Empty parking ramps.
“I’ve never seen downtown Buffalo so empty in all the years I’ve been here,” said Mike Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, who has worked for the organization since 1982.
The numbers are bleak.
Schmand estimates one-third of the downtown workforce is working remotely. Metro Rail trips have declined by 35 percent. Revenue at city parking facilities has dropped 39 percent over the final six months of 2020 and is expected to remain below pre-COVID levels through at least the first half of this year.
Widespread vaccinations may offer a fresh start, but planning experts believe COVID-era lifestyle changes – involving shopping, socializing and working from home – are here to stay. As a result, they predict the landscape of downtowns will change from being mostly office-based to being more experience-focused.
“I don’t expect people will commute to the office just to sit at a computer very much anymore,” said William Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “They will commute to the office to engage in interaction and other activities.”
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So what is their advice for a city like Buffalo?
“This is kind of a moment of crisis, let’s just be very honest, but I do think you can’t waste a good crisis as some people say,” said Conrad Kickert, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. “These are moments to rethink what a downtown can be and it’s going to be different from what it is right now.”
Months before the first documented case of COVID-19, a survey conducted by Buffalo Place found 58,000 employees working downtown. Today, Schmand estimates that the number has dropped 30 to 35 percent.
A big reason for the decline involves changing work habits.
As an example, M&T Bank, one of the largest employers downtown with some 8,000 workers, has had 90 percent of its back-office staff working remotely for months.
Keith Belanger, M&T’s senior vice president of corporate services and chairman of Buffalo Place’s board of directors, said the bank plans to maintain its “work-from-home posture” for most employees through April 5, when the situation will be re-evaluated.
“Ten months ago, I would never have thought I’d be responding to a question like this,” he said. “It seemed unfathomable that so many of us would be away from our offices and colleagues for this long.”
“Obviously, some industries have been decimated,” Schmand said. “The hospitality industry, unfortunately, in downtown Buffalo has taken it on the chin because a lot of people just aren’t traveling.”
Developer Rocco Termini, who owns Buffalo’s oldest hotel, The Lafayette, said weekend leisure travel is only part of the impact. He noted that business-related travel – long a stable source of income for downtown hotel owners – has also been severely curtailed by the widespread use of communication platforms like Zoom.
“If the business community walks away from travel, then you’ve got a real problem continuing with the hotels downtown,” he said.
Termini, owner of Tappo Restaurant on Ellicott Street, said loss of customers amid COVID-19 restrictions hit bars and restaurants the hardest. At this point, he said, he’s also concerned about another staple of pre-virus nightlife – the movie theater.
“Usually you are able to control your own destiny. Right now, you can’t control anything. You just follow the rules,” he said.
The severe drop in downtown activity had a huge impact on another area: parking.
Empty parking spaces
Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, a nonprofit that manages surface lots and six downtown parking ramps for the city, saw severe declines in usage and revenue in 2020.
Monthly passes for ramps and lots dropped by 38 percent from July through December 2020 compared with the same period a year earlier. Transient parking, including motorists who park at meters or pay by the hour at ramps and lots, declined by 68 percent. Event parking fell by 90 percent.
Decline in downtown parking
|Type||2019 *||2020 *||% decline|
* July 1 to Dec. 31
Source: Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps
As a result, Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps revenue fell from $5 million to $3 million. The dropoff in revenue has continued this year due to the pandemic.
“Everybody’s dealing with the same issue – to what extent are things going to return to normal?” said Sam Iraci Jr., executive director of Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps. “I’m not sure anybody is saying it’s going to be 100 percent normal, with Zoom meetings and everybody working at home.”
Shift away from office work
The Washington Post, citing a preview of a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, reported that experts expect 20 percent of business travel will be lost permanently and roughly 20 percent of workers may end up working from home indefinitely. The McKinsey report suggests the shifts will result in more automation in office support roles and factories, and fewer jobs at hotels, restaurants and downtown shops.
Jim Militello, owner of J.R. Militello Realty, said many of his clients have already accepted work-from-home as a permanent part of their businesses. That’s reducing interest in long-term leases and causing some businesses to consider downsizing.
Office buildings are being redesigned in keeping with the times and Militello said part of the transition involves ditching cubicles and installing more plexiglass dividers between workstations. In the era of social distancing, Militello said recent studies suggest the amount of usable space within office buildings will be reduced by 30 to 36 percent. He expects current trends in office design to continue for at least the next two years.
“They are making adjustments for this. We are working with a number of companies that are cutting their space in half,” he said.
Fulton, the planning expert from Rice University, said it seems likely that more office buildings will transition to residential properties as work-from-home trends continue. He believes there may be greater demand for open meeting spaces, which he said could provide hotels with options for reinventing themselves.
“We don’t know how much business travel there’s going to be once things open up. Is the switch to Zoom permanent and strong? I think the answer is, to some extent, ‘Yes,’” he said.
Like Fulton, Kickert, of UB, anticipates urban centers shifting from traditional office-based economies to what he described as “experiential commerce.” He expects downtowns will become less about where people go to work and more about where they live and where they go to have a good time.
“I’m not saying it’s the death of downtown. It’s a rebalance between living and working,” he said.
Predictions of a rebound
Fulton strongly believes restaurants and bars will “come roaring back” at some point. He also thinks smaller cities like Buffalo may benefit from the out-migration from larger urban centers like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He pointed to an October 2020 survey from the real estate brokerage Redfin that ranked Buffalo third on a list of communities viewed as more desirable since the pandemic began, largely due to affordability.
“A lot of smaller cities that are viewed as being high amenity are in demand now,” he said.
Militello admits he’s concerned about the next few months, citing uncertainties surrounding the vaccine rollout and the state of the economy. But he believes there’s potential for a swift recovery because people are eager to socialize and employees are starting to experience Zoom fatigue.
“There is a need to get together and hopefully get back to the way we were interfacing and interacting with people,” he said.
Termini agrees. He said he’s encouraged by recent declines in the region’s COVID infection rates and the increase in vaccinations.
“I think people are just so sick of staying home, of doing nothing,” he said. “I think there’s a tremendous pent-up demand to go out to restaurants, to movie theaters, to sporting events. I think we are going to be busier than anyone ever imagined. The tough part is, will you be able to stay in business until that happens.”
At Buffalo Place, preparations are being made for the return of the downtown farmers market and an outdoor summer concert series.
“I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, we just have to get through this tunnel, as they say, and keep moving in the right direction,” Schmand said.