The Free Fare Zone

Christmas season at the pedestrian mallThe zone from the start of the Metro Rail line at its southernmost point to where it goes underground and actually becomes a subway, has a few names, some fancy, some just plain and descriptive. It is called the "free fare zone" by the NFTA because that's what it is, the zone where one can ride the train for free. Some call it the "pedestrian mall" because all traffic except emergency vehicles are banned from using this portion of Main Street. The City of Buffalo decided to call several blocks which surround and include the above ground section of the Metro Rail, "Buffalo Place," I guess in an effort to make the area sound trendy. Still a lot of other people just call the area a huge mistake or a ghost town. True, you'd be hard pressed to find any people down there after 6pm on any given night but the place does look rather nice.

The above ground section, or free fare zone was first envisioned in the 60's, long before the line was even close to being built. It was some urban planner's idea at the time to turn Main Street, in downtown Buffalo, into an open-air shopping mall. Their reasoning was, people could take the train downtown, get dropped off and do their shopping without the hassle of dodging traffic. The suburban shopping mall was becoming quite popular throughout the nation and the Western New York area wasn't any different than the rest of the country. These urban planning gurus figured downtown pedestrian malls would be the preferred alternative to the sterile, climate controlled, suburban shopping mall.

more rockin' nightlife on the pedestrian mallWell one thing these urban planning geniuses of the sixties didn't count on was that maybe the reason so many people flock to these climate controlled malls in the suburbs is that one can't control the climate, outside. Downtown Buffalo, especially in the non summer months, isn't very pedestrian friendly. Although some say Buffalo not as cold as its reputation, let me tell you, I for one don't like walking around outside downtown in the winter. I think by the sign of life after 6pm, most people feel the same way. The warm, pleasant, summer months aren't much different, unless there's a concert in Laffeyette Square. The only bright spot seems to be the "theater district" near the portal, at the northern end of the free fare zone. Live theater and Broadway style shows keep this part of the pedestrian mall alive. At the southern end is the Marine Midland Arena, where sporting events and major concerts and events are held. These events do little to enhance a feeling of energy along the pedestrian mall however, as all the people are inside the arena during the events and promptly leave the area when the events are over.

This section of Main Street in downtown Buffalo wasn't always this way. In the time before the Metro Rail line was built, Main Street was the place to be. Cars ran up and down Main Street continuously and stores and shops lined both sides of the street. The Christmas holiday season was a treat for young and old alike as storefront windows were decorated to entice and entertain all who happened to pass by. The Adam, Meldrum and Anderson department store, or AM&A's as it was called, usually had the grandest Christmas display. Main Street, back then, was a magic place.

This all sadly started to end when the first shovel went into the ground for construction of the Metro Rail. It didn't happen all at once, it was more like a slow death, very similar to watching someone die of cancerA Metro Train is the only traffic tonight. The first signs of death came after construction began, causing downtown Buffalo to resemble downtown Beruit. Plastic, orange, construction fences strung all around made it difficult for folks to get around on Main Street and buisinesses began to suffer. Shop owners sensing that the pedestrian mall was a mistake, complained but were told, "hang on, when it's finished, it'll be packed with people down there." Well they hung on and after it was built, it was no different. The loss of vehicular traffic gave one an uneasy sense of  abandonment. Shops and stores closed,one by one, until now, ironicaly, the climate controled Main Place Mall remains as the lone shopping center on Main Street.

There's talk now of opening up Main Street once again to vehicular traffic on a limited basis. The pedestrian mall is a failure in design and function and by looking for ways to open up Main Street to traffic is the city and the NFTA's way of admitting its mistakes. If the city of Buffalo would have done some research on pedestrian malls, they could have avoided this tragedy. The City of Millwaukee, Wisconsin had a similar pedestrian mall, that was until they tore it up and reintroduced vehicular traffic back in the 1970's.

Luckily, a city is not like a living body, that is anyway that you can bring what is dead back to life. It seems that Buffalo, with the help of New York State and the Federal government is finally bringing new development, with more emphasis on entertainment and less on retail shopping to downtown Buffalo. Chippawa Street, which runs perpendicular to Main and was once the home of the seedy underbelly of Buffalo has been transformed into a trendy, happening place, bursting with nightlife. At the southern end of Main, where it meets the waterfront, work is under way to add life around the Marine Midland Arena. Who knows, maybe people will want to stay downtown after that Sabres game? Here's a tip for the powers that be over at the NFTA; instead of worrying about web sites, why don't you sell off all of that land you own on the outer harbor and use some of that money that has been set aside for expansion of the Metro Rail and actually run the subway out to the suburbs? Don't you think that that would bring more people (riders) downtown? Maybe Main Street will never be what it once was but it can be something magic again.

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