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Core Strength

Colleges downtown anchor regions. So why are we expanding ECC’s North Campus?

The central wisdom in The Metropolitan Revolution, by Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, is that gridlock in Washington is making cities and regions figure out their own economic futures. Cities and their regions, they report, are re-urbanizing. The late 20th century fear of cities is subsiding, though it lingers in Erie County Hall and in suburban enclaves.

Successful metros, the evidence shows, are the ones experiencing the emergence of “innovation districts” where collaboration, adjacency, walkability, and live-ability help people to connect such that well-trained workers rub shoulders with investors, prospective mates, and opportunities to enhance their skills. “Innovation districts cluster and connect leading-edge anchor institutions and cutting-edge innovative firms with supporting and spin-off companies, business incubators, mixed-use housing, office and retail, and twenty-first century amenities and transport,” say Katz and Bradley.

They’re not just talking about Manhattan or Boston or LA. Regional economists and business strategists have been writing about “knowledge spillovers” at least since Gerald Carlino’s report to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia more than a decade ago. Innovation districts are a reality in many smaller cities. They tend to happen where educational institutions are clustered near housing, entertainment, and work opportunities for young people. The phenomenon is the very root of New York City’s ongoing success, along with its size, its ever-refreshed attractiveness to immigrants, and its unique culture. It’s no accident that mega-cities are blessed with downtown universities that are adjacent to banks, courts, business-service firms, and shopping, which are the elements that constantly refresh their pools of talent—but the phenomenon is also occurring, if in miniature, even in Rust Belt metros. Poor, reputation-challenged, abandonment-ravaged Detroit has a big innovation district thanks to “a passionate network of visionary and stubborn CEOs of companies, universities, hospitals, philanthropies, and nonprofit organizations,” say the think-tankers of Massachusetts Avenue. Detroit is experiencing “organic” place-making, too, they note, because there’s a good vibe downtown, an edgy, non-suburban, reclaiming-the-old, creating-the-next feel about it.

The same is true of that tiny part of downtown-adjacent Cleveland that is experiencing growth even as the Cleveland metro shrinks. Pittsburgh’s stuff is all clustered right where folks once choked on the fumes of the riverside steelworks, just up from where the rivers join; that town is arguably the best-situated for renewal of any of the Rust Belt metros because all the big eds, meds, museums, foundations, distinctive living-spaces, and corporate offices are clustered just the way the planners and economists say it all should be. Cincinnati, hollowed out almost as badly as Buffalo by race-driven animus, particularly among suburb-seeking Germans (Buffalo’s Jefferson, Olympic, and Bailey Avenues were largely German until the 1950s, then poof!), is refocusing on its downtown, with just-departed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood having recently given it a shiny new streetcar. Contrast poor old Erie, Pennsylvania, already mourning the probable loss of its huge General Electric locomotive plant to Texas. Erie’s state-funded innovation park is a long suburban drive away from a very accessible waterfront and a pretty Victorian, walkable downtown.

All of today’s convinced urbanists are channeling old Jane Jacobs, whose epiphanies came about when concrete-loving, expressway-building Robert Moses (the granddaddy of the Kensington Expressway) almost gutted Union Square. Jane Jacobs took her pro-density, pro-diversity, walkable-streets, anti-expressway, anti-sprawl analysis and advocacy to Toronto in 1968; it was her, and a local elected leader who happened also to be the premier of Ontario, who prevented what was then and today remains Spadina Avenue’s Chinatown from being eviscerated by a north-south expressway.

This week’s reading from Katz and Bradley, like every second or third report from McKinsey and Company, and Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, and John Norquist’s Wealth of Cities and all his good work with the Congress for a New Urbanism, and Richard Florida’s books and op-eds, and Aaron Renn’s website where he and so very many others write about where the new urbanism is happening—all of us pro-urbanists make the same observations in each of our publications, ever reiterating the observed correlations between economic strength in the urban core of a metropolitan area and the overall strength of that metro, and the precise opposite being true, too—observably, measurably, that decline in the core means decline in the suburbs, too.

The urbanists all ask the old revolutionist’s question: What is to be done? The Internal Revenue Service numbers have it pretty precisely, county by county, metro by metro, what the consequences of winning and losing are, and which places are winning, and which losing. Here in Buffalo (thanks to Aaron Renn of for his first cut of the numbers), from 2000 to 2010, about 42,000 taxpayers departed Erie County for elsewhere. The Charlotte Observer in 2007 thanked Buffalo itself for having contributed the largest single cohort of migrants to that North Carolina city. Buffalo itself: In 2000, it was 328,000, and now it is 265,000; almost 50,000 kids in Buffalo Public Schools in 2000, but just about 30,000 today.

We know the problem. A consensus has long since emerged about what the solution is: core strength. It’s the advice we give anybody injured, anybody whose backbone is tweaked, anybody overwhelmed with anxiety about loss. The metaphor also happens to be sound economics.

City-destroying elites and race-coward politicians made lots of money and many creepy careers on fearing cities and stoking fear of them. But the Millennials will not have it any more. Measurably, observably, even in places like Buffalo where the population is reshuffling, aging, shrinking—but where sparks do fly, where embers do yet glow, where Silo City and Grant Street and Connecticut Avenue buzz, where the old Adam Miczkiewiecz Library and Dramatic Circle is home to sharp new strivers, and Dnipro, too—the story is a miniature of what is occurring in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh: In all those places, the ingredients of revival are self-assembling.

Katz and Bradley and all the rest say the same things: First, the innovators are local, not Washington-based. Second, we here need what Detroit and the other on-the-rebound places have, namely, at least a bare handful of corporate leaders—more of the people who bring us Larkinville, more of the sort who serve on the board of Buffalo Place, more of the heads of our philanthropies, more celebrants of preservation, parks, Olmsted, Wright, Richardson. Third, we need politicians, pro-urban politicians, and decision-makers who can embrace a difficult metric: that the test of an investment of public funds, whether for a training facility or for a tax break, is whether that investment will strengthen the core, and thus help the city and its metro area once again join the international network of trade. Federal trade policy, Katz and Bradley say, is a mess. It is up to metro leaders to recognize that investments that help trade are smart, and that avoid the subject, or undermine international competitiveness, or further disperse resources, are stupid, because without exports, a metro has no chance to bring other people’s money home.

The Metropolitan Revolution collects and presents good data. But its message, and its recommendations, are being thwarted here in Buffalo by a county government that maintains a resolutely pro-suburban, 20th-century demeanor and outlook, and that ignores global economic reality, choosing instead to propose more sprawl, mere empty gestures where regional coordination is required, zero restraint on suburban infrastructure, zero urban investment, plus more for the obsolete, thoroughly discredited money-losers like convention centers and less than ever, in inflation-adjusted dollars, for quality-of-life amenities.

There is no pro-urban comprehension in Erie County hall today. There is no acknowledgment of demographic reality—that the county has sprawled without growth, that almost half the students who attend its community college are city kids who every day experience the frustration and calamity of what economists bloodlessly call “spatial mismatch,” by which they mean that the entry-level retail, warehouse, production, and logistic jobs are in the suburbs, inaccessible, and that there is now—thanks to Erie County’s new policy—a new commitment not to re-urbanizing, nor to de-suburbanizing, but to maintaining and amplifying the spatial mismatch for as long as the grass is green, the rivers run, the sun shines.

As of the second mayoral debate, both incumbent Byron Brown and Democratic primary challenger Bernard Tolbert endorsed building the new Erie Community College “STEM” training center downtown, a mile from the new campus of the State University’s medical school. The third mayoral candidate, Sergio Rodriguez, the Republican who will face the winner of the Democratic Primary, also endorsed siting the college expansion downtown.

There is a campaign underway to try to change political minds about this critical policy decision, which, unless reversed, will leave Buffalo off the roster of metros doing what Katz and Bradley, Glaeser, Norquist, Florida, the late Jane Jacobs, et. al., and the experiences of cities throughout history have demonstrated: that concentration of resources, rather than dispersal of them, is what one must do if one is to succeed.

So far, only a single candidate for Erie County Legislature—South Buffalo’s Pat Burke—has endorsed investing the region’s educational and job-training function in the urban core, adjacent to all the other clustered services that remain after more than a half-century of the suburban sprawl that so weakened this city and this metro.

The intellectuals and book-writers and consultants all say that in the absence of Washington leading, locals are leading. In Erie County, so far, local leadership endorses spending a couple of hundred million on canal-shaped wading pools downtown, but not to spending public funds to amplify the energy of the next workforce in that place where the region needs it to be. We seek an economic rebound; even the real-estate developers who made their fortunes on sprawl are pitching projects in the core (Uniland on Chippewa Street, Ciminelli in Central Park Plaza, Ellicott Development and others on Ohio Street, and there’s even a new whisper about near-the-water medical facilities). Perhaps it will take a challenge—certainly a political challenge, very probably also a court challenge—to reverse policy choice that ignores evidence, history, sensible analysis, and the urbanist trend of the new century. In Buffalo’s metro, it seems, we are still led by city-fearing men of the last century.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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