BUFFALO — Buffalo went through a decade of economic upheaval when a racially motivated attack by a gunman in May killed 10 people, overshadowing progress. As the city mourned, it also had to reckon with unflattering images of the East Side, the impoverished neighborhood where the massacre took place.
Those tough attitudes only tell part of the story, say residents, entrepreneurs and city officials. Now they are determined to put the focus back on recovery.
Major efforts have been made for years to improve the East Side, including new training facilities and the renovation of an abandoned train station. And citywide initiatives to pump billions into parks, public art projects and apartment complexes have made Buffalo a more desirable place to live, proponents say.
Those efforts may have even reversed a chronic population decline: The latest census figures show Buffalo’s population has increased for the first time in 70 years.
“The other story about Buffalo needs to be told, investment is being made,” said Brandye Merriweather, the president of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, a nonprofit working to repurpose vacant lots owned by the city.
“I’m very sensitive to the problems the shooting has raised,” said Ms. Merriweather, who grew up across the street and still has family close by.
The wave of progress began in 2012 when then-New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo pledged $1 billion in grants and tax credits as part of a revitalization effort, and it was fueled by a mix of taxpayers’ money and private investment in the years since. .
Perhaps the most visible sign of Buffalo’s changing fortunes are the new apartments, which are popping up in empty warehouses, former municipal buildings and old parking lots that have been converted into much-needed housing. According to the office of Mayor Byron W. Brown, 224 multi-family projects have been opened or in progress in the past decade, including 10,150 apartments, most of them rental properties, the equivalent of about $3 billion in investment.
And the pace of new housing appears to be accelerating: A third of the total, or 78 projects, were only unveiled in 2020 and 2021, the mayor’s office said.
Among them is Seneca One Tower, the city’s tallest building and one of Buffalo’s most prominent projects. It was completed in 1972 as a home for a bank and has been vacant for the past few years. Now the 40-story downtown spire has a variety of uses after a $100 million renovation.
Douglas Development, which bought the tower six years ago, added 115 apartments and also installed a dining room, large gym and craft brewery. It also raised walls around a plaza to curb the winds from Lake Erie.
Barbara Foy, 64, who started renting a two-bedroom apartment in Seneca One this spring with her husband, Jack, 65, said she liked to sleep with her blinds cracked to enjoy the glitter of the skyline. For nearly three decades, Ms. Foy worked just around the corner as a social worker, although she never actually lingered at night, instead driving back to her suburban home.
But revitalization has helped her see Buffalo in a whole new light. “Something seems to happen every weekend,” Ms. Foy said, adding that she enjoyed the Pride parade in the city in June. “Buffalo has really come to life and I’m so proud of it.”
The letting of offices is slow. About 70 percent of the space at Seneca One is leased, most of it to Buffalo-based M&T Bank, as well as a dozen small tech companies. The vacancy rate for top office buildings in the city center was 13 percent at the end of last year, according to real estate agency CBRE, compared to 14 percent in 2020.
Residential leasing, on the other hand, was robust. It took just nine months to rent all of Seneca One’s apartments after they hit the market in the fall of 2020 for up to $3,000 a month, said Greg Baker, director of development at Douglas. Buffalo’s median rent is $800 per month, according to census figures.
Since purchasing Seneca One, Douglas has acquired approximately 20 properties in the region, including former hotels and hospitals that will be converted into residential properties.
“People are selling houses in the suburbs to move back to the city, rather than when I was younger, when they lived in the suburbs and commuted to the city,” says Mr. Baker, a native of Buffalo.
In a sprawling city divided by highways, improving infrastructure has also been a priority, although efforts so far have mostly come to fruition on the West Side. A stretch of Niagara Street near a bridge to Canada that once housed car dealerships now shines with new sidewalks, streetlights and a protected bike path. Bike shops and restaurants have also revived dilapidated storefronts there.
Nearby, workers are about to begin a $110 million renovation to LaSalle Park, a 77-acre waterfront green space enclosed by Interstate 190. There are plans for a wide pedestrian bridge over the highway .
Softening the rough edges of Buffalo’s commercial past is also a focal point downtown, at Canalside, a developing neighborhood that surrounds a brief remnant of the original Erie Canal. One recent afternoon, school groups walked around signs explaining how Midwestern wheat and pine once flowed through Buffalo on their way to Europe. Movie nights and yoga classes take place on nearby grassy areas.
“Buffalo may still have a long way to go, but it’s still a long way to go,” said Stephanie Surowiec, 32, as she sat in the sun sipping hard cider bought from a nearby stall. Mrs. Surowiec, a nurse who grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, now lives in the city limits.
If there’s a model for how Buffalo can wring new uses out of its industrial hulls, it could be Larkinville, a former soap and box enclave in the city that developers reinvented as a business district about a decade ago. Blocklong’s factories that now have offices huddle around a plaza dotted with colorful Adirondack chairs. Wednesday night concerts are a summer staple.
Makeovers of similar magnitude are less on the East Side, but that could change soon.
This spring, officials announced a $225 million infusion for the neighborhood, including $185 million from the state. Under the funding is $30 million for an African-American heritage corridor along Michigan Avenue and $61 million for the redevelopment of Central Terminal, a 17-story Art Deco train station that had its last passengers in 1979.
In June, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a $50 million investment for the East Side to help homeowners with repairs and unpaid utility bills.
Some projects have already delivered tangible results, such as the redevelopment of a 35-acre section of factory-lined Northland Avenue. While many of the properties in the neighborhood remain derelict, one that made metalworking machinery was reborn in 2018 as Northland Central, a 237,000-square-foot office and education complex. It includes the Northland Workforce Training Center, which teaches job skills to local residents.
“The impact of the place is phenomenal,” said Derek Frank, 41, who enrolled in classes after serving an eight-year prison term for dealing drugs. Today, Mr. Frank works as an electrician, as does his son, Derek Jr., 21, who took classes with his father.
“They’re putting that building right here in the heart of the city, making it accessible and convenient,” he added.
But East Side’s redevelopment plans sometimes take a hit. An effort to create a cluster of hospitals called the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has sparked gentrification. But proponents point out that the hospitals, which employ 15,000, suffered some of the economic backlog after the factories closed.
Whether fueled by government investment or for other reasons, Buffalo has seen remarkable growth. The population of 278,000 in the 2020 census was 7 percent more than 261,000 in 2010.
Buffalo has a steady stream of immigrants, such as the family of Muhammad Z. Zaman, who immigrated from Bangladesh in 2004, in part because Buffalo was one of the few places in the United States with an Islamic primary school, said Mr. zaman.
Today, Mr. Zaman, 31, a working artist, is one of several muralists hired to add bright designs to walls of buildings exposed by demolition. One of his creations, which incorporates Arabic calligraphy, which translates to ‘our colors make us beautiful’, adorns the side of a building on Broadway.
“When we first moved here, I felt like we were the only family from Bangladesh,” said Mr. Zaman, who noted that there was not a single halal-style restaurant in Buffalo in the mid-2000s, by about twenty today. “Now the people come from all over the world.”