Post-COVID, Buffalo’s downtown landscape will look a lot different. Just as we were getting our mojo going, the virus struck. Since that time, we have seen some restaurants pack their bags, and some developments stall. But there’s still a lot going on that COVID has not managed to conquer. More than any other area of Buffalo, downtown will be the big question mark when it comes to change.
The question is, what will the new normal look like? Buffalo is not alone, when asking this question. Vast numbers of cities are asking what their own downtowns will look like. Just think of New York City.
Some cities – hopefully Buffalo will be one of them – are rethinking how to make more rapid comebacks once the virus has been controlled. To that end, the Canadian Urban Institute has drafted a “Rapid Placemaking Toolkit” that is now being shared online by organizations such as Project for Public Spaces.
Of course, we are all aware that we have made some interesting “placemaking” decisions for our Downtown Main Street in years past, including building the Metro Rail above ground and destroying the delicate urban commercial fabric that existed at the time. But today we are seeing some of our past mistakes rectified, as new infrastructure and connectivity is implemented.
One of the most important things that I saw in the toolkit involves programming. Programming is one of the things that we have needed along Main Street for years, yet we’ve seen very little of it, relatively speaking. Think about the concerts, the farmer’s market, and the skating – those are great examples of programming. But where are the musicians and the artists when these activities are not underway? There should be an organization that is dedicated to bringing musicians and artists to street corners. There should also be an intense public art initiative, to draw more people to the street. Instead of driving down to Canalside to be entertained, the journey to the waterfront destination should be just as interesting.
There should also be a pop-up program for businesses, whether it’s food or retail. Just look how inventive and successful Shuck Shack has been on the Buffalo River. Public spaces need to be activated more than ever. Maybe there should be food carts – vendors selling fruits, flowers, and other sundries? Add the buskers, a few food trucks in high profile park locations, some public art, and create a vibrant street scene.
Bike connectivity is another glaring issue. Main Street, from the UB South Campus to Canalside should be one big bike lane. Similar to the massive success stories that we are seeing with rails-to-trails initiatives, we need to turn all of Main Street into a bike thoroughfare, instead of the hodgepodge car-oriented bike-wanna-be route that it has become over the years. The street needs to be walkable and the waterfront needs to be accessible. This should be a priority – a concerted effort to fix the street once and for all.
This is the time when we need to be proactive and inventive. We shouldn’t just sit back and have a “let’s wait and see” attitude – there’s grassroots work to be done, which shouldn’t cost millions of dollars to implement. Other commercial districts like Elmwood and Hertel will probably bounce back pretty quickly. Main Street is always a whole different scenario, because it thrives when office workers are at their desks, not working remotely. The corporate climate has changed, and might never be what it was before COVID. Until there is more of a residential density, we’re going to have to rely on local tourism initiatives, while we wait for the global tourism industry to bounce back.
In the meantime, be sure to check out this toolkit, and let me know what some of your own thoughts are pertaining to this issue.