Back in the summer of 2008, Rochester native Alan Oberst contributed an article to Buffalo Rising – a local news format blog -- that analyzed both Hertel and Elmwood Avenues using PPS’ Ten Qualities of a Great Street.
The city, which has been struggling with population loss and economic downturn since the mid-1950s, is now home to a dedicated segment of the local population working to revitalize city streets and connect important downtown destinations. As it turned out, I was headed upstate the following week for a family wedding and the folks at Buffalo Rising quickly made time in their busy schedules to invite me to their offices and give me a tour of Buffalo’s waterfront.
The organization’s offices, located in the newly-designated cobblestone district (volunteers removed the bricks one by one to log and then replaced them!), were once used as an ice house to store winter ice from adjacent Lake Erie each winter. Down the street, a former truck terminal has been repurposed as a coffee shop, restaurant and bar. Across the cobblestone street, a massive (empty) parking lot fills a city block’s worth of space. Changes here have not been sweeping, but are happening in small, meaningful ways.
Buffalo Rising’s founder, Newell Nussbaumer, grew up downtown. In 1993, he returned from college and opened a shop on then-struggling Elmwood Avenue. The street is now one of the city’s prime location for local businesses, artisans and street festivals.
Nussbaumer started Buffalo Rising as a print publication in an effort to highlight all of the positive activity happening downtown. It was initially a reaction to the prominent Buffalo News coverage of downtown crime and suburban news. Buffalo Rising produces only stories about downtown Buffalo. If the topic being covered is negative, writers try to offer a positive solution for moving forward. Today, a volunteer staff works on covering local politics, urban planning and positive community action.
Nussbaumer had been a key player in ensuring sidewalk and curb redesign, starting a local children’s parade, community composting, and a local garden walk where residents open their gardens to the public. Recently, he’s been busy advocating for better bike parking to encourage cycling between downtown destinations. He has also been at the forefront of “Buffalo Homecoming,” an event designed to bring Buffalo expats back home once a year to remind them about their hometown’s sense of place.
To the west from the roof of the Buffalo Rising building, Nussbaumer points to a rail track filled with light rail trains not in use. Buffalo’s “subway” currently runs in a straight line down Main Street. While the rail is heavily used during home hockey games at the HSBC Arena, located at one end of the rail route, there are no transfers to other lines or accessibility to some of Buffalo’s neighborhoods that have recently seen revitalization. Main Street, closed to cars when the light rail started service, has become a virtual dead zone and the city is readying to retrofit the street and bring the cars back. Nussbaumer heavily advocates a rail extension, which would allow much improved access to Buffalo’s intriguing waterfront. This extension might be an easy place to start, as the tracks extend towards the waterfront currently for rail car storage.
Nearby, one is able to catch a glimpse of Buffalo’s inner harbor between the massive buildings that make up the local General Mills plant. Newell took me to a dead end street where a bridge had been taken out by a large ship some 25 years earlier.
General Mills, however, stood in the way of rebuilding it in the hopes of protecting their privacy and keeping pedestrians away. The area is now completely cut off from the outer harbor and it only accessible by traveling all the way around the area and across a busy highway. As our group was looking out over the missing bridge, a cyclist rode up to ask us how to reach the outer harbor. I assumed it was a friend of Newell’s making a joke, but the cyclist was a stranger, truly looking for a point of access.
Nearby, Newell showed me some signs of citizen action, mostly small but significant. Next to the General Mills plant, locals have built their own mini dock with access to the street, a wooden sign pointing towards Swannie House across the street. Local blue collar bar Swannie House has become a popular hangout for both factory folk and activists. Outside, if the wind is right, one gets a whiff of toasted cereal from the nearby plant. I can’t help but imagine how interesting it would be if the factory opened its doors to tourists, playing on the great cultural role many of their cereals play in the American narrative.
The outer harbor is the site of much current contention. The Skyway, an elevated highway that looms large and grey between the city and the waterfront, is still a working roadway despite frequent closures during cold, icy weather. Nussbaumer and Oberst enthusiastically offer creative ideas for the structure (“Paint it red!” “Install windmills!” “Hanging condos!” “Turn it into a high-line-style park!”), but the city has a long way to go before its ready to consider such unconventional solutions. The highway was recently named in a list of elevated roadways primed for transformation by the Congress for the New Urbanism, indicating its potential for significant evolution.
Along the lake, Route 5 is about to revert back to elevated highway status. Local advocacy group Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper has conducted several traffic studies and created an alternate plan that calls for the transformation of the road into a boulevard that connects the city at large to the waterfront. Buffalo Rising has been instrumental in circulating information on the project, as well as alternate designs.