Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
With funding arriving on a block-by-block basis, everyone is eager to see if bringing cars back to Main Street will finally make a difference.
When Buffalo built its pedestrian mall in the 1980s, it was supposed to make downtown look like this:
That vision never came to life. A lengthy construction process and a design that not only took cars off the street but blocked off key intersections killed the little bit of life that remained on Main Street. As a result, a typical day up and down the pedestrian mall looks more like this:
After years of nearly universal displeasure with the car-free mall, it’s going away, albeit block by block. And very slowly.
City officials hope that when the construction dust clears, cars and most importantly, private investment will return to the heart of downtown. "We have a number of priorities when it comes to Buffalo's infrastructure," says Mayor Byron Brown. "This is a major, major priority."
A public works project called Cars Sharing Main Street has been underway since 2008. Phase one saw two-way traffic, bike lanes, and newly designed sidewalks with curb extensions brought to the 700 block of Main Street.
Serving as the last block of Main where cars were allowed before the mostly underground light rail reached street level, the block had been designed to shoo away drivers with slow, one-way traffic and perpendicular street parking just before the subway tunnel emerged. Finished in 2009, the redesign was well received and validated through property renovations and new businesses along the block.
Five years later, it is still the only portion of Main with a completed redesign, but construction workers have been busy turning the 600 and 500 blocks into something similar. The 600 block, the center of the city's theater district, will reopen later this year. Work on the 500 block, arguably the most blighted portion of the pedestrian mall, is expected to wrap up in 2015.
When today's construction is done, downtowners will have a better sense of how a fully redesigned Main Street will function.
Gone will be the long, clunky light rail stations that block storefronts from easy viewing. Smaller, more transparent shelters will replace them. Bicycles will have dedicated lanes. Pedestrians will have new benches and better signage to navigate their way around downtown.
The most dramatic change will be the addition of private vehicles. Cars will share the road with a light rail system that's never had anything but an exclusive right-of-way from end to end. That comes with some complications.
The most difficult engineering work needed to re-integrate cars on Main has already been done. New traffic lanes now weave around both sides of the subway tunnel in the middle of the 600 block before merging into a shared lane with the train. At the merge, "RAILROAD CROSSING" signs now stand accompanied by warning lights that will flash as a train approaches.
Although transit officials can't promise the transition will be seamless, conductors have been trained for the change, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) official Thomas George tells us. They'll be assisted by detection cameras that show conductors still inside the tunnel if there's an issue on the outdoor track bed.
To accommodate the new merge lanes, the NFTA is losing one of its stations. "Theater" station closed permanently early last year, meaning riders will now get off at "Fountain Plaza" one block away. "The geometry of bringing cars made it literally impossible to maintain that station," says George.
The station removal has led to negative feedback from some riders, particularly those who are disabled. But it's hardly the NFTA's only problem.
A limited light-rail system is a tough sell in a car-centric region where downtown parking is affordable and easy to find. For those dependent on public transit, bus service is more comprehensive. In fact, the underground portion of the light rail essentially functions as an express version of the "8" bus.
Construction has come with severe interruptions to light-rail service, doubling average overhead times from 10 to 20 minutes. "The loss of ridership has been significant" says George, "as much as 25 percent," while operating at only 33 percent of the system's capacity.
Right now, the NFTA is working in-house to come up with ways to bring back riders when the dust clears. The mayor, meanwhile, wants to see enough new housing along the light rail system to offset any loss of disgruntled riders today.
Brown has officially stated that he wants to see another 1,300 units of housing built downtown by 2018. He wants Main Street to be one of the biggest clusters of new apartments and condos and is convinced the change is already happening.
Decades after Buffalo's light rail debuted, only now are developers starting to show serious interest in the vacant and underused buildings along Main Street. Nearly $90 million in residential projects near light rail stations are either planned or under construction. That's mostly thanks to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), located at the southernmost underground light rail station.
The BNMC is one of the few sources of significant job growth in the city today. Expected to generate about half of the city's projected 10,000 new jobs over the next three to four years, medical campus officials say they won't build enough parking to accommodate the new workers.
The mayor says a completed Cars Sharing Main program will make Main one of the most holistic streets in New York State, attractive enough to every type of commuter and therefore, developers and new businesses.
The project, Brown says, has given the city a 2-to-1 return on investment so far. City Hall officials expect the ratio to become even more favorable when all the work is done.
But when exactly that'll happen is anyone's guess. Right now, the city is hoping for a $28 million TIGER grant to start work on the next phase. That would include the 400 block, where Buffalo's first modernist tower, the previously vacant Tishman Building, is being turned into a mixed-use complex. It would also include the southernmost end of the pedestrian mall, Canalside, where the historically desolate Inner Harbor is quickly turning into the city's most popular hangout.
Senator Charles Schumer announced earlier this month that he, along with Congressman Brian Higgins, will push for the money. If they land the TIGER grant, the city will chip in the remaining $7 million necessary and work would begin this fall.
Without the grant, construction stops. "We would, quite frankly, be short," says Brown. Assuming Buffalo does get the money, that would still leave five blocks in-between untouched and with no funding sources in place. An additional $77 million is needed for those five blocks.
Despite all the uncertainty, most people around the city are happy to see anything happen at all. Across from the Hyatt on the 500 block, a string of long-vacant buildings are being restored and filled with art studios, apartments, offices, and places to eat: the kinds of things that were supposed to happen after the pedestrian mall first debuted.
One of those new places, a coffee shop called Perks, opened in January. Owner Bob Newman is cautiously optimistic about his investment.
Currently, he's waiting out a frustrating construction period. Much like when the pedestrian mall was being built along the same street in the 1980s, businesses that rely on street traffic are challenged today. Newman says a recent visitor joked that they'd "never walked so far to something so close."
Lured in by the modest influx of people around downtown more than the upcoming return of cars to the block, he's skeptical that the redesign alone will change much.
"It will be nice and I'm sure it will help our business but it won't be the main reason people are here," says Newman. "We need to remember we were told 25 years ago by the same type of agencies that taking traffic off Main Street would save it."