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Building downtown critical mass in Buffalo

Several days into a social experiment involving a car-less existence while living and working downtown, my travels have turned up some interesting tidbits on store hours, where they're located and what goods they carry. This research involves a lot of walking, riding the metro and, when the weather cooperates, bicycling. Yes, there's still Buffalo CarShare but that will be another experiment.

Overall, living and working downtown is a whole reach better than it was a decade ago when there were few places, if any, to rent apartments or buy condominiums.

The increase in places in which to live was driven by developers, and with it came slightly more retail. It's an impatience probably shared by not just a few that leads one hoping each day for more. More places to shop, drop off and pick up dry cleaning, buy groceries (the kind with meats, fish, vegetables and fruit).

Meanwhile, as Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael T. Schmand recently pointed out, the state's second largest city is getting there. It's going to take critical mass to drive demand and the signs there are good.

Consider the Webb Building, Elk Terminal, The Avant, the AM&A's lofts which just came on line and that's not to mention work by gubernatorial candidate and developer Carl Paladino on the Belesario and Bellasara. Buffalo has strong neighborhoods nearby in the Elmwood and West side villages, it's growing from the inside out and outside in. It's just going to take a while.

But if someone were trying to navigate downtown's core in a car-less manner and in need of a pharmacy, thinking these stores might stay open past 6 p.m., there might be disappointment. Serious disappointment. Where to go for pharmaceuticals, sundries or groceries downtown and without the advantage of a car but assisted in part by the metro or bus system?

There are signs of life building in the 500 block with a CVS, Rite Aid and year-old Downtown Food Mart. But retailers post hours of operation in line with their audience and Monday through Friday there are roughly 50,000 people working in downtown Buffalo and within walking distance. Granted, when there's a Thursday at the Square or special event those retailers remain open.

It's difficult when there's not that critical mass living downtown, yet and retailers are basing their business decisions on what they see. Who could blame them?

Still, downtown didn't die overnight and it's not going to get revived overnight. There is forward movement with adaptive reuse of buildings and people beginning to live downtown 24/7 and to create that critical mass, there needs to be more. It's a conversation that might not have taken place 10 years ago but is being discussed with increased frequency.

There was a national award-winning plan put in place called, "The Queen City Hub," that addresses the access issue in downtown Buffalo, specifically it has to be a neighborhood which requires residents and that's starting to happen. Developer Rocco Termini of Webb Building, AM&A's and Lafayette Hotel has been a constant on the scene, along with other developers. There are challenges in the downtown core whether it's the building code or pure economics. Some developers have been able to move past those challenges.

Consider there was once discussion of tearing down the Webb Building and now it's fully occupied. Some specialty retailers downtown weren't there and now there's Spot Coffee, Starbucks and Tim Hortons and The 2nd Cup, to name a few. Mom and pop entrepreneurs who know the downtown market are still the future, but with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to the north, Canalside to the south and access to Main Street with vehicular traffic it's all moving in the right direction.

What positive changes have you seen or would like to see?

Dawn Marie Bracely/Editorial Writer

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