Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

There’s Something About Buffalo

Dateline: 2:10 pm March 11, 2009 Filed under:

I really like Buffalo. There is something about the big industrial cities that have fallen from glory in changing economic times. Among them all, I like Buffalo best. Not sure what it is, really, although you visit there and sense just how far its fortunes have tumbled. Maybe it is the grit, the history, the vacant industrial buildings and their ghosts. Maybe it is the whiff of possibility.

I visited Buffalo last summer, and what I found there was a burgeoning arts community centered on the new Buffalo Artists Lofts, developed by Minneapolis-based ArtSpace. Visit their website, or with a subscription, you can read the Buffalo Artists Lofts ULI case study and many others at the ULI Case Studies Website here.

What the Buffalo Artists Lofts offers, thanks to a broad choice of underutilized former warehouse buildings, is the low opportunity cost for development. The developers commented to me how New York City developers are literally floored at how inexpensive it is to purchase a building in Buffalo. The lofts are right on Main Street, not far from downtown, with a gentrified neighborhood to the west and a transitioning neighbohrood to the east. What better place for urban rebirth?

Don’t get me wrong, Buffalo has issues. Eating lunch downtown, my view towards Lake Erie was interrupted by a series of bad decisions, including ugly hotels and residential buildings, but especially by an elevated freeway that cuts off the city from its waterfront. The city has one of the most beautiful city halls in the United States, an Art Deco beauty towering grandly over Niagara Square, a pleasant public space. Buffalo’s city hall is a symbol of the city at its peak. Next door is a brutal city hall annex, among the worst civic monstrosities in the country. If city hall represents in all that was great about Buffalo, the annex is a symbol if its decline.

Perhaps the Buffalo Artists Lofts represents a new day for the city, and perhaps it is an example of the wide range of approaches rust belt cities have to take in order to rebound. After all, the housing market was already so bad that the housing boom didn’t help. Thus, Buffalo hasn’t suffered from the housing crash in the same way. Manufacturing isn’t likely coming back, at least not the way we know it. The only way is up, baby!

Take Pittsburgh, another city that is endlessly charming, with its beautiful river valley setting and steel bridges that are an ode to its past industrial might. A recent New York Times article cast an encouraging light on Pittsburgh. Link to the article here. Pittsburgh has managed to do what few true rust belt cities have – find a way to diversify their economy and redevelop vast industrial sites.

And then there is Detroit. Like Buffalo, real estate is cheap there, but in a terminal kind of way. Last Sunday’s New York Times featured an article about artists buying $100 homes there. Read about the $100 house in Detroit here. What will become of Detroit? Perhaps it is best turned back over to agricultural uses. How cool would it be to visit the urban farmer’s market, located next to the farm fields themselves!?

The Atlantic Monthly’s March issue has a fascinating article about the future of cities after our current economic crisis plays out. Written by Richard Florida, it is a fascinating read, and mentions Detroit and Pittsburgh. Read Richard Florida’s article in the Atlantic Monthy here. Florida notes that Pittsburgh has managed a monumental task of repositioning itself, whereas Detroit must still find its way.

What will happen to our rust belt cities? Sure they should be home to artists. They should partner with whatever old money remains to support arts. Their leaders should also pursue new techology and opportunity in collaboration with local educational institutions, as Pittsburgh has shown can be done. They must refocus, rebrand and reinvest.

And even if old industries don’t come back, why we don’t produce light rail cars, high speed trains and commuter jets in this country is beyond me.

Our rust belt cities present a fascinating opportunity. Good investment value for your real estate dollar, combined with good (albeit often decaying) urban bones and nowhere left to fall can lead to good results.

The architect of the Buffalo Artists Lofts indicated the biggest problem in Buffalo is an inferiority complex among elected leadership. There is no vision. Well, I say it is time to get the word out there of the opportunities that abound in places like Buffalo. Of course there are daunting problems to address, but there is also an incredible chance to invest in the future. Let the urban experimentation begin!

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