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The Downtown Stadium

A stadium like this one on the Outer Harbor? No, says the author: Let's bring people downtown - on Niagara Street or along South Park Avenue.

Where, and why, to return the Bills in Buffalo

Although Buffalo is arguably the smallest National Football League market, and despite the good arguments for freeing the community from both the distraction and the financial drain of the Buffalo Bills franchise, the Buffalo Bills will stay here, and will play their games in a new, publicly financed stadium. The best way to make a virtue of that necessity is to do what the community should have done in 1972: build the new Bills stadium downtown.

A downtown stadium will strengthen the region’s core. A downtown stadium will be the best option to draw ticket-buyers from beyond the 1.1 million who live in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro. And to reprise and extend the very sensible, very compelling notions advanced in the late 1960s by the late Buffalo Courier-Express, the new Buffalo Bills stadium should go on Niagara Street next to City Hall or, second-best, on South Park Avenue next to the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.

Parcels that are quite large enough can be acquired on both Niagara Street and South Park Avenue. The footprint of the Ralph Wilson Stadium and fieldhouse in Orchard Park is about 2.5 million square feet, which is precisely how much room would be available in either of the downtown locations. Acquisition, site preparation, and construction of either of these stadium sites would mean tearing down fewer than 1,000 existing units of subsidized housing in a city market that has more than 20,000 vacant housing units to pick up the slack. For what is likely to be a half-billion-dollar investment, acquisition and demolition costs would be well under $30 million.

Why here? A technician would cite “agglomeration economics,” but let us translate, because it’s not that fancy: existing hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, public transit, and one of the largest inventories of surface parking in any North American city are well within the 3,000 feet that today’s Bills fan has to walk from Erie Community College south parking lot to the Ralph. If the decision-makers on the secretive stadium site-selection panel possess even a glimmer of understanding of the economic power of adjacency, then they should understand this: Siting the stadium downtown provides us with the best, if not the only, possibility for the regional economy to recoup the $20 million annual subsidy, plus the price of the new stadium itself, that taxpayers will lose should the Ralph be replaced in the suburbs.

The new Buffalo Bills stadium has to be a big, bright, intrusive, visible presence downtown. Sorry, Central Terminal. Sorry, Rockpile. Sorry, HOK, the firm that foolishly proposed marooning a combination stadium/convention center/children’s museum on a the brownfield island on Fuhrmann Boulevard that politicians now call the Outer Harbor. That site should become the waterfront park that Frederick Law Olmsted proposed more than a century ago. It will not become the Buffalo Bills stadium site.

Downtown should, and our elected leadership should quickly assert its collective self to say so. We need for Canadians to be able to sit on the Peace Bridge, on those happy days when they crowd into town for their holiday shopping, and see the stadium right there next to the Thruway. We need for suburbanites to park their cars in all those parking structures on Washington Street, Franklin Street, Pearl Street, and Huron Street that are empty every weekend, and then walk their squishy, wide-bottomed, car-obsessed selves across downtown—past saloons, restaurants, hotels, street vendors, ice rinks, courthouses, and monuments—so that they get that big-city feeling again. The region needs Buffalo to succeed. The stadium will assist in the healthy process of self-redefinition that is underway.

And if the owners of Niagara Street’s Shoreline Apartments won’t sell, and if the Buffalo Board of Education insists on keeping its problem-plagued Waterfront School building, then the stadium can go where the Perry Projects currently are—2.5 million square feet of Thruway-adjacent, highly visible space on the very northwest edge of the Old First Ward, adjacent to the soon-to-be refreshed Ohio Street corridor.

The Niagara Street property would be much better for the urban economy because of the dozens of existing businesses that all stand to benefit from the trade 80,000 Bills fans will bring their way a dozen times a year. But there is a certain people-mover logic to the South Park Avenue site. Adjacent to the Seneca casino, a new stadium would give the NFTA every reason to lay some more track down atop South Park Avenue for what should be the first of several more light-rail rapid transit lines radiating from the hub Pierre L’Enfant and Joseph Ellicott gave us 200 years ago. Shuttling from downtown is less good than walking through downtown, but let us not make the preferred the enemy of the acceptable.

There are two Thruway exits for each of these sites. There is pre-existing parking galore. The water, sewer, and electric lines are already in. The Buffalo Police Department can handle the traffic and the crowds because they know how to handle traffic and crowds for all the festivals, concerts, Sabres games, conventions, and trade shows we already have, which means taxpayers can probably dispense with the redundant sheriff road patrol that should long ago have been consolidated with Buffalo’s police force anyway.

And putting the stadium downtown will be another, very visible, very powerful demonstration of Buffalo’s fresh new understanding of what every successful urban center of the last two millennia has demonstrated, something that every athlete, every dancer, every personal trainer and meditation guru knows: the power of core strength.

Da Bills, the bills

The late Ralph Wilson was skeptical about any new franchise owner being able to keep the team in Buffalo unless there were a brand-new commitment to Ontario, where population growth and strong household income growth, too, support a small but evidently growing fan base for Buffalo’s professional sports. The chatter about Niagara Falls as a potential site for the Buffalo Bills stadium is all about getting Canadians into the stands. There are, after all, three international bridges for those dozen game-days. But it’s unlikely that poor, needy Niagara Falls will win on Canadians alone, when 85 percent of the fan base is from the Buffalo metro. Canadians are indeed interested in football—that is, after the seasons of the hometown Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger Cats are finished. And the growth spectator sport in increasingly polyglot Ontario is not American football, but international soccer.

Some argue that the most sensible location for any new athetic field would be the UB athletic director’s dream—a huge new stadium out at the Amherst campus. Major college football programs in places like Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio bring hundreds of thousands of fans to college ball games. But those are not professional football towns: Pro sports suck the air out of college ball. Here, it’s one or the other. UB should have been placed downtown a generation ago, as should the stadium. There is no chance of moving the gown to the town, but the franchise? As a part of the overall amenity packaging and creation of new demand for radically increased supply of hospitality services? Football now definitely belongs here.

Skeptics of entertainment as an economic driver, just like the bean-counting critics of the subsidy-sucking nature of professional sports in small- and medium-sized markets, need to face it: The rent-seeking rich guys are going to get their way with public money, just as Ralph Wilson did for the last half-century. There will be football. The question is, will there be a public benefit to football’s presence in the Western New York economy? The answer depends, as the real estate industry knows, on three issues: location, location, location.

The lesson of cold, rusty, steely old Pittsburgh is that clustering the sports venues downtown keeps the ancient regional crossroads fresh despite Greater Pittsburgh’s indecent sprawl over all those once-pristeen Pennsylvania hills. Within a season or two, credible observers believe that Buffalo will indeed have become a mecca for hockey, thanks to Terry Pegula’s investment in all those new rinks clustered immediately adjacent to the rink where the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres play 40 nights a year. Situating the football stadium a few blocks from where the hockey stadium and our handsome baseball stadium sit will help refocus the region’s leisure-time behavior—which is precisely what all the preservationists were talking about back in the late 1990s, when they fought against Dennis Gorski’s and Larry Quinn’s plans to bury the historic Erie Canal district under generic asphalt parking lots instead of restoring Buffalo’s unique identity.

Bringing the Bills downtown will help knit the raveled sleeve. Bringing the Bills downtown will reverse the destructive sprawl dynamic. Bringing the Bills downtown will repopulate empty streets, fill local barstools, focus expenditures of discretionary disposable income, create agglomeration opportunities, help neighbors pocket a few bucks from parking fees, bring more Canadians, give cops more opportunity to give tickets to gutter-pissers, help the city’s real estate market, and educate a new generation that the city, the city, the city is the place to be.

Let’s not screw it up this time. Like the shoe company says: Just do it.

Bruce Fisher is 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