Three weeks ago, I spent some time talking with Assemblyman Sean Ryan about the future of Grant Street. Since relocating his offices to Grant, he has steadily contributed to the turnaround of the street. At the time, Ryan said that he was looking forward to an infrastructure study that will give an overall lay of the land when it comes to the issues that need to be addressed moving forward. The study will allow Ryan to take a more comprehensive approach to helping to get Grant Street securely on its feet. For the first time, there will be an action plan, to decide the necessary steps to deal with infrastructure issues, secure and allocate funding for aesthetic fixes, and attempt to hold property owners accountable for their properties and buildings.
In advance of the study, Jeff Kress (Buffalo Branded and Buffalo Rising) and I decided to shadow Ryan for a couple of hours, strolling Grant, from West Side Bazaar to the Meating Place. It was interesting to hear Ryan’s play by play commentary as we walked. He started off by expressing his dismay that the City ever allowed the hulking Rite Aid at the corner of West Ferry and Grant to be built, with the sprawling parking lot that disrupted the infill and the walkability of the neighborhood. He said that it’s an eyesore of a building and adds nothing to the street.
“It’s also about wealth extraction,” noted Ryan. “We need to support the mom ‘n pop businesses – those are the types of businesses that contribute to the street. Just take a look at Albert’s over there [pointing]. That business (lead image) has been in the family for 30 years. They have held on for all of these years, despite losing a lot of their customer base, as surrounding businesses closed.”
Next to Albert’s (on West Ferry) is the Asia Super Bazar building, which desperately needs to be addressed. The roofline is a mess, and the siding is falling off. “We called the building inspector on this one,” said Ryan. “He showed up and said that he would send someone over to take care of it. I told the inspector that I thought that he was the guy for the job – apparently he had someone else in mind. We’re working on it though. This is something that needs to be addressed soon.” Yes, it is a big eyesore, and it’s been like that for far too long.
The next building that we encountered was the one located directly across from Ryan’s office. It was once a furniture warehouse. Now it’s empty. According to Ryan, the guy who owns it doesn’t have a lot of money – at least not enough to do what needs to be done.
“So we’re hoping that he can at least handle the first floor commercial, which is vacant. This building is not of interest to local developers because there is no parking, and that’s fine with me. We don’t want this to be the Elmwood Village – we want it to be a place that is affordable, that has the right mix of goods and services for a community that walks, instead of drives. If we can get this guy to do the first floor, then we will worry about the upper floors after that.”
To the right of the Nice Price building is The Glendale – a beautiful yellow brick building that is owned by a local debt collector. The owner recently received an interest free low income housing loan, but that infusion of cash won’t have much of an effect on the exterior of the historic structure – issues that Ryan would like to see addressed. The building has amazing bones, and with a little bit of TLC can become a magnificent anchor building on Grant.
Ryan is hoping to work with The Glendale owner to tackle some of the building’s architectural blunders, including the roofline and transom windows. He’s also waiting to see if there are funds left over from the loan, which is mainly being directed towards the apartment units. “Use it or lose it,” said Ryan.
Hastings + Cohn is handling the leasing of The Glendale storefronts – let’s hope that they land some good commercial tenants.
The best part about Ryan’s presence on the street is that he knows just about everything that’s going on with every building. He’s familiar with the owners, the issues, the needs… he also gets his fair share of greetings from passersby, while walking around. Because of his past life with People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), and his recent work in the neighborhood, he’s sort of like a champion for the people. He’s a big fan of the small business success stories, like Golden Burma, located directly next to The Glendale. Want to hear Ryan rave about something? Just stand him in front of this place, and let him extol all of the virtues of the storefront, the refugee owners, the diversity of products… this is the type of place that Ryan goes gaga for.
As for The Spot next to Golden Burma, this was one of the only places on all of Grant Street that Ryan admittedly didn’t know much about. At the same time, the building looks fine, and in Buffalo there’s nothing you can do to a building owner that doesn’t care about renting his or her storefront. But in other cities, there are enforcements that prevent this from happening. “Chicago has a higher tax rate for empty lots and buildings with closed businesses,” said Ryan. “It’s a wonder that we are not doing that same thing here. That storefront [The Spot] should be occupied with a business. But the owner probably got the building cheap, and makes enough money with the residential units to justify the vacancy. That should not be acceptable.”
Next up, we talked about San Bor Sports, which is an incredible small business that offers all sorts of sporting goods. Ryan said that he hopes to help address the run down look of the building in the near future, with the help from a Main Street America facade improvement grant. It would not take much work to get San Bor Sports looking good, with transom windows and a much needed paint job.
After an hour, walking from building to building, we came across the M&T Bank property. Ryan hopes to work with the property owner to get some greenery on the lot, instead of the massive sea of asphalt. This property has been grandfathered in, but current codes state that a parking lot much be at least 20 percent greenery.
While there were a lot more issues that Ryan addressed, the aforementioned one were the ones that he is most concerned about. We didn’t even talk about the problems on West Ferry, or the connectivity issues with Amherst Street – we are leaving those for a future episode of Street Walker.
Instead of sitting back and watching the continued systematic disinvestment on Grant Street, Ryan is taking action. And this is not all lip service. He has already starting affecting change by moving onto the street, and he’s got the ball rolling on this derelict lot. There’s a long way to go, but if you don’t even get to the starting line, you can’t even be in the race, let alone win it.
Stay tuned for another Street Walker episode coming to a neighborhood near you.