Long-Suffering Buffalo Sees Hope In Building Boom
BUFFALO – Maggie Sperrazza wakes up every morning to the hum and growl of construction outside her Buffalo apartment building, but it doesn’t bother her a bit.
“It’s about time!” the 86-year-old said as she zipped on a scooter near the foot of Main Street, where construction cranes loom over hard-hat zones. “We’ve been in the hole long enough.”
From her vantage point, Sperrazza has been witness to a building boom unseen in Buffalo in more than 50 years, with more than $4.4 billion in public and private development announced since 2012.
Mayor Byron Brown and other city leaders say they’ve shifted away from elusive “silver bullet” fixes for a stagnant economy toward more doable projects that together create momentum.
Much of the development is concentrated in the city’s 120-acre hospital and research corridor, which is expected to add nearly 5,000 employees over the next four years.
A site that once housed Republic Steel will be transformed into a clean energy manufacturing complex anchored by Elon Musk’s SolarCity, which this past week announced plans for one of the world’s largest solar panel production plants with as many as 1,000 employees within two years.
“Instead of the home run, why don’t we get a couple singles? You get two singles, you have somebody in scoring position, and that’s the whole attitude,” said Robert Gioia, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which has been coordinating waterfront improvements.
After decades of losses that have cut the population to 259,000, Brown predicts the 2020 census will show the first population gains for the city since the 1950s, helped by an influx of immigrants and refugees.
That, along with a $1 billion pledge by Gov. Andrew Cuomo intended to leverage additional investment, has brought new optimism – complete with its own buzzword, “Buffalove.”
Buffalo’s challenges remain: Its 30 percent poverty rate places it among the nation’s poorest cities, and its school system graduates just 54 percent of its students. Abandoned homes and storefronts blight poor neighborhoods, while the city’s tallest building, the 38-story One Seneca Tower, stands 94 percent vacant downtown after the pullout of two of its largest tenants last year.
Also threatening the city’s collective psyche and national image is the possibility that pro football’s Buffalo Bills, currently up for sale, could be uprooted from what is now the NFL’s second-smallest market.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but phenomenal things are happening,” said Brown, who took office in 2006, three years after the state installed a financial control board to save Buffalo from insolvency.
The state’s second-largest city once thrived on transportation and industry after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Situated on Lake Erie’s eastern shore, the city grew to 580,000 people at its 1950 peak, but declines – hastened by the loss of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s – have been the story since then.
But signs of life are showing beyond the construction boom. Real estate agents say millennial friendly housing is being created in repurposed industrial buildings, and existing homes in lively, walkable neighborhoods are selling for well above asking prices.
“I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never seen the market as strong as it is now,” said John Leonardi, chief executive of the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors.
“Buffalo’s gotten out of the complete funk it was in 10 years ago,” added John Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism, which this month brought more than 1,300 members to the city for a conference.
At the medical campus, an 11-story clinical sciences center is under construction by Roswell Park Cancer Institute. A new $270 million children’s hospital, $375 million University at Buffalo medical school and $110 million medical research building also are planned for the 120-acre campus.
Total employment in the medical center is expected to exceed 17,000 by 2017, approaching the 20,000 workers employed by Bethlehem Steel in nearby Lackawanna until the 1970s.
On the other end of Main Street, at the Erie Canal district known as Canalside, work is progressing on replica canals that will freeze into skating rinks in the winter.
Nearby, Gary Williams paused from a walk to gaze up at two yellow cranes pivoting to work at the $172.2 million HarborCenter the Buffalo Sabres will open this fall with skating rinks, a restaurant and retail space.
“I don’t even know what that’s going to be,” said Williams, 52. “Every time I come down here, something new is being built.”