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Our Downtown Stadium

Rendering by David Heaton with Brad Wales. Click here to view a larger, high-resolution version in another tab.


If done right, could be a catalyst for regional smart growth and billions in new development

Few topics around here evoke more discussion, debate, ideas, consternation and opinions than whether our beloved Buffalo Bills NFL franchise will stay in Buffalo and what it will take to keep them here. The obvious questions are who will be the new owner of the Bills and should we build a new stadium?

We’ll know who the new Buffalo Bills owner will be soon. It’s been widely reported that three groups have made a non-binding offer to buy the Bills. Two seem serious, the Buffalo bid from Terry Pegula and the Toronto bid from Jon Bonjoive/Larry Tanenbaum. Donald Trump has also offered something that he has described as not “totally stupid” which translates into “too low to be taken seriously.”

Ralph Wilson Stadium will be reopening this month with $130-million in new improvements, many to enhance the fan experience, and the Bills have a current ten-year lease with Erie County to play at the Ralph–with substantial financial penalties if they relocate. That lease shouldn’t be an issue. It is basically a very generous grace period to build a new stadium, or an equally long grieving period for the fans to say goodbye to their team before they move on.

If the team stays we’ll need a new stadium, period. Even with this season’s additions of new fan amenities, scoreboards, and fresh coats of paint, The Ralph is a crumbling four-decade old edifice lacking “good bones” and infrastructure and the revenue generators needed to be viable in today’s NFL. Fans may be happy with it but what fans think matters little compared to what the other 31 NFL owners think.

NFL revenues are shared. That means, whatever our stadium can produce for the league outweighs whatever Buffalo fans might like. The Stadium’s location, size, the number of suites and the opportunities for sponsors are what matter to the league as a whole. This is the era of the new stadium. Billion dollar plus facilities have been built in Dallas, New York, St Paul, and more are being planned.

Where do we build a replacement stadium? The ideas are many: build it on the current stadium’s property; build it in Batavia, midpoint between Buffalo and Rochester; or the Central Terminal; or Niagara Falls; or, as developer Scott Congel suggested, on the vacant Seneca Mall property in W. Seneca. Or, how about Buffalo, the actual birthplace of the Buffalo Bills?

In anticipation of the announcement of a new owner, Artvoice teamed up with local architect, urban planner and respected University at Buffalo Clinical Assistant Professor Bradley Wales, to articulate a bold proposal for a new downtown stadium adjacent to the Cobblestone District. The stadium would dramatically reinvigorate not only that historic neighborhood, but also generate a ripple effect to help undo Buffalo’s most epic planning mistakes of the last generation.

“Call it the Artvoice Downtown Stadium Plan”, said Wales, who moved to Buffalo in 1989 and has served as a teacher at UB beginning in 1997 in their School of Architecture and Urban Design. A passionate advocate of the arts and a huge sports fan, Wales has taken community leadership roles in numerous urban projects.

“Compared to other Rust Belt cities that have experienced quicker economic recoveries, it is widely understood that Buffalo has made at least six major planning mistakes over the course of the last half of the 20th century. The likely investment of a billion dollars for a new stadium and associated development presents an opportunity to address at least five of these six major mistakes,” said Wales. “This is a very, very exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Want to reconnect the City to the waterfront? Expand the Convention Center and locate it closer to Canalside? Refurbish and reuse the Central Terminal? Create mid-size development opportunities rather than relying on a silver bullet? Then move the new stadium downtown and build around it. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Seattle and Indianapolis have done just that. Minneapolis has shovels in the ground for their new stadium right now. Given the magnitude of potential investment in a new stadium, and the probable time line—10 to 15 years—why not downtown? Minneapolis was just granted Super Bowl LII in 2018. Why not us,” Wales added.

Before & After:

Above: Currently existing buildings, streets and highways in Downtown Buffalo. (Click here to view a larger, high-resolution version in another tab.)

Below: Map of downtown with new stadium, infill building development and a three-quarter mile I-190 thruway tunneled under the stadium and emerging just past Pearl St. (Click here to view a larger, high-resolution version in another tab.)

The Location

Wales’ proposal suggests a retractable roof, 65,000-70,000 seat stadium, situated adjacent to the Cobblestone District, on a block bounded by Perry St. to the south, Michigan St. to the east, Exchange St. on the north, and an extension of Illinois St. on the west. Most of the land is transportation brownfields or parking lots, except for the loading dock facilities for the Buffalo News, which would need to be rebuilt north of their office building. The rest of this parcel contains the voluminous network of ramps servicing the Elm and Oak Street exits off of the Niagara Thruway. The Buffalo News falls in the epicenter of the overall plan and would have a wrap-around 3-story digital media billboard facing the main stadium plazas shared by First Niagara Center and the new stadium.

In the most ambitious part of Wales’ plan, a little less than a mile of the I-190 Thruway would be rebuilt with a section tunneled under the new stadium. The gaggle of ramps strangling that area’s development would disappear. “It could be named the ‘Small Dig’,” said Wales, referring to Boston’s enormous Big Dig project which tunneled Boston’s I-93 central artery under their downtown core. Buffalo’s remake of this section of the I-190 would be vastly less ambitious and less costly in size, scope and timetable.

“Taking down those overhead ramps provides immediate connectivity between Buffalo’s central core and Canalside. Just think of the value of the land of those ramps,” said Wales.

The Stadium District

Placing the stadium adjacent to the Cobblestone District creates a nexus of entertainment, connecting First Niagara Center, the new HarborCenter, Coca Cola Field, and the Canalside Inner Harbor development parcels. And it adds more critical mass to what’s already been developed in that area, the Pierce-Arrow Museum, the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, the adaptive reuse of historic buildings along Mississippi Street, the Elk Terminal residential complex, and the reconstruction of the Fairmont Creamery on Scott Street. Based on what’s happened in other cities, Wales sees the potential for much more.

In downtown Cincinnati, developers took the vacant land situated between their new football and baseball stadiums along the Ohio River and created “The Banks”, a dynamic mixed use retail and residential development anchored by the National Underground Museum. Five years after breaking ground, there are hundreds of residential units and over 50 restaurants and shops situated in 3-4 story buildings fronting along narrow streets, all walking distance from the two sports venues.

“One could envision these streets constituting a mixed use ‘stadium village’ with all sorts of fun things to see and do, not only on game day but all year round,” said Wales. Small development parcels are planned on all sides of the stadium, somewhat recreating the street grid that was in place before the I-190 was erected in the 50s and suggests development north and east of the stadium, providing an urban density connecting the new stadium to Coca Cola Field via an extension of Illinois Street.

“I am even looking at mid-sized structures adjacent to the entrance gates, rather than barren sweeping plazas, to yet further build on the cultural experience,” said Wales.

Everyone Makes Money

There has been a great deal of talk about what is the easiest place to build a new stadium, such as the single parcel rationales for other sites. But this should not be the deciding criteria; the new Bills Stadium should go where it can do the most good. By far, the Artvoice Plan provides the greatest opportunities for the largest number of investors, big-and-small, to benefit from the ripple effects of the new stadium investment. “Imagine the long term increase in the tax base for the City,” says Wales, “say, 30 years out.”

But everyone has to work together. The movers and shakers in Buffalo and NY State tend to not do this well. “Yeah, many entities, both public and private, would have to work together on this,” concedes Wales, “and the odds are against us because so many individuals and agencies would have the ability to kill the idea. But if the project is more ambitious, can’t we imagine a scenario where everyone makes more money?”

A New Convention Center

Although Pegula just leased most of the 31st floor of One Seneca Tower (formerly HSBC Center), the tower is still sitting almost 90% vacant and awaiting a new owner. Wales suggests that this would be the ideal location for a new Convention Center for Buffalo.

“The Convention Center could be relocated to the lower buildings of the tower complex. There is enough available space to create a world-class convention facility with a stunning ready-made tower hotel and condo structure. Buffalo’s new Convention Center would have a front entrance that opens directly to Canalside!” said Wales. With the subsequent removal of the current convention center, one block of Genesee Street could be restored. He also pointed out that if needed, designers could utilize the empty One Seneca Tower public plaza, as well as a vacant parcel to the west, where an I-190 cloverleaf ramp connecting to the Skyway is now situated.

“Probably one of the most valuable parcels in the City and we use it for an off-ramp,” said Wales.

Transportation Infrastructure

Any site for a new Bills stadium offers traffic challenges regarding the movement of 70,000 patrons into the venue. Wales is emphatic in his belief that a downtown Buffalo stadium, and specifically one situated adjacent to the Cobblestone District, is more than able to answer the call.

“We have divided highway arterials coming in from two directions on the I-190. We have Route 33 connecting directly to the Airport. There’s Route 5 from the southtowns. And we have the Metrorail link from UB South Campus to Canalside, capable of ferrying thousands of patrons back and forth on game day. And if there is one thing we have an abundance of in downtown Buffalo, it is plenty of surface parking,” explained Wales.

Yet Wales is suggesting the addition of several key pieces of transportation infrastructure. The first is to dead end the current Amtrak rail line, which now bisects downtown Buffalo and hugs the waterfront as the line meanders its way to Niagara Falls, and is serviced downtown via a small station platform on Exchange Street. By reconstituting the Central Terminal towards its original use, as a train station, and rerouting the Amtrak line to Niagara Falls via one of several alternatives that does not involve acting as a barrier to the waterfront, Wales addressed several objectives.

“A Metrorail station would be built on Main across the street from the new Convention Center, with a track connecting to the Central Terminal. This would provide a shuttle service for park and ride customers from the Central Terminal, and could even offer rail service for fans who wish to travel to Bills games via Amtrak from points east. “Rail passengers would come up in a public lobby of an exciting development parcel, much like the Allen/Medical Campus station will within the new Buffalo Medical Building” said Wales.

With new attention being given by the NFTA towards the expansion of Metrorail (The authority is doing a corridor study now to look into extension of the line to the UB North Campus), part of this plan also suggests a corridor study and buildout of a Metrorail line to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga. The NFTA owns most of the land for a surface corridor for such a line, which would connect existing activity centers at Canalside, the new stadium, the historic Larkin District, the Central Terminal and the east side, the Walden Galleria Mall in Cheektowaga, and terminating at the airport, all connection points which would easily stimulate ridership numbers and justify the costs of building such a line.

Tailgating

Ralph Wilson Stadium consistently ranks among the top five tailgate destinations in the NFL. Few things ignite more passions among Bills fans than that any new stadium must preserve and keep intact Buffalo’s robust tailgate traditions.

Wales recognizes this, and states that the tailgating vibe can be kept intact without having 200 acres of asphalt surrounding a stadium. Two examples are cited here – Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, where they got it right. Almost 5000 spaces are situated on stadium property, along with a fan entertainment zone offering food trucks, game areas and live music, along with plenty of private surface lots also nearby. Fans who don’t wish to tailgate also have literally hundreds of restaurant choices within walking distance to the stadium, ranging from the upscale St. Elmo’s Steakhouse to the always tasty yet cheap eats at White Castle hamburgers.

Then there’s Detroit, where they got it wrong. Ford Field was built downtown next to the Greektown district, with parking pretty much relegated to the myriad of private lots and ramps situated throughout the center city, and a non-descript designated “tailgate lot” located almost a mile from the stadium itself. Fans there lament the absence of the old tailgate traditions, lost when their team moved from the Pontiac Silverdome.

In Buffalo, Wales proposes new parking decks along Exchange Street that could serve as rooftop tailgate venues, and also cites over 5,000 surface parking spaces available within a half mile of the stadium’s footprint. “Just think down Exchange Street, down Seneca Street, down Ohio Street to the south. There are surface lots in abundance. For those who want to tailgate the venues will be there. For others who might want to approach the game day experience a bit differently, there will be other choices.”

The Money

Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, (D-South Buffalo) recently penned a column endorsing a downtown Buffalo stadium location. “Part of my thinking in advocating for the city simply has to do with suburban sprawl, something we have contended with in this region for over 30 years,” said Burke. “You see things like the move of UB to Amherst and the stadium being placed in Orchard Park, and most acknowledge today that those were mistakes. So we are simply advocating the return to the city to a central urban core and that which returns us to sensible planning, with a dense center city, reasonably placed suburbs which are adjuncts to the city, and a healthy rural environment that serves our society best.”

Burke, lamenting spending $130 million on Ralph Wilson Stadium, pointed out that NFL Commissioner (Roger Goodell) has made it clear that a new stadium is expected to keep the Bills in Buffalo.

“Where to put the stadium? I would prefer it to be a brownfield site where we are not acquiring huge swaths of expensive land, and where we can maybe get federal subsidies...” Burke added that the most likely public subsidies to any project would involve infrastructure improvements, engineering enhancements, roads, utility relocation and other expenses that need to be cost effective in servicing more than just the new stadium.

Wales agreed, emphatically stating that a $1.5-billion public and private investment in the stadium and its environs as he proposes could create a six-fold return in economic development over the next two decades, or over $9-billion in private sector development.

“Think about using the big stadium project as a catalyst for correcting some of the planning mistakes of the past: the current Convention Center which cut off the Ellicott radial street grid; the location of Ralph Wilson Stadium, which did little to spur economic growth where it was sited; allowing the Central Terminal to become abandoned and decay; cutting off the waterfront from downtown and the neighborhoods with an overhead expressway; not emphasizing enough small and mid-sized entrepreneurial development,” said Wales. “This plan situates Buffalo’s new stadium where it should be, right in the middle of the greatest rebirth of our city in our time, it keeps the Buffalo Bills here for another generation, and it addresses and corrects many of the planning ills which have plagued us for so long now.”

“Frederick Law Olmsted said it best when he called Buffalo ‘the best planned city in America.’ He was right. And this is our opportunity to fix some of the damage that has been, and make a truly world class destination worthy of hosting a Final Four or Super Bowl,” Wales concluded.

“We have one chance in a lifetime to get it right. Let’s get this one right.”

Downtown Stadium site Design: Brad Wales. Rendering: David Heaton with Brad Wales. Design Team: Wade Georgi and Matt Kreidler

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