Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The original vision for the Buffalo’s failed car-free-zone downtown was always a fantasy, as this TV spot shows.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
Last week, CityLab reported on the art and architecture of Buffalo’s underground Metro Rail stations, which could be threatened by future development. Aboveground, it’s another story entirely.
The stations in the downtown stretch of this unlucky transit system were part of a $42-million ($98 million after inflation) transit mall called Buffalo Place. In what became a familiar theme in Western New York urban salvation schemes, a forward-thinking idea was marred by subpar execution. Automobile traffic was banned from Main Street, to encourage people to hop aboard the new Metro Rail trains in a free-fare zone through the heart of the city’s downtown. The Metro Rail system opened in 1986, but Buffalo did not succeed in creating a lively Prague-style tram-and-pedestrian district. Downtown merchants had endured years of construction-related disruption, and by the the time this trendy urban design idea came to life, many had closed up for good.
That’s not to say Buffalo Place had nothing to offer.
Pitching itself as “The Next Great Place To Be,” this car-free space is seen in the late-‘80s TV ad above as a neon-lit haunt of stylish women, brawny construction workers, and trumpet-playing jazzbos. As Miami Vice-style synthesizers throb, we see glimpses of a re-energized downtown boasting contemporary commercial buildings, a theater district, department store shopping (still, barely), and pro hockey.
The director of the the TV spot managed to use artful framing and editing to obscure the somewhat less electric reality of Buffalo Place: The pedestrian mall was lined with vacant building and nearly desolate outside of summer lunchtimes. By the 1990s, with retailers still fleeing, planners began serious discussions about reopening Main Street to cars. Money finally started arriving for this in the following decade.
Since 2008, cars have gradually reconquered Buffalo Place, brought back block-by-block, each phase of work contingent on piecemeal financing. Ground broke on the latest phase of the “Cars Sharing Main Street” program earlier this week. A few blocks of car-free travel remain for now with their original outdoor stations and intensely ‘80s decorations, but they appear as little more than holdovers of downtown’s most desperate days. The energy and excitement they were supposed to usher in were never more than a fantasy.