Disconnected: The Buffalo Central Terminal Debate

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There’s a rather curious debate brewing over where Buffalo’s new Amtrak station should reside, and it has all the elements of the difficult choices we must make regarding urban development direction.  History and architecture clash with convenience and connectivity while neighborhood uplift battles with existing growth in downtown… ah, it has all the makings of a healthy multi-faceted urban discussion.

Currently, Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station lies at the heart of growth in downtown.  Just a stones throw away from the beautiful new harbor development, a short walk to Coca-Cola Field (MiLB’s Buffalo Bisons) and KeyBank Center (NHL’s Buffalo Sabres) and a short Metro Rail ride to the Theater District and UB’s South Campus, Amtrak conveniently connects downtown to the rest of New York State.

But the station itself is in dire need of replacement.  As it stands, the two leading options are to build a new station downtown, or the second idea that is quickly gaining momentum, to repurpose the aging and long-vacant Buffalo Central Terminal, an architectural icon.

Photo by Tami Conklin Wojcik

The Terminal was once a hub for passenger rail traffic, with the awe-inspiring look and feel that draws in the visitor, welcoming them to Buffalo.  Sadly, the age of the automobile led to the slow death of most of America’s rail travel, and the station discontinued service in 1979.

But recently, a group of distinguished architects threw support behind the repurposing of the BCT, followed by other community leaders, including Assemblyman Sean Ryan.  Indeed, the momentum seems to be shifting toward the restoration and development of one of Buffalo’s most iconic structures.

This is the dream point for historians, architects, designers, and everyone like me who loves to see old buildings made new again.  If The Buffalo Central Terminal is Amtrak’s future in that city, it will be a joyous victory for all who have worked hard to preserve it’s historical legacy.

But there’s one problem.  It’s not good for Buffalo, and it’s not good for Amtrak.  Here’s why.

The Terminal is about a ten minute drive East of downtown by car.  While this doesn’t seem like much, it’s a less than ideal option for a city who’s downtown is perhaps the most vibrant in Upstate New York.  No more getting off the train and enjoying the fruits of all that Buffalo has to offer, instead you would have to get a taxi to the city’s center.

As it stands, the current downtown Amtrak station is a stone’s throw away from Buffalo’s Metro Rail, which runs from the harbor North on the newly renovated Main Street before diving underground to it’s final destination, University of Buffalo’s South Campus.  Moving the station to Buffalo Central Terminal would remove this potentially key piece of connectivity.  It would be especially less convenient for UB students (college students make a large portion of Amtrak’s ridership in Upstate New York).20140729-023500.jpg20140729-231022.jpgAs a frequent Amtrak rider, my favorite stations in New York State are the ones put you in the middle of downtown when you depart the train.  Rochester, Schenectady, Utica, Hudson and of course Penn Station in New York City are prime examples of stations that put you in or very close to their downtown centers.  This is one of the hassle-saving, often overlooked advantages of rail travel over airplane… while airports are typically based on the fringes of cities or even in nearby suburbs, trains typically take you into the heart of a city.

Proponents for the relocation of Amtrak’s Buffalo Station to the BCT also claim that it will help left the surrounding neighborhood which has struggled socioeconomically for some time.  The truth is, while Amtrak stations have the potential to feed growth into a city, they typically don’t stimulate neighborhood growth like say, a light rail station, a performance venue or a street-makeover can.  Amtrak stations don’t create many jobs, and since they provide access to regional transit rather local, they don’t typically have any effect on the specific area they inhabit.  Lifting neighborhoods has much more to do with refining local transit rather than regional options.

Buffalo has invested heavily in a downtown that provides a high level of walkability and connectivity (Greyhound, Metro Rail/Bus, Reddy Bike Share and urban trail networks are all available within a half mile of the current station), and simply put, moving the station outside of downtown would be a drastic departure from the current vision.  The best move for Buffalo is simply to build a new station downtown.  Moving the station even a short distance outside of an already thriving area would likely discourage ridership rather than build a positive relationship with Buffalo and Upstate rail travel.  In essence, it would “disconnect” a transit option from downtown Buffalo, and negate the effort to centralize transit options.

There is a golden rule for transit and indeed for everything you want to encourage people to use more… don’t make it harder for them to use it.  In this case, don’t take a convenient rail station and place it in a less convenient location for riders.

I am a huge proponent of breathing life into our most treasured architectural marvels again.  I am a fan of everyone that is trying to make sure that the Buffalo Central Terminal is preserved in it’s magnificence.  My concern, however, is that Buffalo’s love for this structure may be eclipsing the bigger picture of ensuring the new Amtrak station is convenient, centralized and easy to use for Buffalo residents and visitors alike.