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Why I Don't Want Your Damn Stadium in Downtown Buffalo
by Michael I. Niman
It's a Sellout!
People like new things. I get it. That’s what shopping malls are all about. Within this culture, it’s to be expected that the conventional wisdom says we need to replace a 74,000 seat football stadium that cost $22 million to build in 1973, with a sparkly new one that will seat about 74,000 people and cost upwards of $800 million.
The major problem with Ralph Wilson Stadium, why it’s supposedly obsolete, why it needs to be torn down, thrown away and replaced, is that it doesn’t have sufficient luxury boxes. That’s right. Luxury boxes. It all makes sense if you look at current economic indicators that predict that by next year, the richest one percent of the global population will have half of the world’s wealth. And they need luxury boxes, both to keep themselves out of the snow, and away from the rest of the Bill’s fans—whose average income puts them only among the richest 10 percent of the global population. Buying this new stadium, as opposed to keeping the old one, which is currently undergoing a government subsided $130 million facelift (over 70 percent funded by corporate welfare), is like trading in your new Honda Accord for a Bugatti. This shouldn’t happen, however, on the public dime.
Not only do I not want to pay for this stadium with a rent-to-own lien against my future tax bills, but no matter who pays for it, or how they get the money, I don’t want it in downtown Buffalo. Forget the whole argument about conspicuous consumption or corporate welfare. Even if we build it from organically sourced fair-trade kale and have the Pegula and Jacobs families foot the entire bill, I still don’t want it in downtown Buffalo. It’s simple. This Bugatti won’t fit in our garage.
An NFL football stadium is too large for any of the three proposed downtown sites. Too many people will come, and they won’t come often enough to justify the type of infrastructure, such as a monorail to a new city of parking, or better yet, a working regional public transportation system, that would be needed to make this thing work.
First off, none of the three proposed sites are toxic brownfields located on depopulated wastelands. We have plenty of toxic brownfields and depopulated wastelands that can certainly use some TLC to jumpstart an area revival. Downtown Buffalo, however, is not that place. Maybe it was a few years ago, but not now. All three proposed sites will remove what is quickly becoming prime real estate from both the urban grid, and in all likelihood, from the tax roles as well. Left on their own, these areas will evolve into part of Buffalo’s burgeoning urban renaissance, expanding Downtown’s grid of walkable streets lined with inviting businesses and new residential areas—all adding to the city’s tax base and 365 day per year cultural and economic mosaic.
A football stadium and its supporting infrastructure, as proposed, would devour up to 95 acres—entire blocks—of historic Buffalo real estate, landing a massive out-of-scale concrete erection on what were once urban streets. One proposal would wipe out blocks of housing while cutting the Old First Ward off from downtown, boxing it to the east and north with massive parking fields.
Another plan would all but wipe out the so-called “Cobblestone District,” which 10 minutes ago, everyone was touting as an important pillar for development. Aside from a handful of historic buildings that would wind up under the footprint of the stadium, the District is really just large paved fields of parking punctuated by cobblestone “streets.” But developers have been hyping it as a future mixed-use neighborhood, with bars and restaurants now finally opening as anchors for this vision.
Planners envision Perry Street, which runs through the center of what now might be the stadium, as the heart of the “Perry Choice” neighborhood—a dynamic mixed-income residential community replete with parks and community centers. The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) and the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies are spearheading the development of Perry Choice in cooperation with multiple community groups and organizations. If it is completed, it would serve to link neighborhoods to the east and south with downtown, via a network of populated walkable streets and commercial corridors. A new stadium would kill this developing community with the force of a volcanic eruption. Just talk of siting a stadium there could undermine current attempts to secure federal funding for the project.
The third stadium proposal, the Exchange Street plan, is set to wipe out a ten square block area, laying waste to the Pierce Arrow Museum, including its newly built Frank Lloyd Wright filling station, as well as the Olivencia Community Center and a host of industrial sites and parking lots.
While parking lots are ugly and car culture is killing us, the loss of parking lots at the Cobblestone and Exchange Street stadium sights is noteworthy, as no matter how you spin it, the vast majority of Bills fans will arrive to the stadium by car. Currently, the parking fields that comprise much of the Cobblestone District provide parking for the First Niagara Center, where the Buffalo Sabres play 41 home games per year to audiences ranging up to 19,000 people. Wiping out those spaces, while simultaneously replacing them with a stadium that will seat approximately four times that number, in a metro region without a workable mass transit system or mass transit culture, will no doubt create parking and traffic mayhem, and pressure to level even more of downtown to build new parking fields to replace those lost under the new stadium footprint.
The saving grace is that there are only about eight home football games per year, meaning downtown will only be gridlocked with chaotic football traffic eight times per year. But this also exemplifies the insanity of any stadium plan. It’s only a game. And it only happens eight times per year. Yet, we are actually entertaining a plan to decimate areas of the city to accommodate this.
I understand the argument that the new stadium won’t just be for football, sitting empty like a cold tombstone on the remaining 357 days each year. Proponents argue that it will attract, especially if it is domed, other sorts of events that happen in 74,000 seat rooms—perhaps massive Bar Mitzvahs. This is the operating plan for RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., for example, since it was abandoned by the NFL. It is now used for soccer and special events. It can’t meet its operating expenses, and its positive economic impact on its surrounding community seems to be nil, just like it was when an NFL team played there.
That seems to be the reality for many urban stadiums. Even when they succeed at attracting mega bar mitzvahs, evangelical revivals, Barack Obama speeches or geriatric rock concerts, these venues still mainly sit empty, and even when they are in use, don’t really provide much economic benefit for their host communities. And there’s the current reality in Buffalo that Ralph Wilson Stadium hardly ever hosts a non-football event anymore. There’s just not much of a market here for a 74,000 person meeting space here.
The idea that a stadium will somehow benefit surrounding neighborhoods is an oft-repeated fallacy. Look for example at the original Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923 with a capacity of nearly 80,000 seats, and operated for 85 years. The Yankees play, on average, 81 home games per year. Despite hosting over 6,500 games, Yankee Stadium really didn’t do much for the South Bronx, just like Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium did nothing for the East Side, despite stints hosting the Bills and Bisons. And Ralph Wilson Stadium hasn’t done much for Orchard Park, other than creating traffic headaches and policing costs. Removing the stadium from Orchard Park, which would likely lead to the eventual development of housing on the site and the return of that land to the property tax rolls, would likely be an economic boon to the town of Orchard Park.
Moving the stadium to Buffalo won’t necessarily change the Bills organization’s hiring dynamics to benefit city residents. Speaking to the Buffalo News, Mayor Brown suggested that a downtown stadium would “generate additional business growth and job opportunities for the residents of this city and region.” The stadium jobs, however, which overwhelmingly are part time jobs limited to a few days a year, are already in the region. Moving the stadium offers no new promise that the Bills organization plans to change their hiring practices to make stadium jobs, such as they are, more available to city residents. Nor have I seen any study arguing that moving the stadium would create enough additional year-round permanent employment to compensate for the loss of potential jobs involved with erasing a major development zone, such as the Cobblestone District, from our memory.
Against all odds, Buffalo has persevered and is now coming back. We have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past where we wiped out historic buildings and districts to make parking lots and build massive tombstone-like structures that, once abandoned, just serve to memorialize our stupidity. Downtown is coming back to life as a dynamic urban environment that is alive 365 days per year. Let’s not impede this renaissance by making a massive urban planning blunder.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.blog comments powered by Disqus
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