The impact of downtown retail has changed, but due to recent economics, the future for suburban retail is also beginning to change. The rising popularity of online shopping has led to an unusual number of beloved retailers (Sears, Kmart, Toys-R-Us, Radio Shack, Macy’s) declaring bankruptcy and closing doors the past few years. While the Walden Galleria continues to reinvent itself each year, the loss of food courts and anchor tenants have hurt the Boulevard, Eastern Hills, and McKinley Malls.
Therein lies a ray of hope for local retailers. The idea of shopping closer to home has appeal among the cash-strapped millennial generation. While Buffalo contends with its dichotomic economy, other cities have already demonstrated successful examples of hosting a fine blend of small and large venues. San Francisco has a wide variety of retailers, not just downtown along Market Street, but in each and every one of its neighborhoods.
While Buffalo rediscovers the benefits of entrepreneurship, here’s a quick list of action items that can re-establish the city as a major retail competitor:
- Rethink the Main Place Mall: Without a plan, the Main Place Mall is simply taking up space in the downtown area. It should either attract new stores, pull out of retail altogether, or sell to a more faithful developer. Personally, I would like to see an option that includes restoring a missing piece of the city’s street grid, where Niagara Street once joined Main Street.
Bring more major retailers to the greater city: The new Whole Foods in Amherst is only the latest example of how, whenever a national/regional retailer is announced for the Buffalo area, the new location typically opens anywhere except the city itself. At most, you’ll find a Target, Wegmans, or Kohl’s in the northern edge of the city. Compare to San Francisco, which has three Whole Foods and three Targets apiece in the greater city. While Main Place Mall remains idle, Cheektowaga’s Walden Galleria has always been able to adapt to the changing retail market. So much so, it has its own restaurant row far beyond its food court that even serves valet parking. Apparently, Buffalo’s suburbs excel at attracting businesses in ways that the city does not. Although Amherst, Cheektowaga, Lancaster, Clarence, and Hamburg are all part of Erie County, each have their own industrial development agencies that are independent of the Erie County IDA. While in most major metropolitan regions where the vitality is generated from the city itself, we appear to be an anomaly where our vitality is dispersed from the urban core.
- Respect your shopping time: I have often done my holiday shopping at Elmwood Village in recent years, where compared to suburban malls, there are no long lines, and parking and traffic are less problematic. Each year, this Upper West Side neighborhood has something new to offer for prospective shoppers. Despite its own challenges, Elmwood Village (and now Hertel) exemplifies the “Main Street” activity that is largely forgotten in the city.
Build a case against redlining: Opportunities for retail investment should not be limited to already-successful neighborhoods. Find opportunities on Jefferson, Broadway, and Fillmore Avenues; neighborhoods that need long-term investment. A holistic program would need to be adopted by city leaders. This would also require addressing the local redlining that has plagued the East Side since the beginning of the city’s decline in the 1950s.
- Longer open hours, please: The city cannot attract more businesses if the average closing time is the 5PM to 6PM hour; it is simply poor business acumen to turn away customers when the sun is still out during the summer. Longer hours would give shoppers more time to run errands throughout the week, and give tourists more places to go throughout the year. Giving people places to go to is a no-brainer!
Historic photos of Main Street from the 1950’s demonstrate the kind of potential that Buffalo could live up to if there was a sense of vision among the city’s leadership. The “renaissance” we are seeing today is still out of reach for many Buffalonians.
After decades of poor planning and lethargic leadership, we have a long way to go.