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Bringing The Bills Back To The City

Why the only “New Build” option should be one in Buffalo, and how it could be the key to unlocking our full potential

Author: Ryan Miller


News broke in June that a brand-new Bills stadium may be coming to Orchard Park by as soon as 2025. When you consider the significant uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of the Bills playing in Western New York that existed during the time leading up to Ralph Wilson Jr.’s passing in 2014, a new NFL stadium built anywhere in Erie County is something that should probably be widely celebrated by Buffalonians, because it all but assures the team remains in Buffalo for the rest of most of our lives.

Many people outside of the area probably think we are extremely lucky to have an NFL franchise in a city that is only the 89th largest city by population in the country.1 I don’t disagree. There is no doubt that I am eternally grateful to the Pegulas for buying the Bills and keeping them here in Western New York. Outside of family and friends, careers, and faith, the Bills are probably the single most integral aspect to the identity of most Buffalonians. The way the collective mood of our entire city ebbs and flows for a week at a time in the Fall based on what happens on Sundays is special. I can’t begin to imagine the identity crisis this city would have if the Bills left- and so yes- in some ways the news of the new stadium in Orchard Park is good news. I am here to tell you, however, that we can (and desperately need to do better) than a “new build” in Orchard Park. This the worst possible outcome for the city of Buffalo and Western New York as a whole. The time is now to stop deferentially acquiescing to the NFL for simply inviting us to a seat at their massive dinner table, and start demanding what is actually best for this area and the people that call it home. Please allow me to explain. 

As many of you know, the Bills didn’t always play in Orchard Park. They started out playing at War Memorial Stadium (affectionately referred to as “The Rockpile”) on the East Side, a few blocks away from the present-day Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. When the AFL and NFL merged in the late 1960s, the NFL required stadiums to have much larger capacities than that of The Rockpile, so the Bills quickly had to find a new home or face the threat of relocation. I’m not sure exactly what went into the decision at the time to move to the suburbs, but the move certainly fell in line with the overall theme of time- suburbanization and white flight. The Bills move to the suburbs, along with several other similar key city planning errors in the mid 20th century help explain how Buffalo lost half of its population from 1950 to 2000, going from the 15th most populous city in the country in 1950 (580,132 residents) to the 59th most populous city in 2000 (292,648 residents).2,3

It may surprise some outsiders to learn that there was actually a time when Buffalo was a major US city. At the turn of the twentieth century, we were the 8th biggest city in the entire country, the largest grain port in world, and the host of the 1901 World’s Fair.4 Buffalo’s early economic and industrial success was in part due to its strategic location on the Erie Canal and easy access to hydroelectricity from the Niagara River, but perhaps what truly allowed the city to shine so bright was the way it was designed. Joseph Ellicott designed Buffalo in the early 1800s with a unique radial and grid street system that made Buffalo a prime destination for some of the greatest architects in the world. By the mid 1800s, Buffalo had attracted the godfather of landscape architecture in America, Frederick Law Olmsted, to town. Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in Manhattan, the U.S. Capitol Campus in Washington D.C, and dozens of other historic parks and campuses throughout the United States, called Buffalo (yes, our Buffalo) “the best planned city in the United States, if not the world”.5 Amazingly, he said this before he went on to design the oldest urban parks system in the US right here in Buffalo. Olmsted’s Park system, and the elegantly designed layout of Ellicott’s streets made the entire city feel connected as one, and seamlessly wove the natural beauty of the parks and surrounding bodies of water into everyday life in an otherwise gritty, industrial powerhouse.

What does all of this have to do with a football stadium? I’m getting there- but first, a little more history. Let’s consider the 1910 US census. The 6th through 10th most populous cities in the country respectively were Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and (our beloved) Buffalo.6 Like Buffalo, all of these cities were thriving at the time due to an abundance of jobs in the industrial and manufacturing sector, and their strategic location as port cities situated in one way or another on a geographically important body of water for transporting goods. Also like Buffalo, these rust belt cities would inevitably fall on hard times over the course of the 20th century as the focus in the country moved these cities shifted toward deindustrialization and suburbanization, and fortunately all have experienced some degree of a revival in recent years. While population is not the only metric by which to track a city’s growth or success (and it is certainly variable from city to city in terms of where exactly the city limits are drawn) it is stark how far Buffalo still lags behind its rustbelt brethren today. 

1910 US Census, (US Rank)6

Cleveland 550,663 (6th)

Baltimore 558,485 (7th)

Pittsburgh 533,905 (8th)

Detroit 465,766 (9th)

Buffalo 423,715 (10th)

Estimated 2020 US Census (US Rank)7

Detroit 665,369 (24th)

Baltimore 586,131 (31st)

Cleveland 378,589 (54th)

Pittsburgh 299,226 (65th)

Buffalo 254,479 (89th)

I promise I am getting to the Bills stadium, but I think it is important to explore what drove the mass exodus of people out of the city and rise in poverty over the second half of the 20th century in more detail, because many of the root causes have not been fully addressed, and still hold our city back from its true potential today. The mid 20th century in Buffalo, like many other American cities, was marked by people and business flocking to the suburbs on the backs of the GI bill and a massive federal investment in highways that made it easier than ever to live in the suburbs and work in the city. These government initiatives preferentially benefitted white people, while practices like blockbusting and redlining further prevented black people from having the same mobility and opportunity to own houses and seek meaningful employment outside of the certain areas of Buffalo.9

By the 1950s, the East Side of Buffalo, (previously predominantly inhabited by white Polish-American immigrants) was becoming known as Buffalo’s “black neighborhood.”10 As this happened public and private investment in East Side began to dry, and the construction of NYS-33/Kensington expressway from 1957 to 1971 only made matters worse by physically destroying neighborhoods and local businesses on the East Side. Additionally, NYS-33/Kensington Expressway also served as a physical barrier isolating East Side residents from other parts of the city and the surrounding suburbs by means other than personal vehicle, which along with a massively underfunded public transportation system, limited equal access to quality and affordable food, housing, and employment leading to long-term effects on poverty, education, and health outcomes.11 

Why is Buffalo still so far behind these similar cities?

Why is Buffalo still so far behind these similar cities? The answer is complex and messy, but to me a lot of it can traced back those catastrophic city planning errors in the mid 20th century I mentioned earlier. In no particular order, those errors were: (1) The decision to build the new campus for the city’s major public university (University at Buffalo) 30 minutes outside of downtown Buffalo in suburban Amherst. (2) Building a major highway (NYS-33/Kensington Expressway) literally right down the middle of Humboldt Parkway, which destroyed Olmsted’s historic work and devastated neighborhoods and businesses on the East Side in the process. (3) Building the Skyway and the I-190 on the shores of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, physically barricading access to (and development of) the city’s waterfront. And, (4) The Bills leaving the city behind for suburban Orchard Park in the early 1970s. All of these errors help explain how by the year 2000, the city’s population had been cut in half in comparison to year 1950, and the poverty rate increased from 15.2% to 26.7%.7,8 The once best designed city in America was now a choppy conglomerate of isolated and racially segregated neighborhoods that no longer flowed together organically, and had no worthwhile means of public transportation connecting its people or neighborhoods to each other, the center of the city, or the surrounding suburbs.

Let’s briefly touch on one of the other major city planning errors, because to me is the ultimate Buffalo example of how putting major attractions in the suburbs hurts the city and surrounding area as whole, which is relevant to discuss of the Bills stadium location.  I’m talking of course about the University at Buffalo’s decision to build a “North Campus” in Amherst, instead of continuing to expand their presence in the city itself.  As of 2014-2015, the university had 29,944 total students, 6,852 of which were international (19th highest international student population in the US)12,13. The majority of these students, however, primarily or exclusively attend North Campus, live on/or around North Campus, and have everything they need either on campus or within a two mile radius. The city clearly missed out on the potential economic impact of having tens of thousands of students living in its downtown area spending their federal loan money at local restaurants and businesses- but moreover- the fact that UB North students hardly have a reason to ever venture more than two miles off campus, and that public transportation from the North Campus to the city is inefficient and cumbersome, means that UB Students must go way out of their way to ever find themselves in our city. Bright minds from all over the country and world come to Buffalo for a high-quality education at an affordable price, but after school is over many of them take the skills they learned here, and their infinite potential elsewhere, while Buffalo’s economy is left trying to simply tread water. Who could blame them either? Bright young minds tend to prefer to live in fun, vibrant cities with lots of things to do. Buffalo is all of that and more, but they never got to see it. Perhaps we have done a little too good of a job at “Keeping Buffalo a Secret.”

To some degree, all of these mistakes from our past are potentially fixable, and the renaissance the city of Buffalo has experienced in recent years has certainly helped push us in the right direction.  Canalside, Riverworks, and the development of the Outer Harbor have finally given us some degree of a waterfront to be proud of, and there have even been talks about the skyway coming down in the near future as well. We have seen a trend towards reversing suburbanization and choosing to live in the city, particularly among millennials. We are renovating, restoring, and repurposing the beautiful buildings and neighborhoods of our past, and organizations like Partnership For The Public Good and Open Buffalo are helping to make sure that this progress is inclusive and equitable for all Buffalonians. NYS-33/Kensington Expressway still exists, but there is also legitimate talk of effectively turning it into a tunnel and reconnecting the divided neighborhoods on the surface. UB North isn’t going anywhere. I think that is one we will just have to live with, but UB did open a state-of-the-art medical school in the heart of the city, which has already led to more young bright minds calling the city itself, home.

***

So how does a stadium fit in to all of this? As we’ve discussed so far, Buffalo is a pretty cool city. We’ve basically got something for everyone: historic architecture, beautiful parks, a thriving local music and arts scene, a booming craft beer industry, a waterfront that is finally heading in the right direction, a comparatively low cost of living to other cities, professional sports, good neighbors that you would want to raise your family living next to, and some of the best damn food in the country. When people come here and experience the City of Buffalo itself, they tend to be impressed, choose to come back, tell others about it, and maybe even move here for good. It’s really an exposure issue more than anything. People just don’t have a ton of reasons to come here, especially to the city itself. Outside of higher education and maybe Niagara Falls (if they don’t end up going to the much more developed Canadian side), coming to see a Bills game is probably the single biggest reason for someone with no ties to Western New York to come here. The Bills are really our single biggest chance to show our city off, and the current stadium location is doing us no favors.

Consider the perspective of an out-of-town fan coming to Buffalo for a Bills game. They fly into our suburban airport in Cheektowaga, and likely stay at a hotel chain by the airport or stadium because it’s convenient and affordable. To get from the airport to Orchard Park they take the 90 (which doesn’t go anywhere near the city at all), and the only potential real tourist trap to get them into the city is Anchor Bar. Many people might be just as likely to go to Duffs or Bar Bill in the suburbs for their taste of Buffalo’s chicken wings while they are in town, and so it’s very easy to imagine someone coming and going for a game and never once actually setting foot downtown. Never once actually seeing the City of Buffalo itself, and all the beauty and magic it has to offer. Imagine all of the money that could have been spent at locally owned restaurants, businesses, and hotels downtown (including the Statler, Hyatt, and Richardson that Douglas Jemal is currently in the process of restoring/saving), but is instead going to generic national chain restaurants and hotels in the suburbs. Members of the opposing team and NFL TV crews, probably have a similar experience as well. Many people fly out of town thinking Southwestern Boulevard is the major thoroughfare in Buffalo. They don’t even know Elmwood, Delaware, and Hertel Avenues exist.  When you also consider the additional sports and entertainment events besides NFL football that may be attracted to our new stadium, it makes even more sense to bring the people that are coming here for such events to Buffalo, not Orchard Park. 

^ Former Buffalo Bills Running Back, Marshawn Lynch, debating whether he likes the ambiance or the décor more at his favorite “Buffalo restaurant,” Applebee’s.

Most other American cities have caught onto the fact that it is generally smart to put important attractions that bring people to the area in the city itself- not the suburbs. This includes our turn-of-the-century, rustbelt buddies in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore; all of whom built their NFL stadiums downtown (creating flourishing neighborhoods with bars, restaurants, job opportunities, and residential living in walking distance to the stadium in the process). Additionally, when you consider  the other NFL franchises that built in the suburbs, Buffalo seems pretty out of place. With one exception most of those  cities are densely populated major American cities that lack the physical space to accommodate a downtown NFL stadium. We are talking about cities like New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Washington, and Boston. The only somewhat comparable cities to Buffalo with a suburban stadium are Kansas City (population of 497,159, 38th in US), Miami (population of 471,525, 42nd in US), and Tampa Bay (population of 407,599, 47th in US), and honestly comparing those cities to Buffalo (population of 254,479, 89th in US) is a bit of a stretch. 

Green Bay 103,836 (297th in the US) is the only other city not listed above that doesn’t technically have a downtown stadium, but comparing Buffalo to Green Bay is also far from a one-for-one comparison, and moreover, they have done a much better job with their suburban stadium than we have. For starters, even calling the location of Lambeau Field a suburb, is debatable, it is only 9 minutes from downtown (in comparison to 19 minutes from downtown Buffalo to our stadium). Additionally, the Packers have turned the area surrounding Lambeau into a destination in its own right, by creating a neighborhood called “Titletown” with bars, restaurants, businesses, apartments, community space, a playground, year-round outdoor activities, ice skating, fitness classes and more. Additionally, they invested in public transportation to link Titletown to downtown Green Bay, and even offer free public transportation multiple times daily to and from downtown to title town, including on game days.

So why aren’t the Bills planning a downtown stadium? The speculation is that due to the associated infrastructure costs that would need to happen, the price tag of a downtown stadium would be higher than an Orchard Park option, which already has the infrastructure (albeit lousy and inefficient if you don’t live in the Southtowns) in place for an NFL stadium. Some of the infrastructural changes that would need to be addressed likely include (depending on the ultimate downtown location) changes to some highways to better serve a downtown stadium, including tearing down the skyway to either make room for a stadium and/or to simply re-route people using Route 5 to a more efficient means of getting into and out of the city in the southbound direction, which would also finally allow our waterfront area to be built up to its full potential. We would also massively have to invest in public transportation, possibly including trains into and out of the city in all major directions. 

These infrastructural changes required to make a downtown stadium viable really shouldn’t be seen as a barrier, however, for a couple of reasons. (1) Whether the stadium goes in the city or the suburbs, most of these changes need to happen anyways for Buffalo to ever reach its full potential (and some are already in the process of happening regardless of what the Bills do). (2) The timing couldn’t be better because there is currently a 1 trillion dollar federal infrastructure bill on the table in Washington DC, that could no doubt at least partially fund these changes. (3) If the Pegulas get their way, public money is apparently going to being used in high amounts to fund the stadium- and if that is the case- the public needs to see some tangible benefit besides simply preventing their NFL franchise from being stolen by Austin, Texas. 

Besides the Pegulas, who is benefitting from a new build in Orchard Park?

When you compare the potential benefits of a downtown stadium for the residents of both the City of Buffalo and the surrounding suburbs, to the benefits (are there any?) of building in Orchard Park, and factor in the fact that public money is being used, this is a no-brainer. Besides the Pegulas, who is benefitting from a new build in Orchard Park?  The stadium sits on a desolate parking lot on the corner of Southwestern and Abbott Road, in an area that is essentially a abandoned with the exception of 8 days a year (hopefully 10 this year!). It has been 50 years, and no significant development has ever occurred in the area surrounding the stadium in Orchard Park. Why should  it be any different this time? And- even if it is different-, and the Bills built something like “Titletown” in Green Bay, why are we trying to attract Western New Yorkers and those from out of town to Orchard Park instead of downtown Buffalo anyways? The village and town of Orchard Park will continue to flourish as an affluent wealthy suburb regardless of where the Bills play. 

Meanwhile people and businesses in both the city and the suburbs would benefit from the infrastructure changes and investment in public transportation that would be necessary for a downtown stadium. Increased connectedness and the ability to easily get to and from the suburbs will create job opportunities and expand hiring pools in both directions. Furthermore, far more new jobs will be created with a downtown option because we will need people to help build/make the infrastructural changes and provide increased staffing to the NFTA as they expand their public transportation options. Additionally, the new neighborhood of restaurants, bars, retail, and residential space that will inevitably pop up in the area surrounding a downtown stadium would employ people and provide housing for years to come. Our downtown hotels and restaurants would benefit. More outsiders would see how great our city actually is leading to long-term positive effects on tourism and attracting people from other areas of the country to come live and work in Buffalo.

As outlined earlier, a lot of the poverty, health and educational disparities, and inequity that plague the area today can be explained by decreased access to quality food, housing, and job opportunities, all of which are intimately related to our poor public transportation system. Nearly every census tract in the city (not just the East side) has a rate of 33% or higher of its households not having a vehicle.14 At the same time, 4 of the 5 largest employers in Erie County are located in the suburbs, and so Buffalonians are stuck relying on a public transportation system that only physically reaches 42% of the jobs in Erie County.15,16 If the job does happen to be reachable by public transportation, long commute times with multiple different buses and/or trains may serve as another barrier, especially from a childcare and family life perspective.17

Buffalo is supposed to be “The City of Good Neighbors” and it is beyond time that we start demanding equitable progress and change for all of Buffalo, not just because it is the right thing to do (and that’s what #BillsMafia is all about), but also because a rising tide lifts all boats, and it is estimated that Buffalo’s annual GDP could be increased by 4.3 billion dollars (more than the double the combined annual budget of Erie and Niagara Counties) if it were able to eliminate its racial disparities and divides.18 Increased investment in public transportation is necessary to close that gap, as well as to bring the Bills stadium downtown. It’s a perfect marriage. Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?

One argument I often hear for keeping the stadium in Orchard Park is a fear of what might happen to the tailgating and “college like” atmosphere if the stadium moves downtown. It’s certainly a valid point worth considering, and to some degree, things would inevitably change. Maybe more of the alcohol consumption would occur in local breweries and restaurants than it does now, and there might be slightly less traditional tailgating, but I think we are really underestimating #BillsMafia with this one. When it comes to supporting our Bills, sharing good food and good beer with our friends and families, and- of course- breaking tables the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people in this city is second to none. There is no distance or barrier that is going to ever prevent us from having a good time supporting our Bills.

What really makes the current reports on the stadium most problematic to me, even more so than the location, is the decision to build new in Orchard Park. If none of this was financial, and the Pegulas really wanted to keep it in Orchard Park purely to preserve the tailgating and atmosphere, then- while I think we are missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime- I could eventually live with it. If that was the case, however, then for God’s sake just renovate the existing stadium and invest the additional taxpayer money that would have gone towards a new stadium, towards equitable progress and growth for Buffalo and Erie County.

The current stadium is a damn fine place to watch a game as is, and renovating in the coming years would not only be more affordable, but also preserve the history that exists in that venue in the process. Imagine the current stadium thirty years from now if we just kept renovating it. It would start to become a unique and historical destination in the same way the Lambeau and Arrowhead are now. A cookie-cutter, cost-conscious rebuild in Orchard Park that erases the current stadium’s history, potentially transplants the Bills to Penn State during construction, and is paid for with taxpayer money even though it provides no tangible benefits to the residents of Buffalo or Erie County outside of keeping the football  team here is the worst possible option for Western New York. 

Buffalo is never going to come close to cracking the top ten most populated cities in the country again, and that’s OK, but we have finally begun to right some of the wrongs of our past and see real progress and growth towards a brighter future for everyone. The framework that Ellicott and Olmsted created for us is still in place, but in order to ever realize our full potential as a city, we need to fight for it. We all deserve a future with promise, not compromise. It’s time to stop imagining a brighter future for Buffalo and time to start making it.   


Lead image courtesy Wikimedia.org

References

  •  City and Town Population Totals: 2010-2020.” United States Census Bureau, Population Division.
  • “Statistical Abstract of The United States, 1951.” United States Census Bureau.
  • “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2001.” United States Census Bureau.
  • Mark Goldman “Ethnics and the Economy During World War I and the 1920s.” High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York, State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • Kowsky, Francis R. “Municipal Parks and City Planning: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Buffalo Park and Parkway System.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 46, no. 1, 1987, pp. 49–64., doi: 10.2307/990145
  • “Thirteenth Census of The United States Taken in the Year 1910: Volume 1, Population.” Bureau of the Census.
  • See Reference 1
  • New York State Comptroller’s Office: Division of Local Government Services and Economic Development, and Alan G Hevesi. Population Trends in New York State’s Cities, 2004.
  • Anna Blatto. A City Divided: A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo, 2018
  • University at Buffalo Regional Institute. Fair Housing Equity Assessment: One Region Forward, 2017, page 30
  • See Reference 9
  • Common Data Set 2014-2015 University at Buffalo
  • “Open Doors 2015 Fact Facts” Institute of International Education
  • Open Buffalo. Advancing Health Equity and Inclusive Growth in Buffalo, 2017
  • See Reference 9
  • Yin, Li. “The Dynamics of Residential Segregation in Buffalo: An Agent-Based Simulation.” Urban Studies, vol. 46, no. 13, Dec. 2009, pp. 2749–2770, doi:10.1177/0042098009346326.
  • See 14 Page 96
  • See 14, Page 100

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