A fresh infusion of state money will bring big, noticeable changes to the East Side in what’s seen as a catalytic investment in a swath of the city where 42% of the city’s residents live.
The $164 million the new state budget directs to several East Side anchors surpasses the significant investments the state has already made in recent years.
• $37 million to transform the Broadway Market into a state-of-the-art facility.
• $76 million to start the third phase of the Northland Corridor industrial park and to expand the Northland Workforce Training Center.
• $30 million to develop a campus for the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor.
• $15 million to bolster East Side commercial districts.
• $6 million for improvements to MLK Park
“As a city, we have always believed that this part of town wasn’t worth an investment,” said Stephanie Geter, president of the Restore Our Community Coalition. “But the tables have completely turned.”
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In addition to the funding from the recently passed New York State budget, a major funding announcement is expected in May for the Central Terminal.
In another significant development, the state’s five-year capital budget now includes some $1 billion to transform the Kensington Expressway. Advocates have called for a portion of the expressway to be covered to reconnect neighborhoods that were split apart more than 60 years ago when the expressway was built.
“I’m over the moon about the Kensington,” Geter said. “Our government officials have brought it to a place where completion is in eyesight.”
The East Side investments build on $65 million from the Buffalo Billion II economic program. Those funds continue to be used for infrastructure and other improvements in nine areas located along the north-south corridors of Bailey, Fillmore, Jefferson and Michigan avenues. The money has supported redevelopment of historic properties, boosted projects that show momentum, promoted walkable areas and helped new businesses and entrepreneurs.
And that spending came after the state invested $90 million from Buffalo Billion II in the Northland Corridor. That project has seen vacant industrial buildings on the East Side repurposed for workforce training in advanced manufacturing through the creation of the Northland Workforce Training Center and the addition of Buffalo Manufacturing Works.
The extraordinary flow of state dollars to the East Side is exciting and long overdue, said Monica Pellegrino Faix, executive director of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp.
“I think the most significant thing … is righting the wrongs on the East Side of Buffalo, because it’s a 50-plus year legacy of economic disinvestment, redlining and racial inequity,” she said.
Last year, Empire State Development provided $4 million for the city-owned Broadway Market and hired Aaron Zaretsky, an expert on food markets, to develop a revitalization plan.
Zaretsky’s plan calls for visually appealing displays and aromatic smells at a renamed Broadway International Public Market that capitalizes on ethnic communities now populating the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.
The plan imagines food stalls with fresh and prepared foods, international groceries and restaurants, each specializing in foods from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
The plan’s $50 million price tag raised doubts it could ever be implemented. Suddenly it can, and the plan has the support of Mayor Byron Brown.
“The Broadway Market is a critical anchor in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, and this investment is completely in keeping with what I want to see happening in this area,” Brown said.
“This Easter season there were over 150,000 patrons there,” he said. “I’d like to see that kind of vibrancy year-round, and this $37 million investment will certainly help to make that goal and vision a reality.”
African American Heritage Corridor
Empire State Development has provided funding and training to advance the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, which had been stymied for more than a decade.
Terry Alford, executive director of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission, is ecstatic about the state’s additional $30 million investment to implement the strategic plan completed in February.
“It’s a great investment and a great show of confidence,” Alford said.
The plan’s development road map to create an unified tourism destination calls for acquiring a property at Broadway and Michigan Avenue for a visitor hub and offices for the commission. Apartments and commercial spaces would be leased to generate revenue.
Two other nearby properties are also being sought for purchase to offer a range of site amenities, including pop-up businesses.
The plan calls for linking the Michigan Street Baptist Church, WUFO Radio and the Nash House Museum with a raised boardwalk, interpretive fencing, an enhanced green space, murals and an outdoor bandshell. The Colored Musicians Club is directly across the street. Annexes for both the church and the Nash House are also planned.
Brown said he’s also glad to see more money being pumped into the Northland Corridor.
“It has been a major success on the East Side, and I have been an advocate for additional state investment to continue to build out the Northland Corridor and expand the offerings of the workforce training center, which is meeting all of its goals,” he said.
“It has tremendous potential to continue to transform the lives of residents on the East Side of Buffalo, throughout Buffalo and the Western New York region,” he said.
The state Department of Transportation did studies on the Kensington Expressway in 2012 and 2019, but more are required.
A public scoping meeting in Buffalo is planned for late spring or early summer, DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said. Several visual concepts for the project will be presented, with an opportunity for the public to ask questions.
The timetable to complete the environmental review is typically two to four years, though Secretary Marie Therese Dominguez has discussed fast-tracking the review with the Federal Highway Administration, which oversees the process.
The current Department of Transportation assessment started earlier this year. Environmental, community, economic and other impacts will be considered leading to a final plan, Morrissey said.
There are a lot unknowns about the Kensington Expressway project because it’s still early in the environmental review process.
The primary idea discussed has been to cover a portion between Best and East Ferry streets, where the road comes up to grade.
Some advocates, like Geter, want more of the expressway included, extending from East Ferry to Delaware Park.
“We have always said this is one road,” Geter said. “If our motivation is to reconnect the neighborhoods, I hope it will be treated that way.”
The once tree-lined Humboldt Parkway was destroyed to make way for Route 33. Proponents say burying the Kensington would allow multiple streets to be reconnected, improve the health of those who live near the highway by reducing air pollution and adding a beautiful parkway that would stimulate residential and commercial development.
“It’s really important to me to start putting the resources behind this,” Hochul said in January. “This community has literally been splintered apart. Righting the wrongs of the past is so smart for countless reasons.”
Whether the plan actually materializes could depend on whether Hochul is re-elected, or if the economy remains in good shape, said Patrick Orecki, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan organization based in Albany.
“Capital budgets are generally aspirational,” Orecki said. “So if there is a change at the top it could certainly impact how, when or if that money gets spent.”
But Orecki said that if Hochul is elected, the money should be there to complete the project.
Brown said he supports the Route 33 project with certain caveats.
“I think there has to be a focus on funding for housing, small businesses and community outreach to ensure this investment truly benefits the residents and businesses located in the vicinity,” he said.
“We have to focus on these interventions to make sure that we lift this community economically and close the racial wealth gap,” Brown said.
“I want to make sure it’s not brushed aside,” he added.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He’s also a former arts editor at The News.