There is no doubt that 2020 has not been “one for the books” for Buffalo’s commercial districts. There is one district however, that has been dealing with the COVID-19 situation in ways that we might not realize. Whereas Elmwood and Hertel are located in residential districts, Chippewa relies heavily on businesses, theaters, conventions, sporting events, hotels, concerts, etc., all of which have been decimated. That means that the Chippewa business owners have been left to their own devices, to try to figure out their own ways to attract people to downtown, at times when most people are content chilling in their own neighborhoods.
Earlier this summer, a number of business owners decided to take matters into their own hands, by closing down a section of W. Chippewa to traffic, from Delaware to Franklin – with the blessing of the City of course. While the option to close additional blocks of Chippewa was on the table, there wasn’t a lot of time for any of the business owners to think about it and/or pivot so quickly. The fact that there was any sort of street closure at all was a small miracle. The street closure, aligned with the City’s Small Business Social Distancing Initiative, is being branded as the “Chippewa Open Streets” program.
Facing unprecedented adversity, restaurants were able to create permanent patios, make-shift patios, patios expansions, and provide expanded outdoor seating options for their guests (see Reopen Buffalo). Since businesses were required to serve food due to COVID-19 regulations, a number of the bars simply didn’t/couldn’t open. That meant that, for the first time ever, Chippewa became primarily an eating destination that happened to sell drinks. What is interesting is, that over the years, The Chippewa Alliance has been looking for ways to draw attention to the district’s food scene, to attract a wider age demographic to the street. They never could have known that a pandemic would be driving the change that they had been seeking. Not that they are against the nightlife… it’s just that a healthy balance of eating and drinking is… well… healthy, especially with a number of corporations relocating to the district.
In order to learn how the Chippewa businesses have been faring, I decided to take a walk around the district with Rachel A. DeDomenico, president of The Chippewa Alliance. We met up over at SoHo, to chat before the excursion.
“The businesses had to adjust quickly,” said DeDomenico. “Like all of the rest of the restaurants in the city, they had to figure out ways for customers to social distance, work with reservation systems, and try to stay busy, without really being busy – it’s a different type of busy. The businesses that did open, and put patios out, feel that while the weather was nice it was a great idea, and helped to increase business. There wasn’t a lot of time to come up with a uniform plan, so everyone did different things, and there wasn’t a consistent look, which was fine because they needed to do what they could, quickly.”
DeDomenico told me that there were a lot of lessons learned, which they never could have known from the start. For example, there are dead spots along the street, where barriers to businesses need to be removed. Also, at the entranceways, there don’t need to be so many barriers, because it’s overkill. And the barriers themselves are not at all welcoming.
Down the road, even after COVID-19 is over, there will be a lot of takeaways that will help Chippewa to become open and vibrant while maintaining a more cohesive look. Maybe that means that there will be patio umbrellas instead of pop-up tents? Or attractive bollards instead of rope and tape? And aesthetically pleasing concrete planters instead of utilitarian and foreboding street closures that look like roadwork is underway?
“There was no time to plan,” added DeDomenico. “Some of the businesses saw payroll going up, and they had to pay for security barriers, patio fixtures, and added insurance, while their numbers were way down. You have to make the math work.”
As we talked, I peered out of the window (it was mid-afternoon), and watched, as a few people walked down the middle of the street. A few seconds later, a couple of cyclists passed by. It was fun envisioning what Chippewa Street could become after the Downtown Streetscape Project comes to pass. A new more-flexible street plan could make the district more walkable, which is something that we should all be pushing for, especially now that we have seen relative success in the wake of COVID-19.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. For Chippewa, this could be the “kick in the pants” that it takes to create a cohesive community – something that has always been so elusive for the street due to conflicting wants and needs. At the same time, it hasn’t been easy because there is no roadmap.
“We should have a template for street closures,” DeDomenico told me. “There should be a formula to show how the street would look, and how it would behave. It would be great to see this seasonally (even after COVID), with more businesses taking part, and examples that we can demonstrate that would help to show the possibilities. Once we have a better plan in place, then we can hopefully extend it down the street if more businesses want to take part, and create a real destination that people want to come to.”
As we talked, the owner of SoHo, Jay Manno, came over to say a few things that were on his mind. “We’ve put a lot of time, effort, and money into the outdoor seating. We have new patio heaters and TVs, to extend this into the fall, and for outdoor (social distancing) tailgate parties (Tailgate in The Front Yard) that have been very successful so far, all things considered. We’ve built food into our bottle service at no additional charge, and we’ve had a chance to showcase our food. Upstairs, we have flatscreen TVs on rollers so that we can reconfigure seating, and a giant projector screen for live music and sporting events.
“We’re doing everything that we can to make it the best experience possible (including serving ‘boozy milkshakes’). I love seeing what the rest of the businesses are doing to bring life to Chippewa, but the season is about to turn cold. With the patio heaters, we’re going to extend it as much as possible. We’re setting the precedent that shows it takes investing money to make money. We’ve had an incredible, warm dry summer. Once COVID is past can you imagine the street festivals that we could have, now that so many businesses are on the same page and working together – Rec Room was actually working on that concept until everything came to a halt. The sidewalks will be wider with the Streetscape Project, there will be more patios than ever… the way I look at it is like it’s some sort of Prohibition. Once we get past this – and hopefully everyone survives – we’re going to be more cohesive than even before.”
DeDomenico and Manno both agreed that another imperative measure is to somehow connect Main Street (Metro Rail) and the Theater District to Chippewa. There needs to be more public art, less dead spaces, some ingenious wayfinding signage – connectivity is going to be key, and hopefully some more businesses jumping onboard with the seasonal street closure concept.
“There have been no issues so far,” said DeDomenico. “The response has been amazing, actually. People really like it, and so do the businesses, when the weather is warm. You also have to remember that there are a lot of busy back patios that can not be seen from the street, like at Tap House and Bacchus. The addition of CannonDesign to the district is going to be huge, with 200 employees moving in in October. Then, Five Star Bank opened, and if you think about it, One Seneca is very close. Chippewa is more accommodating than ever, with healthy food options, seating areas, and large corporate businesses (including Delaware North). The Master Plan is starting on Franklin soon, and then Chippewa after St. Patrick’s Day – a contractor for the Streetscape Project has been selected. The street is going to look a lot different – it’s going to be more accommodating for people, and someday it’s going to be an extension of Main Street. There’s a lot to look forward to… even at this point in time.”