Urban Land: Buffalo's Comeback
By David A. Stebbins
October 17, 2014
Though readers of this issue of Urban Land likely will be focused on Manhattan and the four other boroughs that make up New York City, real estate in New York is about more than the Big Apple. Upstate New York includes many small and medium-sized cities built along the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes, and the Hudson River. Though many of these cities have struggled for years, losing jobs and population, pockets of urban revitalization are occurring that provide lessons for other struggling urban areas across North America.
A recent increase in national media attention—highlighted by the recent 22nd Congress for the New Urbanism and last year's National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, both held in Buffalo—has portrayed what can best be described as an overnight success 30 years in the making. However, the city's decline, the result of global economic changes and regional population shifts, certainly took more than 30 years.
Though not yet poised to join the ranks of global gateways, Buffalo is seeing some positive real estate development trends. Capital investment is more than six times the investment during the 1990s. Real estate and economic development projects worth more than $4.4 billion have been completed in the past three years or are under construction. Perhaps more important for the region's long-term prosperity, the number of residents between the ages of 20 and 34—the millennials—has increased by more than 10 percent in the past eight years, reversing a decades-long trend. Developers can now expect to see acceptable returns on their investments within reasonable periods, and urban neighborhoods are realizing the vitality that residents had been able to experience only when they visited their much larger downstate "sister" city.
The number of residents between the ages of 20 and 34—the millennials—has increased by more than 10 percent in the past eight years, reversing a decades-long trend.
What has contributed to Buffalo's revival and what can other cities learn from its experience? In summary, these are the lessons: protect your historic building stock; engage the community; empower nonprofits and grass-roots efforts; plan early and often; involve your colleges and anchor institutions; and use ULI for exceptional challenges.
Certainly, a good degree of Buffalo's recent resurgence has been fueled by large state and institutional investments in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, as well as by Governor Andrew Cuomo's billion-dollar commitment to strategic economic development initiatives. But the seeds for this redevelopment were planted over the years with many small actions that can serve as a model for urban revitalization.
As ULI Senior Resident Fellow Edward McMahon noted in his recent article on building size and age ("Variety—in Building Size and Age—Yields Vibrancy," Urban Land, July/August 2014), one factor that has contributed to this revitalization is the city's stock of smaller, older buildings. This presence of this stock is a result of both a weak real estate market and greater awareness of the value of preserving buildings—and not just landmarks like Frank Lloyd
Wright's Martin House Complex or Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building. The demolition of Wright's Larkin Administration Building in the 1950s activated the local preservation community to save the city's built heritage, particularly the vernacular stock of buildings that, while not individually significant, together constitute a whole that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Most of this building stock is modest in size—small enough for entrepreneurial developers to tackle without major capital investments and small enough to allow creation of diverse, walkable neighborhoods. A major boost for adaptive-use projects in the city was the state's enactment of a tax credit that matched the federal historic preservation tax credit, effectively doubling (to 40 percent) the tax credit available for these projects and providing the equity injection required to make them financially feasible. With a stock of available, vacant buildings and financial incentives to help the process, developers have been able to convert many of these buildings into mixed-use residential projects with loft-style apartments, which appeal to the many millennials and empty nesters seeking an urban experience and opting to stay in the city—or move back into it.
Also contributing to this comeback is a multitude of community-based nonprofit groups. Grassroots organizations such as PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing), the Valley Community Association, and the International Institute of Buffalo have created kernels of positive energy through successful projects that have attracted young professionals and small investors to their communities.
PUSH has focused on the Lower West Side, a struggling, ethnically diverse neighborhood near downtown. Through a combination of advocacy and housing development programs, it has revitalized a community that is now attracting the attention of small developers and young homesteaders who want to call the neighborhood home. The International Institute has helped thousands of refugees and recent immigrants to Buffalo find jobs and housing, learn English, and make Buffalo their new home, with a good portion of their houses on the Lower West Side. In an era when local governments are dealing with fiscal restraints—especially in a city that has lost over half of its population—the Valley Community Association has raised funding for, built, and now manages two waterfront parks on the Buffalo River.
The Legacy of Ellicott and Olmsted
Buffalo has good planning bones. From the original radial street grid laid out by Pierre L'Enfant's surveyor, Joseph Ellicott, to the park and parkway system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a solid urban framework has survived mostly intact.
This framework has been given a fresh perspective and focus through the active involvement of the School of Architecture and Planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. From the Downtown Theater District Plan in the 1980s that reimagined the role of downtown as an entertainment center through a series of community summits in the 1990s, comprehensive planning in the past decade, and a multitude of studios in between, the school's faculty and students have played an active role in helping the community recognize the value of both broad-based public engagement and good urban design. The school has taken the lead on several critical planning efforts, including the downtown plan (Queen City Hub, 2003), waterfront plan (Queen City Waterfront, 2007), and comprehensive plan (Queen City in the 21st Century, 2006). The university is also developing a third campus downtown, including the $375 million medical school that is under construction. As a place-based anchor institution, the university has been a critical partner in the city's revitalization efforts.
Buffalo, as a city founded by immigrants from Europe, has also embraced a new wave of immigrants. Second only to Ellis Island in the number of immigrants who traveled through its port in the early 20th century, the city was the starting point for a wave of immigration across the Great Lakes. Today's immigrants hail from Ethiopia, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Serbia, Somalia, and war-torn countries across the globe. These new residents bring with them a work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit that is helping repopulate teetering neighborhoods and creating new businesses to fill empty storefronts. The city has become more cosmopolitan and tolerant because of their presence.
Mayor Byron Brown and Buffalo have also embraced both the spirit and intent of "complete streets" policies, replacing vehicular lanes with bicycle tracks and adding pedestrian amenities to make the public realm more walkable. The signature downtown infrastructure project has been the reversal of a 1970s-era downtown transit mall that was too long and too wide to effectively create the vibrant pedestrian experience that had been hoped for when it was created. The Cars Sharing Main Street project is converting that mall, block by block, into a street that will be shared by cars, transit vehicles, and pedestrians, harkening back to the streetcar era and bringing renewed activity to Buffalo's main street.
For particularly tough real estate challenges, Buffalo has tapped the resources available through the Urban Land Institute. The city engaged ULI Advisory Services panels to explore strategies for the reuse of the massive Richardson Olmsted Complex, the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital complex, and the former One HSBC Center, the tallest office building north of New York City. To the north, the city of Niagara Falls engaged an Advisory Services panel regarding the reuse of the former Rainbow Centre, an abandoned urban shopping mall only blocks from the falls, resulting in a recently announced $150 million redevelopment project. The outside perspective and expertise that a ULI panel can bring to a community are invaluable, especially for a second- or third-tier city that may not have the benefit of national development interests. (Copies of these reports are available at uli.org/programs/advisory-services/panel-reports/.)
Certainly, some of Buffalo's resurgence is attributable to luck and timing. There is a renewed interest in urban living. A new generation of real estate professionals with a more urban focus has assumed leadership roles within the development companies that are active in the community. Nonetheless, the revitalization this city is experiencing has been the result of good planning and public policy, the hard work and vision of local leaders in the public and private sectors, and a commitment by residents who love their city.