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Can buildings full of machines make good neighbors?

Built in 1969, Buffalo's Main Place Mall was intended to help save a downtown already reeling from the steady flight of people and stores to the suburbs. The two-story shopping center, designed by famed architecture firm Harrison and Abramovitz, sprawls out nearly two blocks, cutting off the street grid and anchoring what is now the city's fourth tallest building.

The mall failed to keep retailers downtown, but it did present itself as a respectable, albeit modest, shopping center, conveniently attached via skybridge to what became the city's last remaining department store. When that department store closed in 1995, the mall began to lose stores at a fast pace. Eventually, a glass-enclosed restaurant and nightclub along the tower's base, owned by former NFL star Jim Kelly, closed too.

Today the mall is hardly what its name implies, hosting only a small collection of stores on its first floor and a food court on part of the second. It regularly draws scathing online reviews from bewildered and disappointed shoppers. Its current appearance feeds into negative perceptions of the city – a dead mall for a dead downtown. But it is hardly empty.

Behind the white walls and secured, beige doors that have replaced so many former storefronts is one of the region's biggest data centers, where an international collection of telecommunications firms is successfully reusing an outdated architectural concept. Their racks of servers benefit from the city's cold weather, lack of natural disasters, proximity to surrounding cities and an international border.

The building's owners make more rent off the servers than they would from retail storefronts, not to mention empty space. The tenants are more reliable. And the region gets more tax revenue, as well as proof to show other companies looking for data storage facilities that Buffalo is a proven good choice. 

As a piece of urban infrastructure, though, the Main Place Mall is a superblock eyesore, one so significant it has been featured in local parody videos and meme extensions.

(Left) The glass enclosed entrance to what was once former NFL star Jim Kelly's restaurant and nightclub at Buffalo's Main Place Mall. A gray wall now blocks off the view of a data center that is now behind it. (Center) Blank walls on the first and second floors along the mall's west side, now used for data storage. (Right) The east side of the mall, facing blank walled data facilities, hosts retail spaces that have remained vacant for years. (Photos by Mark Byrnes)

The actual shopping experience today in Main Place Mall can be disorienting. During a typical workday, healthy foot traffic outside and a busy food court inside gets interrupted by blank white walls with mysterious beige doors facing the remains of the building's shopping infrastructure. The first floor still includes a small collection of retailers. On the second, only the food court remains in use while vacant storefronts face opposite the blank walls. The average shopper has no idea what's behind them.

As a space that's part-mall, part-data center, it winds up functioning particularly poorly as far as humans are concerned. That disconnect illustrates the challenge of inserting data centers – more often built as nondescript mega-boxes in the middle of nowhere – into existing urban environments.

Still, it makes a lot of sense to try this: Plenty of post-industrial cities like Buffalo and aging retail chains like Sears are sitting on vacant real estate in bulk. And while other industries have dried up, our demand for ever more data, and more places to store it, will only grow from here. By 2016, the International Data Corporation projects that the physical data-center space devoted to all of our virtual needs in the United States will expand to some 700 million square feet. That’s the equivalent of more than a hundred Pentagons.

We’ve already built a lot of the kinds of places that could serve this demand – if not for the NSA (which demands intense security), or for mega-companies like Facebook (which require massive space), then for smaller businesses or hospitals storing things like electronic health records.

Sears announced plans last month to turn some of its more than 2,500 stores (including Kmarts) into data centers and disaster recovery spaces. A 127,000-square foot location on Chicago's south side closes this month and will be turned into the company's first data center. Underperforming malls in Baltimore, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh are being converted into server storage facilities as well.

“Warehouses, department stores, old manufacturing buildings all make wonderful physical structures for data centers,” Dudley Lacy, the president of the North Carolina-based design services firm O'BrienAtkins. “A data center, if you think about, it’s basically a warehouse. It's just a warehouse that happens to have active machines in it.”

But how do you make a good urban neighbor out of a building full of machines? Will the more cat videos we download and Google docs we create lead to a trade-off in public spaces designed for actual humans? By definition, data centers don’t contribute much to the "life" of any area. A 100,000 square foot facility might employ fewer than a dozen people.

In fact, for security reasons, most data centers don’t even want you to know that they’re data centers.

"A term that's often used is 'hidden in plain sight,'" says Bernie Woytek, with the architecture and design firm Gensler. "No identification, no signage. It's not a flashy building. People are not going to think twice about it."

Former retail space now sealed off along Main Street. (Mark Byrnes)

Data centers primarily need tons of power, space, and good fiber connections. Because a lot of old manufacturing facilities also required at least the first two, they make for good reuse candidates. A data center that goes into a former manufacturing site also poses few of the complications of a downtown mall or a department store.

"Obviously, if it's a Sears store that's renovated adjacent to a residential neighborhood, it's probably not going to work well," says Ray Trevillian, the vice president of advanced technologies for the architecture, engineering and interior design firm Baskervill. Data centers, which overheat easily and require lots of AC, also need backup generators. "It really boils down," Trevillian says, "to the noise from the generators."

With enough money, Lacy says, engineers can dampen some of that noise. But he also points to another set of potential data centers that neither butt right up to residential neighborhoods nor sit in the industrial part of town: big-box stores.

"In my mind, Kmart is not Walmart's rival. Walmart's rival is Amazon," Lacy says. We've been building all of these big-box stores, he says, but now that people buy more and more stuff online, many communities will need to find new uses for empty big-box stores in the future. They would ironically make great places to store all the data from the online purchase of that Father's Day gift you decided not to drive to Walmart to buy.

There is at least one hitch, though. Data centers are more efficient when they can be naturally ventilated with outdoor air, but the air in cities tends to contains more exhaust fumes. That polluted air "can corrode the metal inside a server or the computer equipment," Lacy says. So the air we breathe may not be good enough to cool our computers?

"That's another one of those ironies."

View from a vacant second floor storefront, facing an unmarked door that leads to data center space.

(Mark Byrnes)

There probably won’t be so many data centers coming that you have to worry about losing your mall, your church, your office and your closest store to them (Woytek says people have been predicting a massive spike in new development for 20 years: “I heard that in the mid-1990s, I heard it in 2000, I heard it in 2006. And it's never happened.”)  But inevitably there will be more in our midst, particularly as local governments actively try to lure the appearance of high tech, and as companies like Sears realize they have little left but their real estate.

Top image: Tigger11th/Shutterstock.com. All other images by Mark Byrnes.

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