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Buffalo Pipe Dream: A better use for the Cobblestone Parking District

May 21, 2012

Note the four massive parking lots smack in the middle of this “district”.

With a trio of pipe dreams on paper, I thought I would share another idea I have been mulling for some time. This will revolve around two massive parking lots and one densely packed neighborhood otherwise known as the Cobblestone District.

Let’s call a spade a spade. The Cobblestone District is horribly named. It should be the Cobblestone Parking District. After all, 75% of the neighborhood is composed of two massive surface lots that are kept empty expect for 100 days a year when the arena is in use. These lots were spawned due to the construction of the arena, but I can’t imagine that this was the only use that planners could have come up with for two such massive pieces of land.

The one surviving block has become a well-used strip of property with some terrific re-use projects anchoring the side of the block that fronts Mississippi St. The back side (Illinois St.) leaves much to be desired, but most of the buildings are at least occupied at this time. There is still a massive black hole in the old smith shop on the corner of South Park and Illinois that has slowly become an albatross for the neighborhood and the building owner. There are plenty of great re-use ideas on the table for that property, but I doubt anything will ever come of it.

A photo from Buffalo Rising showing a terrific re-use for the empty smith shop in the Cobblestone District.

As for the rest; there is nothing. Literally nothing. The streets are paved with Cobblestones but they are utterly pointless as there is nothing that they lead to. This needs to change. There is a slow trickle of development happening on the waterfront and the Buffalo Creek Casino appears to be poised to grow out of the pathetic steel building it currently occupies. By the time these two pieces of the puzzle are complete, I will be 50; but I digress.

The Cobblestone District sits between two very important pieces of Buffalo’s entertainment district. Canalside and the arena make up one bookend and the casino makes up the other. There is a tremendous opportunity for this district to become something similar to Toronto’s Distillery District and act as a solid filler for two major pieces of entertainment in the city. However, the massive plain of concrete needs to rise into something better. I think I may have a solution – or, at least part of one.

First of all, parking in the area is somewhat vital. The arena fills those lots (plus others) anytime there is an event. There is going to be a greater need for parking when the Webster Block is developed and those parking spots disappear. That being considered, taking away both of the massive lots in the Cobblestone District would choke out even more spots. Perhaps that four-story lot near Marine Drive would fit nicely, no?

Ensuring that there is a proper amount of parking available to serve the arena, casino and this improved version of Cobblestone is the first hurdle that would need to be cleared. Based on the three massive surface lots in the area – two on Perry and on at the corner of Michigan and Perry – there is plenty of room to reconfigure what will occupy those lots and make space for parking.

First, the lot at Perry and Michigan is a horrible waste of real estate. This is a corner property 100 yards from FNC and kitty corner to the Casino. Something should be on that site. Maybe not an office building or lofts, especially since Carl Paladino will be turning the Fairmont Creamery into lofts. Right Carl? But there is probably a number of developers who could find an adequate use for that property. Even if it was a parking garage, it would triple the capacity that the current lot holds.

If a lot was placed on Perry and Michigan, the two Cobblestone lots would be free to be developed in a different manner. If a different direction was taken with the Pay-2-Park lot on Michigan, then I think a garage somewhere on the two Cobblestone lofts would be necessary.

The solution? Put the lot on the southeastern most corner of those two lofts (South Park and Columbia) so that is obstructed from view no matter where you are and so that it is still centrally located for those patronizing the area. A four or five-story lot would provide enough spaces to replace the current parking availability, would be covered and could be built for access from South Park and Columbia. Since it seems as if FNC owns these two lots, they could maintain ownership of the ramp, while profiting from the sale of the rest of the land. Build the lot to fit architecturally with the rest of the neighborhood, as well.

With a lot positioned away from the main action, but close enough to be serviceable, the rest of the area could be zoned and allowed to grow organically. The nice thing about Cobblestone is that it does not need to be a structured piece of development with specific standards in place over what will go in. There certainly needs to be some design standards like in Canalside. But Cobblestone doesn’t need the crowd-sourced, back-asswards direction of development that it’s neighbor is currently laboring through.

I envision something close to what Yaletown is in Vancouver, or Allentown here in Buffalo. Some interesting shops and boutiques intertwined with bars and restaurants. Perhaps those developing the area could even dream big and grab some more established brands to occupy the storefronts and restaurants.

The cornerstone of my plan includes a proper entertainment venue. Since it seems as if a permanent concert venue isn’t cheap, quick, light or dumb enough for Canalside; let’s put a proper concert venue in Cobblestone. Since there isn’t much of a view down there, an indoor venue would be just fine. Take the Kool Haus or Sound Academy in Toronto as your blueprint and run with it. Getting a moderate venue for popular acts (bands, comics, speakers etc.) to play should be priority one for Buffalo. The arena is far too big and there aren’t many other places that you see touring acts play here during the winter. This would change all of that. Oh, and it would fit well with the relationship the casino is hoping to build with the surrounding area.

If a former warehouse was to be re-created to house this venue, it would likely occupy a major portion of one of the large blocks. That would allow the rest of the area to grow at its own rate with restaurants, bars and retail growing as a result of the success the concert venue would enjoy.

Ultimately, I’d hope to see the neighborhood take on the personality that the Distillery District has, with this concert venue as the centerpiece. The entire undertaking is a bit much to think about, but starting with the venue and parking garage could certainly get the ball rolling.

Project breakdown:

  • Transition parking lots on Perry and Michigan into developable properties. Utilize one as a site for a four or five-story parking garage to supplement the expected loss of parking spaces.
  • Position lot on the southeastern corner of Cobblestone lot at the corner of Columbia and South Park. Thus leaving the prime real estate open for development. Garage should incorporate architectural design standards of the remaining historical buildings in Cobblestone District.
  • Build an indoor entertainment/concert venue capable of housing 2,000 – 5,000 people to attract non-arena acts on a year-round basis. Venue should be built to adequate architectural standards and mirror warehouses which previously occupied the area.
  • Venue would act as the centerpiece for the district with bars, restaurants and retail to develop as economic growth continued.
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