Do You Need Downtown?
As we round out 2011, I would usually post a retrospective of the year’s posts here, but most of my 2011 archives are no longer online. So, instead, I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking post from Rochester journalist Rachel Barnhart.
In it, Barnhart recounts a discussion she had with a friend about Rochester’s urban core and its suburbs. He argued that suburbanites simply have no need for the city proper anymore, as any and all of their daily needs can easily and conveniently be met closer to home. To them, whether the city sinks or swims is irrelevant, and they believe that the suburbs have developed a way of living that is immune to the city’s successes and failures. From Barnhart’s piece, her friend argued,
The suburbs are so great we don’t need to leave. We have everything, they’re the best suburbs in the country.
If you’re my dad, he has no reason to leave Webster. He has fine dining, shopping and Wegmans. You think people are always denigrating the city, but our suburbs are second to none.
You think life would stop in Brighton and Pittsford if downtown died? The city is not the hub for those people. I’m one of them.
I’m not smart enough to have a prescription to fix downtown. It’s sad and it’s a shame, but (the death of downtown) wouldn’t have the impact you think.
We need to focus on the entire area. We have great suburbs and crime is going down. You think I’m so anti-city and I’m not. I just don’t think downtown and the city are as important.
It’s a topic that comes up quite often in Buffalo. When I first started paying attention to local politics, the city was in rough shape and the county was doing great, flush with tobacco settlement money. Before the red/green budget, suburbanites would gleefully announce to, e.g., Sandy Beach that the county should just take over the city. Within a matter of days, the assumptions underlying that position changed 180 degrees.
I’m a big believer in the notion that the suburbs and the city sink or swim together. Like Toronto, Erie County should have a metropolitan government that fairly represents all the people. We should have a unified school district that strives for excellence, and discourages complacency and failure. The 50s way of governing needs to be replaced with something more effective, and more reflective of current realities. We need to consolidate our business development, planning/land use, maintenance, and purchasing functions. We need to make it easier for businesses to navigate a much reduced, rationally laid out set of bureaucratic regulations. Nostalgia shouldn’t be our biggest industry – we need to better support and encourage today’s innovators and tomorrow’s moguls.
But turning specifically to the topic in Barnhart’s piece about the declining need for a downtown, there are loads of people throughout WNY who have no use for the city proper unless they have court, Sabres tickets, or the theater. All other services are not only available, but more convenient, closer to home; home predominately being some suburb.
The national trend of hip young people moving into downtowns has touched Buffalo only tangentially; most newer housing is comprised of rentals, which have a built-in transience. Condos in the downtown core are almost exclusively high-end, going for more than 300k.
I think downtown Buffalo has a lot of problems that are largely self-inflicted through poor planning, little foresight, and weak zoning. A land value tax would go a long way towards rendering land speculation of vacant lots less economically viable, and perhaps grow downtown again. When I visit Rochester, it seems to me as if its downtown is more robust and better maintained than Buffalo’s. But that could be a grass-is-greener thing.
In order to render old, decaying downtowns vital and vibrant again, people need an incentive to go there. I’m an advocate for a sales-tax-free zone for Buffalo’s downtown core. By giving people $.0875 cents off every dollar they spend, you could easily, quickly, and organically spur interest in downtown retail and revitalize an area that people have no reason to visit. With the pending development of Buffalo’s Canal Side (waterfront project through the ESD), this sales-tax-free zone becomes even more acute of an issue. We’re spending millions to create a tourist/shopping/cultural destination, we should ensure that it’s used and that it helps revitalize its surroundings.
It’s not the weather. It’s not the 190 or the Scajaquada or the 33. It’s not the Skyway. These things are not keeping Buffalo’s downtown lame. Through a sales-tax-free downtown, people from throughout the region, and from Canada, will have a huge incentive to demand goods and services within that zone, and private enterprise will swoop in to supply it.
I think we do need downtown, but more importantly, downtown needs us. It needs feet on the ground, and it needs cash in wallets, ready to be spent on something. We have a real chicken-and-egg scenario here – retailers won’t come downtown because there isn’t any retail downtown. And let’s face it, when we think about a downtown – if you look at the old pictures of Main Street in the 50s, or better still, 100 years ago, it was a teeming mess of people, shops, eateries, offices; things to do, people to see.
It could be that again, given the right environment. It just needs a few nudges in the right direction.
Happy New Year.