On Saturday June 18th, downtown Buffalo lost not just another historic building, but nearly an entire block-long street scape of 19th-century mixed-use buildings. The owner of the buildings at 390-402 Michigan Street was granted a demolition permit by the Brown Administration against the recommendation of the Buffalo Preservation Board. The site abuts Schneider Development’s recently opened Lofts @136 project at the historic Alling & Coring building, targeted at nearby Erie Community College (ECC) students. The Michigan Avenue buildings were not yet officially designated as city landmarks.
Prior to the Ellicott District urban renewal scheme of the late-1950s, Michigan Street was among the most interesting corridors in downtown Buffalo, with its solid ranks of mixed-use buildings, charming vernacular architecture and densely populated corners, forming a continuous street wall stretching from the Old First Ward northward to the Masten neighborhood. The street contained an interesting mixture of small enterprises that catered to surrounding industries and neighborhoods.
That ended when urban renewal eliminated a square mile of downtown’s eastern edge, first in the massive Ellicott Redevelopment Area clearance of the mid 1950‘s, then piece by piece, through the 1980’s. For the last 25 years Buffalonians have contemplated the resulting disjointed and suburbanized swaths of downtown and asked “what have we done,” while Meanwhile, other industrial cities - Boston, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Portland - work to revive themselves using the historical assets Buffalo seems intent on eliminating.
This series of buildings was among the last remaining such mixed-use blocks in the Ellicott District. They presented a grand opportunity for redevelopment as expansion of ECC City Campus is debated, a prospect that would have thousands more students and hundreds of additional faculty and staff in the neighborhood. Decades of demolition followed by new single-use residential devlopment, has left the lower East Side without a main street or neighborhood center to create a sense of place. With the loss of 390-402 Michigan Street, removes a potential anchor of identity to build upon.
Buffalo has yet to embrace the notion that a key to success in the intercity competition of today is to make one’s city more inviting and desirable. Today, that means cleaner air, less traffic, fewer parking lots, and more usable, pedestrian-oriented buildings. Cool and interesting places act to define an area. Although it is unlikely the entirety of Michigan Avenue can redevelop into a mixed-use neighborhood center, opportunities exist to create and reinforce nodes stimulate additional investment. One only has to look at the Ellicott Commons block of Ellicott Street where the redevelopment of a handful of smaller warehouses and mercantile buildings into a cool mixed-use node has resulted in additional investments including retail component. The long-vacant Charlie Baker Block directly to the south on Genesee Street is being now seeing mixed-use redevelopment.