Long Story Short: Growing pains


Illustration by JP Thimot


Elmwood and the mall

Forty years ago, I bought a house in the Elmwood Village, which was then  known as the West Side, and considered an “iffy” neighborhood. Over the decades, hundreds of businesses have come and gone on the Elmwood Strip (as it was known before it rebranded as a “village”), but now the Buffalo News says Elmwood is “under stress,” and “struggling to beat back blight.” What?


Meanwhile, in Williamsville, the hulking Eastern Hills Mall is exploring ways to reinvent itself as a mixed-use “town center,” adding some combination of residential, hotel, and office space, because it can no longer survive on retail alone. 


Where is business is thriving? Some say Hertel.   


The details:

The News counts thirty-one empty storefronts along Elmwood in the village. That’s seventeen percent vacancy, a sign of business district infirmity. Time for action—last week, Common Council members Joel P. Feroleto and David A. Rivera put their heads together with State Senator Christopher Jacobs, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan to discuss possible measures to make Elmwood great again.


Analysis of the problem by social media pundits falls roughly into two camps: those who think greedy property owners charge excessive rents, and those who believe development-blocking preservationists stifle progress.


I say, phooey to both. Though rents are undeniably high, current vacancies are largely concentrated near the former Women & Children’s Hospital site, an area that’s in transition. When they redevelop the former hospital, there will be a business resurgence.


But according to one major longtime Elmwood property owner who spoke off the record, issues arise when long-established landlords sell buildings at the highest possible price (and who wouldn’t?) to new buyers, who then develop the property and maximize rents to justify the cost. The owner I spoke to operates multiple family-owned Elmwood buildings, offering long-term leases at reasonable prices. Business turnover is rare. But in the long run, rent inflation and aggressive development might be an inevitable outcome of success.


Then there’s that mall

All things must pass. Malls were once all the rage. People drove from the city to shop in enclosed retail megalopolises, with their ample free parking. Times have changed. The trend now is toward walkable urban strip plazas, and online shopping, which can be done in pajamas without walking, driving, or even sitting up. Many malls have become sparsely-populated ghost towns. Some are being redeveloped into “lifestyle centers:” big box live, work, and play zones. That’s what the owners of the Eastern Hills mall are exploring now. Time will tell if they can successfully reimagine the place as a recreational mega-center destination.   


Meanwhile, Hertel thrives!

Social media buzz has it that Hertel Avenue is the new Elmwood. The energy has shifted, people say. Sure enough, the street centered around the North Park Theater seems energized of late. But is it drawing business from Elmwood? Maybe. Despite Buffalo’s “renaissance,” the region’s population is not growing much. As more streets emerge as new hip spots to visit, the audience may be spread thinner.


The takeaway:

The funniest tale of two hoods comes in the form of dueling reader comments to Buffalo Rising’s story about the Elmwood vacancies.

Comment 1: “Hertel is thriving because North Buffalo is full of hard working business people who welcome change. Elmwood has stalled because it is full of liberal obstructionists who are killing the commercial growth.”

Comment 2: “Ah yes. Hertel is home to the salt of the earth types who work in coal mines and fought in the war. While Elmwood folks play tennis, sip lemonade, and watch their market tickers.”


True enough; and I’m off to refill my lemonade chalice.



Long Stories Shorter: Quick takes on items of note


Holy hole competition, Batman!

Artists, designers, and creative types in general, are invited to submit hole proposals for Larkinville's Lilliputian links, located next to Larkin Square at 763 Seneca. The “nano-golf course” is free to the public during the warm months. Each existing hole was created by an artist or designer, and, every year, a couple holes are retired. The Larkin Development Group is offering $1,000 dollars each for the design and fabrication of replacement holes that are “intricate, yet small in size.” A link to the links-entry can be found here.



The saga of Pano’s continues

The man who tore down the historically significant 1893 Atwater house on Elmwood Avenue to erect a “larger than life” restaurant, is selling the business to a guy who tore down eleven less historically significant buildings to build an outsized condominium.


Mark Chason of Chason Affinity Companies bought Pano’s Restaurant from Pano Georgiadis. The eatery is right next to the future oversized forty-unit condo project Chason is currently constructing. The $2.1 million-dollars Chason paid for Pano’s, illustrates Elmwood’s overheated market. Chason plans to keep Pano’s open as a restaurant, but it will soon close for eight weeks for interior renovations, including “updated décor” and a new kitchen. No word yet whether the name will change to Mark’s.



Tops in bankruptcy

The rumors were true; Tops Markets has filed for Chapter 11 protection. Tops chief executive Frank Curci is spinning it as a good thing, and he might be right. For the time being, it will be business as usual, he says, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, considering that Tops rated second last in customer satisfaction out of sixty-two chains in Consumer Reports’ Supermarket survey. Its main competitors, Wegmans, rated number one, which doesn’t help. But the reorganization will enable Tops to cut interest payments by $60 million dollars annually, and the company has lined up financing for the reorganization. The hope is that Tops can improve service and become competitive in a very difficult market. Here’s one idea; put the ‘friendly” back into Tops Friendly Markets by hiring congenial employees.



Frank Lloyd Wright or wrong?

What if you woke up one day to find your house was on the National Register of Historic Places? That might happen to two homeowners after a meeting this Thursday of the Buffalo Preservation Board. The William R. Heath House and the Walter V. Davidson House—both designed by the world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright—are slated to be considered for landmark status. But the owners object. Both have been great stewards of their properties, according to Preservation Board Chairman Paul McDonnell, but the concern is the future of the buildings when they pass onto new owners. The current owners say the issue as one of privacy, but it seems unlikely that historical status would attract any more attention than the houses already receive. Here’s my take: if you live in a historically significant house, you are only a temporary caretaker of part of the fabric and legacy of Buffalo. Frank Lloyd Wright homes are major regional assets. If you’re preserving them already, the historic designation only means you get tax credits for doing it right. Or is that Wright?



Grand Island bridge tolls—from annoying to aggravating

For years, there has been a push among toll-activists to eliminate Grand Island bridge levies. This mean removing the toll booths and eliminating the one-dollar charge for crossing the Niagara River. Instead, to great fanfare, the state just announced that the booths will soon become empty, and sometime later they will be removed. A reason to cheer? Maybe, if you regularly use New York State toll roads and have an E-ZPass account.


Currently, toll-paying drivers must stop their car briefly, and hand a buck to the toll-taker. The whole process takes maybe twelve seconds. But now, you will drive right through at full bridge speed—forty-five miles per hour if there’s no traffic—while a picture is taken of your license plate. Later you’ll receive a bill in the mail for two dollars (for crossing both ways). Putting aside Big Brother privacy issues, you now must either write a two-dollar check, address an envelope, and lick a stamp, or go to a website and type in your info and credit card number. Either of these takes far more time than handing a greenback to a human being who is making a decent living. If you forget or misplace the bill, there’s a fine. If you continue to forget, they can suspend your registration. Regular bridge-crossers will benefit, but for those who only make the trip occasionally (which I’m betting is most people) this doesn’t sound like an improvement.



Mid-Winter Draw

Want to get out of the house for an enjoyable evening of artful entertainment? Hallwalls’ Mid-Winter’s Night Draw is just the thing. It happens again this Wednesday, February 28, at Asbury Hall (Delaware at Tupper), at 7:30 p.m. sharp (it’s the only event in town that starts precisely on time). For your five-dollar admission, you get to watch thirty of the most interesting artists in Western New York produce artworks under pressure of the ever-ticking 45-minute timer. Then, if you want, you can bid on a work in a silent auction, as a second batch of artists sidle up to the drawing tables. Meanwhile, have a drink or two, and mingle. The fundraiser concept is so simple and pure, it’s amazing no one thought of it before Hallwalls’ curator John Massier. And get this; artists actually enjoy doing this. Massier rotates new ones in every time, but there is always a waiting list of hopefuls ready to grab their paintbrushes.


Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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