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.

Crowdsourcing

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.

15 comments

  • Alan said: “But that could be a grass-is-greener thing.”

    It certainly is. That and your take that limited downtown housing and retail is “largely self inflicted.” The decline of downtown as a neighborhood and shopping center is a national trend not a local one. Sure there are examples where places with similar challenges do things better but there are also plenty of cities that are doing things worse.

    The tax free zone idea is interesting but I think it would be better to continue investments that attract residents downtown. Contrary to the dismissive tone in the article, a lot of progress has been made attracting residents here over the past decade. The time honored pattern of businesses following residents will continue downtown as signs of this are already evident. That will build a base of customers to support the addition of “things to do and people to see,” which would complement the currently growing list of things to do and people to see in and around downtown.

    I do think implementing policies to deter speculation, such as the land value tax, is a great idea.

  • I think just about every major problem in Buffalo derives from the same core issue: we have no leadership. Frankly, we haven’t had sound leadership for a long, long, long time.

    Who among our political leadership is strategic, progressive, forward-thinking, and intelligent? Who is humble enough to know when to bring in those FAR more confident and experienced than they (say, in this case a REAL urban planner to tackle downtown)?

    How long can the good people of this city fix up neighborhoods, invest their capital and time, when there simply is no top-down direction in which we can have faith?

    My sincerest hope upon hope is that all the good people of Buffalo, who are toiling tirelessly to make this city great again, will coalesce and ELECT THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP WE DESERVE. Not a Mayor who, at best, is asleep at the wheel and/or is too focused on yet another conviction of a member of his administration.

    I am pretty encouraged by Cuomo (apart from the support of fracking), and hope that there may be more tangible leadership emanating from him, state-wide. Maybe, just maybe there will be a trickle down.

  • I think the sales-tax free zone is an interesting idea. However, it will never pass the County Legislature because only 3 memebers are from the actual city of Buffalo. By imposing that tax-free zone it would essentially favor the city over the suburbs. Plus, it might also adversely effect sales tax revenues if retail comes back into downtown because Canadians would go to downtown where they can pay zero sales tax vs. the Outlet Mall and Walden Galleria. It might also pit Niagara Falls (another distressed city) to impose the same zero-sales tax preventing Canadian consumers from coming into the city of Buffalo.

    While the idea is fresh I just do not think it would work. Buffalo’s best chance of surviving and growing is to regionalize the City of Buffalo and Erie County. By sharing services, restructuring school districts (while eliminating administrators) to share resources and improve standards and shrink property taxes this is the silver bullet that would actually work. Bad neighborhoods don’t make bad schools, bad schools make bad neighborhoods.

    The only problem with proposing a plan like this is that once again it will put the city vs. the surburbs and these entitites want nothing to do with each other. Essentially, they will fight and bicker over consolidation while they each die their own slow death anyway with a shrinking population and less of a tax base.

  • @DWCollings: BINGO!

  • Very disappointed to hear that your archives aren’t online. With all the hours I’ve spent writing about Buffalo stuff the last few years, if I could no longer link to those articles to reference or share with folks, I’m pretty sure I’d be [strong modifier] ticked.

    I like the downtown sales-tax-free zone. And if such a thing were to happen, I’d love to see policy that would allow it to also be used in villages/smaller cities with definable downtowns. However it was structured, it would be a far better incentive policy for building retail density than the present haphazard IDA giveaways to retail businesses that are neither set up to, nor are effectively accomplishing any apparent coherent policy aim.

  • @JP I think you’re right about the politics. With the new county legislative districts so large, I’d guess that every legislator represents at least one definable “downtown” that could benefit from strengthened retail. Designing an incentive that applies initially to downtown Buffalo, but with a mechanism to apply to other identifiable, compact, walkable retail districts elsewhere in the county would help folks county-wide see the value of the incentive while not unduly detracting from downtown Buffalo, the hub of the region.

  • Thoughtful and well executed piece, Alan. Other than a trip to City Hall or the Rath complex for some obtuse contact with one of our public servants, there’s absolutely no reason to go to downtown. Your graphic depicts it excellently as does Gertrude Stein’s comment about circa 1930’s downtown Oakland, “There’s no there there.”

    I think the sales tax waiver would attract shoppers from the ‘burbs and Ontario but suspect retailers would require additional inducements to build downtown as there’s an excess of retail square footage.

  • I think we should generally stop trying to make downtown a retail destination. Geographically, Buffalo is an inconvenient location for most. If you live in Amherst or Clarence, you’re driving by two, maybe three retail districts to get into the city. If you live in Cheektowaga, you’re passing up the Galleria and other choices. In the Southtowns, there are small, local options as well as national level retail districts. There just isn’t a compelling reason to pass up the options they have to come downtown. Of course, you also have to overcome the bizarre stigma that downtown lacks parking or that it’s “unsafe”.

    I’ve long thought that our focus for downtown should be turning it into our business hub. Support that kind of development with tax incentives and leave the retail-focused development to the suburbs.

    As it stands now, most of our young technology companies, advanced manufacturing, financial companies and so forth are located in the northtowns. Focus on locating these existing and developing businesses downtown and retail and support services will organically grow to support a larger daytime workforce. Some residential will pop up in the city as people want to live closer to work and nightlife, sports, and theater will remain core competencies for the city.

  • Wow. Everything you need is in the suburbs.

    Well, I suppose if you are that type of person. I understand that the burbs have developed and built up all the local conveniences that you need over the past few decades. That fact remains that a majority of Americans have been living in the burbs since at least the 1980s, so it’s no surprise. And this has been happening all over, not just Buffalo. In Washington, DC, there is no reason at all for people to go to downtown Washington, as all the best shopping is in the burbs, and many fine eateries.

    And if life for you is all about just going to the mall, Wegman’s and a handful of nice restaurants, then I sorta feel sorry for you. There is so much more to life than just shopping and eating and going to work. All the major culturals of any city are still downtown, but I guess if you have cable, who cares about any of that?

    I would just ask these people one thing: At some point, they have to retire and their mobility will get more limited as they age. When they get to the point they can no longer drive a car (and that day will come), where do they think they will go?

  • Without question, a tax-free zone would work well – for a while, but there would be drawbacks that outweigh the successes.

    First, the influx of retail downtown would inevitably take business away from other areas. It would not cause people to shop more, but it would only cause them to change where they shop. Hence, Niagara Falls, the Elmwood area, Hertel, the malls, etc., would all see a decline.

    In order to survive, many local businesses would be forced to move to the tax-free district, leaving empty storefronts everywhere else. The massive influx of businesses into the downtown corridor would eventually (and probably quickly) cause rents to skyrocket. This would eventually pass down to the consumers, possibly eating up any price break they would receive from the tax-free status.

    Worse yet, the higher rents would apply to everyone downtown, not just retailers. Existing businesses could be tempted to move to the suburbs, and the entire downtown trend of building residential space could end quickly as building owners look to attract more retailers.

    I like the current trend of building more residential space. People living downtown will attract more businesses to serve their day to day needs. We should focus on that and attracting the types of businesses we do not already have around here, as mentioned above.

  • Another point, which we should not overlook, is that it is estimated that, going forward, the vast majority of the world’s population will be in urban centers. Why should Buffalo be any different?

    I am actually quite impressed by the revival of downtown-it might be slow going and god bless those who take a chance at opening a retail operation there, but I do feel it is moving in a very positive direction.

    Look at the art organizations, alone, which are centralized downtown: theaters (from Shea’s to Road Less Traveled), WNY Book Arts, Squeaky Wheel, Vault, Washington Exchange, Hallwalls, Slyboots, etc. Couple that with increased housing, two major hotel restorations, companies moving back in from the ‘burbs, an increasing amount of restaurants (from Sea Bar to Termini’s new one), and we are starting to see critical mass. It is, simply, logical evolution that the area continues to develop, particularly as the waterfront continues to pick up steam. And, then there is the proximity of the Medical Corridor, UB, etc.

    However, I would really like to see Buffalo politicians (including the Mayor!!!) fight vigorously to keep ECC downtown (unless UB might like to take ECC’s downtown campus…hmmm….)

  • Alan? Remember when you posted this?

    “I don’t post to shill for anyone. I post to argue with people who are either wrong or dumb. Sometimes both. ”

    My turn. But my comment is only directed to you… not “people”

    “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 is dumb to have a tax free zone. Why? You would hurt too many other local businesses in our community. This has nothing to do with “life isn’t fair” bs.

    What is the point of shifting businesses from one area of our community to another area of our community? We just change which buildings are vacant? Pretty unproductive. I also agree that IDA’s need to be abolished except to pull worthy companies that add value to our community away from another state. Not used for something like a bait and tackle shop that would compete against our local established business people.

    The “government spenders” would also have to make up the difference when sale tax revenues drop because of the tax free zone.

    I suppose you think raising county property taxes and local property taxes/fees are fine to make up the difference?

  • I’m not sure what place “Refreshingly cleansed of bicycles” has in your lead image. It’s quite likely that your picture was taken on a weekend morning, so chances are good that’s why there were no bikes (or pedestrians for that matter). In fact, there are actually bike racks in your picture, just below the “w” in “snow remediation”. There are dozens of bike racks Downtown, and quite often bikes locked to them, so I don’t understand that comment.

  • As one of the young hip people who has moved back into Buffalo (Cold Springs) one of the things I like the most about the city is the lack of the kind of crap that exists in a “retail destination.” The galleria mall, the mckinley mall, and niagara falls boulevard are probably the three places in erie county i hate the most. There are some big boxes and chain restaurants in buffalo but they are mostly far from the city center (Target, Regal, Home Depot etc Between north Buffalo and Kenmore). Hip young people dont want to live near that type of thing. Just sayin.

    I think Downtown is important but perhaps the answer is to make a real effort to getting people from other parts of the country to move specifically into downtown. I heard Rocco Termini say that downtown needs some ten thousand or so more people actually living there to build a critical mass that can support more neighborhood type businesses, like a grocery etc. I thought the idea made a lot of sense.

  • I am writing as the ED of a not-for-profit that researches and helps cities that are considering land value taxation (LVT). I think the idea of a sales-tax free zone is intriguing, and is in line with the precepts of making a city the center of commercial activity of all kinds.

    The land value tax in Buffalo – as elsewhere – can be implemented in a strategic way; that is decide what the community wants, and use tax policy to achieve it. The land tax in unique is that doesn’t act like a social engineering tax i.e., if you want fewer smoker, tax cigarettes more. Instead, LVT as a revenue source helps other taxes get out of the way of what people want to do.

    In Pennsylvania, LVT has been used as a mechanism to “swap” tax burdens. In Allentown, the city swapped local business taxes into the LVT. In Pittsburgh, the local income tax was swapped with a higher charge on land values.

    I do my work out of Philadelphia. We have a local sales tax that is 8%, higher than the state rate of 6% and higher than surrounding towns of 7%. Even worse, we are with a 20 minute drive of Delaware with no sales tax. It has an astounding effect, anecdotally and empirically. http://www.urbantoolsconsult.org/upload/Incentive_Taxation_March%202011.pdf

    Land value tax could provide a city-wide sales tax free zone; that would make a real difference, certainly. You’d get Ohio, Ontario and Pennsylvania shoppers as well.

    Anything to remove the economic drag of the current tax situation could make Buffalo competitive not only in Erie county,but in its region.

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