Lakeside City Strives To Buff Its Image

Transit battle and parks scandal: setbacks for city on the mend? - a letter from Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y., is a little red-faced about its debt-laden subway. After a two-day shutdown last week - apparently a first for a federally run transit system - city and county officials scrambled to reopen it with an emergency compromise. But once they finalize the funding package, they will have to face the subway's bigger problem. The 6.4-mile system is just too short.

It takes just 20 minutes (and three seconds for the persnickety) to ride from one end to the other. There are no other subway lines to transfer to. If the rider wants to go to the suburbs or somewhere other than Main Street in the city, he needs a bus.

``It's a waste of money,'' says Cardell Redd, a local college freshman who missed a day of classes last week because the subway was closed. ``They should have saved the $700 million and kept Main Street.''

``The transit system can't make it starting where it does and stopping where it does,'' agrees Bob Shibley, an urban designer at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

When London built the world's first subway, it started small, too - 2-1/4 miles. But that was back in 1853. By 1900, New York City was planning a 21-mile subway. And that was long before the automobile and suburbs had started to depopulate large Northern cities like Buffalo.

The solution for Buffalo is to extend the subway into the suburbs and get the city and suburbs working together instead of against each other, Professor Shibley says. ``Where did we get this funny notion that suburbs can't help a great city and a city can't help a great suburb?''

The battle over the subway is all the more unfortunate because Buffalo is on the mend after several tough economic years. New office buildings are going up. Riverfront condominiums are taking root north of the shuttered steel plants. The city's recently constructed baseball stadium is setting minor-league attendance records and spawning hopes that the major leagues will choose Buffalo to host a new team.

And to top it all off, there is tremendous local optimism that Buffalo will become a gateway city as the US and Canadian economies merge under the recent free-trade agreement.

``It's frosting on the cake,'' says a delighted Randall Brown, vice president of business development and government relations of the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce. According to one survey, some 150 Canadian companies are already located in this western New York region. Average age: 12 years. Average employment: 75 - up from 21 when the companies first arrived.

But the transit debacle is conjuring up older images of a snowbound, faltering Buffalo that city fathers had hoped to erase. The image may be further tarnished by an ongoing scandal involving the city's parks department. The saga has its serious side, involving a federal investigation into charges of kickbacks, favoritism, and purchasing irregularities within the department.

But it has been a local sideshow as well. Parks Commissioner Robert Delano originally declined to answer reporters' questions. Then in January, after further revelations of questionable activity, a wooden barrier went up in front of Mr. Delano's office suite. Then he disappeared completely on a leave of absence.

Buffalo Mayor James Griffin staunchly defended his parks commissioner, but reporters then found out parks workers had fixed the mayor's lawn mower and delivered firewood to his home. Local political observers say the mayor, recently elected to an unprecedented fourth term against nominal opposition, is a shrewd politician with the ability to survive the political challenge.

But the city's newfound positive image may not survive.

``If I were getting ready to come here I would begin to ask some questions,'' says one business expert. ``It's just too bad because I think we were riding high.''

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