-of-town – relatives, who like so many Buffalonians in the 70’s and 80’s witnessed the city’s steep decline, and like so many Buffalonians of that era, packed up and headed south.

The weekend in Buffalo gave me a chance to not only catch up with my uncle and aunt, but to visit the Queen City again and explore the downtown that I have not seen in at least a couple of years. And what I saw for the most part, was not my uncle and aunts’ Buffalo. Indeed, had they had the time to visit the downtown (the weekend reunion was in Amherst), he would not have recognized parts of the city. Admittedly, neither did I. And that inspired me to chronicle my observations to express my ever- present optimism about what I liked, and to make suggestions on how to improve what I didn’t like.

Topping my “likes,” was the stellar new Oishei Children’s Hospital.  A complete show-stopper.  After visiting the beautiful Temple Beth Zion on Delaware for Jewish Sabbath services, I was looking for a nearby place to grab some lunch. A hospital cafeteria would be the last place almost anyone else would consider when thinking about lunch, but I was both eager to visit the hospital… and was hungry. I knew there would have to be a cafeteria. What I found was better than any cafeteria could provide. What I found on the hospital’s 2nd floor was a branch of Joe’s Deli. The food was delicious…healthy, affordable and with a friendly staff that again reminded me why Buffalo is called the “City of Good Neighbors.” But the good food was only half the special experience.  Being in the hospital was the other. If the exterior wasn’t impressive enough, the interior was simply stunning. I have never been in a hospital with so much color, so much light, so much whimsy.  This is not my aunt and uncle’s Buffalo.

Photo courtesy Joe’s Deli

Exiting the hospital brought me up close and personal to another of Buffalo’s newest gems – the UB Medical School.     Pictures do not do justice to the beauty of the building’s exterior. It’s more beautiful in person than you can imagine from a 2-D impression. Again, this is not my aunt and uncle’s Buffalo. All this led me to another gem… the new entrance to the Allen-Medical Campus Metro station. While I loved the fact that the station was incorporated into the medical building itself, what I (as a big fan of rail transit and a frequent subway rider in Toronto), found most encouraging, was the presence of the grab-and-go kiosk inside the station’s entrance. IMO, this is how rail stations should be. More kiosks to add life, vitality and traffic to the Metro light rail system. Let’s hope the positive response to the revamped Allen-Medical Campus station will encourage the NFTA to locate snack kiosks in other stations as well.

Next impression… the new Residence Inn on Delaware (formerly the Holiday Inn).  A top renovation job, IMO. The exterior is beautiful – tastefully designed, attractive brick, and a much nicer addition to the Delaware streetscape than the previous hotel exterior. And on the topic of hotels…. what can I say about the Curtiss? Simply beautiful.

Photo courtesy Curtiss Hotel

Then I came upon 500 Pearl Street – the controversial new building being constructed by Ellicott Development. As a regular reader of BRO, I am very familiar with the ongoing debate about this structure among BRO readers and writers.  And I get the negative comments. I agree… to a point. I agree that the parking garage is too big and too ugly. Do we really need five floors of parking?

Three, even four I could accept. But five seems too much. Yet given that is what it is, I began thinking how can the dull grey exterior be made more attractive?  Simple, IMO. In-between the squared window spaces that dot the exterior, add some bright colorful panels that would breathe life into this structure. How easy would it be to commission an artist to design a dozen or so squares that could light up what is otherwise a slab of drab? But what I did like about the building are the upper floors and the wall of grey/black brick on the first level.

My last “ahhhh” goes to the Delaware North building (lead image – courtesy Delaware North) – an attractive human scaled office building that looks nice, feels right and adds a contemporary feel to the downtown. And speaking of parking garage exteriors, this one works nicely, IMO, for a utilitarian structure. My sense that the new parking garage across from the Oishei Children’s Hospital which I caught a glimpse of as well, will equally have an esthetic that fits appropriately into the Medical Campus.

Lest you think I’m gushing over everything, truth is I did find things that disappointed. My greatest disappointment was the continued state of disrepair of downtown Main Street. Clearly there are some amazing improvements on the east side of the street on the 500 block. The ugly exteriors have been removed, revealing beautifully restored buildings that bring a sense of architectural class and dignity to the streetscape.

But look to the west side of the street along on the 400 block and what I saw was the continued sad state of dilapidation that has tarnished this part of Main Street. Nothing has changed. And with this ever-present rundown state of affairs, comes the ever presence of pan-handlers that I personally experienced on the block. After being panhandled, one of my first thoughts was, “Imagine I am visiting Buffalo for the first time staying at the beautiful Hilton Garden Inn, and taking just a few steps out the front door (think Main Place Mall section), is a deserted, desolate block, where I am soon being asked for money.” Is this the “Welcome to Buffalo” message we want to leave tourists with?

That the 400 block remains as forlorn and foreboding today as it has for decades is the biggest disappointment I experienced among an otherwise sea of positive changes. This block desperately needs attention, and yet I fear it will remain like this for some time into the future. Nothing will change, IMO until: 1) the parole office is moved off of Main Street 2) the city gets federal TIGER funding to bring car sharing back to that block.

Rest assured, I feel for the people whom are panhandling. I spent many years working for and with the disadvantaged…from homeless older adults, to people recovering from addiction. The social welfare policies of the U.S., and the inveterate and institutionalized racism that has scourged the face of America, have in part, contributed to what we see when we step outside the Hilton Garden Inn. I am a big advocate of social spending to help get people off the streets and into jobs/stable housing/recovery programs. But this can and should all be done in offices and agencies located off Main Street.

I’ll close by leaving my last kudos and suggestions for the NFTA in a letter:

Dear NFTA:

I visited Buffalo this weekend and relied on Metro Bus and Rail to get me to my destinations. Kudos to you for clean, attractive buses, kudos for restoring the interiors of the Metro Rail cars, and (finally) removing the last vestiges of the Metro Rail cars exterior design from the1980’s. Kudos to drivers who, were courteous and friendly and for providing an affordable way to get around town.

But please try harder to stick to schedules. I gave up on trying to use the bus schedules as a reliable way to gauge my wait times. I get that traffic can sometimes prevent buses from sticking to schedules, but the frequency of unreliable bus stop arrival times, left me feeling that more needs to be done. And as for the #34 bus along Sheridan. Why the one hour wait between buses on the weekend? I walked between Delaware and Colvin and got to Colvin faster than the bus. I understand that suburban routes are not as well used as the urban routes, but an hour between buses does little to encourage public transit use, again IMO.

To conclude on a positive thought, however, I do believe that even with the presence of Uber and Lyft in Buffalo, there is still a strong will among Buffalonians for better transit. As more young people move to the city, as more medical professionals are recruited to move to Buffalo from larger cities with better transit, and as more people want transportation options, I believe it’s only a matter of time that transit will get better in Buffalo. Indeed, I look forward to the day when another visit of mine to Amherst will include a light rail trip up Niagara Falls Blvd.

Written by Lorne Opler

Lorne Opler

Toronto born and raised, but with my roots solidly planted in Western New York, I have been visiting Buffalo and enamored with Buffalo ever since I was a kid. I love writing for BRO but equally enjoy writing about Buffalo for Southern Ontario audiences to introduce them to all the great things happening in the renaissance city. When I'm not writing, I'm teaching fitness and health promotion at a community college in Toronto and running my own personal training business. Visit my website at www.lorneopler.com

View All Articles by Lorne Opler

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