Moving America Forward

Beyond Hot Wings: How Architecture Is Helping Buffalo Make Its Comeback

October 13, 2018
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Beyond Hot Wings: How Architecture Is Helping Buffalo Make Its Comeback
Views of Downtown Buffalo, with Lake Eerie in the background.
Views of Downtown Buffalo, with Lake Erie in the background. Photo by Douglas Hanes, Courtesy of the University at Buffalo
NationSwell is looking at how solutions can help – and hurt – people within a city, with Buffalo, New York as its testing ground.

I’m drinking in a brothel. Or, at least, what used to be a brothel, or so the bartender tells me. It’s now the Hydraulic Hearth, a pizza and cocktail joint on Larkin Square, in the east end of Buffalo, a neighborhood of warehouses and abandoned homes that have morphed into restaurants and distilleries.

I check my phone to see if I can confirm that the Hydraulic Hearth was indeed a brothel at one point in its history. But by 5 p.m. it ceases to matter: I’m drunk enough off of charanda and falernum to believe anything the bartender tells me.

I’ve been in Buffalo, New York, for only a few hours, and this is not the first time someone is acquainting me with the history of the exact place I happen to be standing, sitting or drinking. This might be common in Brooklyn or Silverlake, but in Buffalo, pride of place hasn’t been part of the cultural lexicon for generations — outside of it being the birthplace of Buffalo Wings.

So what’s happening here? Why is Buffalo suddenly…so cool?

For one, shifting demographics. Locals joke that Buffalo’s biggest export in the ’90s was 20-somethings. A stale local economy that hadn’t recovered since the decline of the Rust Belt in the ’50s drove the young and educated to live elsewhere.

But with substantial support from the state, the city has been able to reposition itself as an attractive option for developers and foreign buyers looking to invest in secondary and tertiary cities. Blue-collar workers employed by Buffalo’s myriad manufacturing outlets have been replaced, in part, by well-educated and ambitious millennials looking for more bang for their buck than they’d get in New York or San Francisco.

So over the past five years or so, establishments like the Hydraulic Hearth have been throwing open their doors in neighborhoods where, a decade ago, you’d have done best to lock them, especially at night.

Over the course of a single evening, young locals urged me to visit a variety of bars and restaurants throughout the city, and were eager to share stories about why they moved back to Buffalo.

“I couldn’t have been more excited to get the hell out of here after high school,” says Sarah Santiago, my bartender at the Indochine-esque Angelica Tearoom. She left Buffalo for college, but returned a few years ago, delightfully surprised by how cool the city had become in her absence.

And Santiago is hardly alone. Many millennials are forsaking the biggest metropolitan areas for small or mid-size cities like Buffalo.

Between 2010 and 2015, Buffalo experienced a six percent increase in millennial residents — a big deal for a city with a declining population. Likewise, the number of college graduates between 25 and 34 jumped 34 percent, a greater increase percentage-wise than in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Downtown Buffalo, as seen from Lake Erie.Photo by Douglas Hanes, Courtesy of University at Buffalo

And with those young urbanites came urban tastes: cafe culture, street art and fast-casual dining.

Case in point: Jon Karel and Harry Zemsky’s Angelica Tearoom. (Harry Zemsky is the son of Howard Zemsky, a local developer who is also the president and CEO of Empire State Development Corporation.)

“We’re not a place for a beer and a shot anymore,” Karel says, as the bartender pours me a mezcal-based drink that is described on the menu as “sexy, but boozy AF.” “People here have elevated tastes and have a refined culture, despite what you read.”

It’s this “elevation” of tastes that caught the attention of The New York Times back in June, a year after they deemed Buffalo 37th on its list of the best places to visit — in the world.

But it’s not just affordability that’s attracting millennials and helping to revive this city — it’s also the city’s architecture that was built by some of America’s most revered architects.

***

By the mid-1890s, Buffalo was being hailed as the most inventive city in the U.S.

The end of the industrial revolution had been good to the city, as the Erie Canal made Buffalo a major port to transport goods from the heartland. It was also during that period of time that Buffalo became known for its grain elevators — it boasted the first steam-powered one in the world, a major innovation in storing bulk produce. As America shifted from a nation of agriculture to one of automation and invention, Buffalo led the pack.

The Pan-American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901, created an electricity race, and Buffalo’s proximity to Niagara Falls made hydropower possible for the opening nights of the fair. It was the first time a city had been fully electrified in the U.S.

Buffalo’s impressive profile was noted by the nation’s most influential architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Henry Hobson Richardson.

At the time, America was seeking a unique construction style that would separate it from European designers, and Buffalo became the testing ground for many of these architects.

It was in Buffalo where Wright’s prairie-house style was perfected, and where Sullivan used pillars — instead of walls — to test the stability of 20-plus-story buildings. It was also where America’s first urban park system was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who went on to create Chicago’s Jackson Park and New York City’s Central Park.

But despite Buffalo’s newfound and expanding popularity, it soon suffered the same fate as other Rust Belt cities.

Automation and the push for work out west led to the city’s collapse. In 1900, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the nation, boasting a population of over 570,000. By 1960, it had dropped to the 20th largest in the country. In 1996, it was 54th. Now, it’s the 81st, behind Toledo, Ohio, and Laredo, Texas. In 2016, the census found that more than one third of Buffalo’s residents live at or below the federal poverty level, while more than 50 percent of Buffalo children currently live in poverty.

In an effort to improve the local economy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged $1 billion in a program called Buffalo Billion, to help position the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area as a destination in its own right. As part of the program, Buffalo would house the region’s largest solar panel factory, SolarCity, owned in part by Tesla’s Elon Musk, and create an estimated 5,000 jobs for locals. But Buffalo Billion has been fraught with inefficiencies (SolarCity, for example, is far from hiring the 5,000 it anticipated) and lawsuits over corruption of the bidding process. Nonetheless, real-estate developers have invested heavily in Buffalo, in anticipation that the billion-dollar stimulus will bring more jobs and more people.

“Buffalo feels like a more dynamic city now than it was when I was growing up here,” says Kayla Zemsky, Harry Zemsky’s sister and a project manager at Larkin Development Group. “And it’s coming back in a real way.”

***

The Hotel at the Lafayette feels old, with its marbled mosaic tile floors and crystal chandeliers. It feels like stepping into history. 

The hotel, originally called the Hotel Lafayette, was built in 1902, and was designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first American woman known to have worked as a professional architect. It was one of the first hotels in the region to have bathrooms en suite — a true luxury for the time.

But the hotel fell into ruin and, as the Toronto Star described it, “devolved into a fleabag hostelry, home to vagrants, crack addicts and assorted pigeons, its once grand public spaces and guest suites literally rotting.”

In 2013, the hotel was bought by Wyndham Group, which poured around $40 million into the property, turning it from fleabag to fabulous.

It’s there I met with Chris Hawley, a well-known local urbanist, who tells me that without places like the Lafayette, Buffalo wouldn’t be seeing such interest from developers.

“Buffalo, unlike many Sun Belt cities, possesses a huge landscape of historic buildings that are available for reuse,” Hawley says.

And that’s been a win for developers, who have the opportunity to receive 40 percent of their expenses back in tax credits if they remodel and renovate historic buildings — a result of a 1978 federal bill giving 20 percent of tax credits and a state bill matching them.

“We can keep building for a very long time, and developers can keep getting their money back, because we have so many buildings that can be used for those tax credits,” he says. “The historic tax credit program has been perhaps the most successful economic development program ever introduced in upstate New York. Without historic tax credits, it’s likely — in fact I can guarantee you — that Buffalo would not be witnessing this current renaissance.”

The Zemsky family has certainly capitalized on this, turning abandoned historic buildings into multi-use properties. All of Larkin Square is a Zemsky-run operation, with the original Larkin Soap Company Warehouse — built at the turn of the 20th century — at the center, retrofitted with new glass and interiors for office suites.

“People thought my father was crazy for taking a chance on this place and renovating it,” Kayla Zemsky tell me. “But there is a strong history in this neighborhood, and he wanted to maintain it and give it a more vibrant future.”

The Zemsky family has introduced a food truck night, with local artisanal food trucks parked alongside the square’s greenbelt, serving cupcakes, burritos and lobster.

“We’re keeping the history of this city alive and, as a result, we’re helping make Buffalo a place not just for tourists, but also for locals in the area,” she says.

This is one aspect of the city’s plans — alongside the Buffalo Billion deal — to remake Buffalo into a destination city through “archi-tourism.” The idea is to attract international visitors to Buffalo with historic architecture as its selling point.

And there’s good reason for that. Buffalo is the only city in America where the nation’s three greatest architects still have buildings standing: Sullivan’s Guaranty building (now a bank and office building), Richardson’s mental asylum (now a hotel and restaurant) and Wright’s Martin house (now a museum).

Though not rebuilt using the tax credits, the Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House — Wright’s largest home ever built and considered the opus for his famed prairie-style homes — was gutted and demolished in the ’50s, and has been rebuilt to academic standards within the past few years with $13 million in donations and grants.

The Darwin D. Martin House Complex, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Darwin D. Martin House Complex, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.Photo courtesy of the City of Buffalo

The house employs nearly 200 people and has an economic impact of $17 million annually, according to Mary Roberts, executive director of the Martin House. Almost $9 million of that, she says, comes from new visitors.

“I can absolutely say that the ‘archi-tourism’ model has been working to bring money into Buffalo,” Roberts says after one of their nighttime tours of the house, where virtually everyone in attendance was visiting from another state or country. “That’s a big deal, considering there were virtually no tourists visiting this house when we started the restoration effort. We are now welcoming approximately 40,000 guests annually, and the number is growing.”

Such development has helped push Buffalo’s property values higher and higher. In 2013, median home values were between $40,000 and $50,000. By 2016, it was $83,500.

But whereas the local economy has consistently grown year over year, to the benefit of developers and retailers, the median wage in Buffalo still hovers around $25,000 below the national average and is among the lowest in the region.

And for a city whose residents have seen their property taxes rise year after year without any extra income, tax foreclosures are now an imminent threat. This month, 3,000 homeowners are expecting to see their houses auctioned off for failure to pay tax bills owed to the city.

And though boozing in former brothels might be helping Buffalo reinvent itself as a tourist city with urban flair, the city’s economic plans appear to be leaving many of its residents — the ones who’ve stuck it out despite the city’s economic troubles — behind.

But there is hope for them, as well.

***

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two, about how one group is casting light on the city’s housing problems and helping people stay in their homes, here.
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