Oct 10, 2012

Cheektowaga's New Super Walmart: Good News for Buffalo, Bad News for the Region

You're probably asking yourself how anyone could possibly fathom that Cheektowaga's new Super Walmart on Walden Avenue will be good for the City of Buffalo. In the spirit of making you a believer, let's review the basics of a typical Walmart. Disposable and unidentifiable architecture, purely suburban design, a parking lot often exponentially larger than the store, and often a detriment to small, locally owned businesses.

The parking lot never fills up at the new Sheridan store or any of them, with the exception of Christmas shoppers.
Image courtesy of Google Maps
There has been a lot of debate whether or not Walmart is actually good or bad when it comes to town, but that's a larger discussion for another time. I'd like to focus on the long-term impacts of their unsustainable model in Western New York.

When the Sheridan Drive Super Walmart opened and replaced the Walmart on Niagara Falls Boulevard, rumor has it that the company intentionally left it vacant. The underlying thought is to avoid any competition from similar stores, even if it means another dead plaza in the suburbs. The same thing is likely to happen in Lockport on Transit Road when their new Super Walmart opens. I'd be willing to bet that the Cheektowaga at the former Thruway Mall is in store for pretty much the same.

The former location on Niagara Fall Boulevard is now a half dead, massive plaza
Image courtesy of Google Maps
However, the BN article mentions that Benderson Development will be searching for a new tenant for the "soon to be old" Walmart further down Walden Avenue, so there may still be hope. Additionally, residents have been complaining for quite some time about conditions of the Super Flea and the "criminal activity" problems. The hope is that the new use of the site will reduce crime, but that doesn't seem likely given the precedent set by the other stores.

Since the new Super Walmart has opened on Sheridan, Amherst Police have been on site regularly to deal with criminal activity and unruly patrons. Although Walmart is replacing Super Flea, it will likely not be able to alter the patterns of crime and other associated issues if the Sheridan Drive store is any proof.

So why is all this good news for Buffalo? Simple, because it isn't happening in the city. Cheektowaga is losing an interesting and unique attraction and replacing it with something that can be found in "Anywhere, America." The Super Flea may not be the prettiest place, but it's a fun place to spend a weekend afternoon hunting for rare or interesting items.

Even better for Buffalo, the Peddler Market in the city has the same spirit of the Super Flea, but in an urban setting. It's not hard to imagine that those who enjoy visiting and spending money at the Super Flea may now be coming into Buffalo after Super Walmart comes to Walden Avenue.

Every poor decision the suburbs make about their built environment, the better Buffalo looks. We have unique destinations, attractions, history, and landscapes that the burbs cannot replicate. Each time one of the few, interesting attractions disappears for something that can be found just about anywhere, Buffalo reestablishes itself as the more interesting alternative. The current generation has been flocking back to cities to escape the endless sea of parking lots and uninteresting places that are typical of America's suburbs.

Walmart is capable of designing a semi-decent urban building. It's unlikely they would ever do something this "nice" in Western New York. This mixed use building is planned for Washington, D.C.
It's not all good news though.  This type of development hurts us all as a region. No one is really thinking or discussing the long-term consequences of having dozens of dead plazas throughout the area. What the region is going to be left with in a few years are miles upon miles of asphalt parking lots and more empty stores.

Walden Avenue is one of the worst offenders. It's nearly impossible to find a single building between Harlem and Cayuga that doesn't have parking in front of it or a building that isn't set back significantly from the street. I often wonder why they even bothered spending the money on sidewalks. It's Urban Planning 101 to have a mix of uses in an urban setting with buildings "built to the curb" in order to create an interesting and lively streetscape.

Unfortunately, Buffalo also suffers from poor design choices modeled after suburban principles. Look no further than the newer builds on Delaware Avenue by Kenmore. These buildings mediocre architecturally and the site plan is purely suburban; parking in the front with buildings significantly set back from the sidewalk. It's quite the contrast looking further down Delaware in Kenmore, where most of the buildings were designed with the pedestrian in mind rather than the car. The good news here is that there is less of it to "fix" in the city than there is in the suburbs.

This small plaza on Delaware Avenue by Kenmore presents another lost opportunity in Buffalo to create an interesting, walkable, pedestrian-friendly streetscape. It was as simple as locating the buildings at the sidewalk and moving parking to the rear. 
Like many problems in our built environment, it's possible to fix the poor design of the suburban commercial corridors, but the price tag would be enormous. Just imagine how much it would cost to rebuild everything along Walden to be pedestrian friendly with parking in the rear, a road diet for the street, and architecture that actually means something. It's much easier and much more gratifying to fix up the city than to rebuild the suburbs with a better design. What we have now in Buffalo, no matter what the condition, is typically better built and more interesting than anything being built along commercial corridors in the suburbs.

This is Delaware Avenue just a few blocks from the previous picture, in the Village of Kenmore. This is how cities and urban areas were built and should continue with this model. You can walk right off the sidewalk into a store without the risk of walking through a parking lot. The greatly improved aesthetics are also a great bonus.

I'll leave you with one final thought on the subject to reflect upon or discuss. During my time at UB, several professors consistently told me that no one cares about architecture anymore. I bought it; it made sense. Look at the majority of what's built today compared to that of 50+ years ago.

Since graduating, I've decided on a new line of thinking, people don't care about architecture because most of what we build today doesn't deserve to be cared about. Every time one of these characterless, fake, disposable structures are built and labeled architecture, it only further reinforces that statement. Architecture is, and has been, a field in crisis and buildings like this only make it worse.

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