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Cars To a Tax-Free Main Street

14 Dec

Inch by inch, block by block, the city of Buffalo is getting ready to correct what’s turned out to be a mistake that hastened downtown’s demise. The federal government has given the city a $15 million grant to return vehicular traffic to Main Street’s 500 block, approximately Mohawk to Huron – Lloyd‘s downtown corner to the Hyatt.  The 700 block has been done, and the 600 block is in the works.

Pedestrian zone in Delft, Holland

In my experience, most successful pedestrian-only shopping zones aren’t located along main thoroughfares; they’re instead made up of a jumble of side streets, creating what amounts to an outdoor pedestrian retail zone.  Simply removing cars from a main arterial street doesn’t seem to have worked, and the decline of downtown shopping that was hastened by Metro Rail construction disruption never had a chance to rebound.

Although hundreds of thousands of people come into downtown from all parts of WNY every day, it’s a retail wasteland at all times. It’s doubtful that there’s very much that can be done at this point to reverse that.

But as we plan for a reborn waterfront at Canal Side, which will soon expand onto the Aud block and other surrounding areas, if becoming a retail as well as cultural destination is desired, then creating a sales tax-free zone downtown would have a great stimulative effect. Part of the question is – how do you attract people to shop downtown merchants as opposed to the Niagara Falls outlets or the Walden Galleria – an 8.75% discount in the downtown core would probably be a great draw.

No, it’s not fair to merchants outside the zone. But life isn’t fair. Furthermore, most of the merchants in Buffalo and outside the zone serve the surrounding residents and will still be patronized out of sheer convenience. Furthermore, the influx of people and businesses attracted by what amounts to a Buffalo Special Economic Zone will ultimately help those businesses thrive, as well.

Main Street in the 50s

Development would still be subject to Buffalo’s zoning and planning bureaucracies, but the rules would be simplified and permits & approval would be harmonized and streamlined. Property taxes would be reduced or eliminated, depending on the parcel. However, properties would be assessed not based on what they are (e.g., empty lots), but on what their value ought rightly be if developed.

By turning the central business district into a tax-free special economic zone, you give people 8.75 reasons to do business and conduct commerce in downtown Buffalo over anywhere else. Creation of a waterfront district while ignoring the decline and blight of the rest of downtown seems to me to be counterintuitive.

By executing a plan such as this, zoning the waterfront districts, and having the ECHDC or state spend public money solely on the improvement and installation of necessary infrastructure, transfer of title for all parcels to one single entity to speed development, institution of a design and zoning plan that cannot be deviated from, and – most importantly – remediating the environmental nightmares under the soil throughout ECHDC’s mandated districts, we can then auction the parcels off to qualified buyers.

That is how downtowns revive organically – through private initiative and private money. Government can do its job and merely provide the private sector with the proper environment to do business and build. It doesn’t get faster, quicker, or cheaper than that.

Merely returning cars to Main Street isn’t going to return downtown to its former glory. A coordinated effort and plan to make downtown competitive and attractive to people and businesses is needed.

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