Bringing the Bills Back to the City: Imagining the “South Park Site”

Author: Ryan Miller

There has been a lot of exciting news in the past several weeks on the Bills stadium front. In this article we will briefly recap those developments, and then take a deep dive into the proposed “South Park Site” that New York State Governor Kathy Hochul’s office is currently exploring as a potential location of the new Bills Stadium.

To recap, the first exciting development was thanks to Paul Wolf and his organization, New York Coalition for Open Government, who helped bring a resolution in front of the Erie County Legislature a few weeks ago that demanded the public release of the stadium study the Pegulas previously commissioned. They are reportedly using this study in their negotiations with Erie County and New York State, but it has never been made available to the public. A few weeks ago, the Erie County Legislature voted unanimously across party lines in favor of the resolution. This was a tremendous step in the direction of transparency, which is paramount to this project that will likely see taxpayers contributing between $500 million to $1 billion in total. How do the results of the survey compare with the Pegula’s proposal for an open air, new build in Orchard Park with 10,000 less seats than the current stadium? We deserve to know prior to any decisions being made, and thanks to all involved, it appears likely that will be the case.

The second development is that the four of the eleven members of the Erie County Legislature (perhaps having been inspired by Paul Wolf and his organization’s fight for transparency) have taken things a step further by submitting a new resolution demanding open dialogue between the public and their elected officials by requiring three public hearings, the creation of an online forum, and requiring a period of at least 90 days to elapse between a proposal being submitted to the Erie County Legislature and the Legislature being able to vote on said proposal. This would help to ensure the public is educated, informed, and given a chance to voice concerns and brainstorm potential alternative solutions prior to their tax dollars being committed towards a particular plan. If passed, this would be a tremendous effort towards protecting the democratic process and ensuring that the ultimate agreement that is reached is in the best long-term interest of the people that live, work, and pay taxes in this community going forward.

That brings me to the third development, which is the focus of this piece. Yesterday, it was reported that last month Governor Kathy Hochul’s office commissioned AECOM, a multinational engineering and consulting firm, to conduct a study on behalf of New York State to be used in negotiations with the Pegulas. Hochul, a Buffalo native herself, may have a different perspective on the stadium situation than former New York State Governor Cuomo had, hence the need for an updated study prior to any further negotiations. Hochul recently said that that the results of New York State’s study will be released very soon, that she is thinking about the situation “constantly,” and promised to “make the right decision for the people for Western New York.” 

The new development yesterday was that one of the aims of the study was to examine other sites besides Orchard Park for a new stadium, specifically a location in the city titled “South Park Site.” I have previously outlined why I believe a stadium in the City of Buffalo is the best option long term for the people of both Buffalo and Erie County for a variety of economic and social reasons, so hearing that the State is wisely still exploring options in the City of Buffalo had me grinning from ear to ear. 

The purpose of this piece today is to shed more light on the potential “South Park” site, and try to create a vision in the mind of readers as to what this may look and feel like. Before I do so, I just want to reiterate one key argument on this topic because I think it is critically important, and with the recent news, I have again seen the many people question the traffic impact and extra costs associated with upgrading the infrastructure of Buffalo and Erie County to get people more efficiently in and out of a stadium in the city without causing traffic issues. As I have previously argued, that while the required infrastructure changes to bring the stadium to the city have been reported to be as high as $1 billion, that cost alone should NOT be seen as a barrier to moving the team to the city, because:

Erie County’s existing public transportation system is woefully inadequate and in need of a massive upgrade if Buffalo and Erie County are going to continue to grow (as they both just did for the for the first time in 70 years).The NFTA’s Metro Bus system and Metro Rail combine to only reach 42% of jobs in Erie County. The lack of public transportation in Erie County significantly limits access to quality jobs, education, and healthcare leading to higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and poor health outcomes. Putting the Bills stadium in the city would force the public transportation system’s inadequacy to finally be addressed in a meaningful way because it would require the creation of much more efficient ways of getting people in and out of the city for Bills games, likely in the form of several new Metro Rail lines running to and from the surrounding suburbs.
The $1 Trillion federal infrastructure bill, which has already passed the Senate and appears likely to pass the House of Representatives, could likely cover most of the cost of putting the stadium in the City of Buffalo, meaning local taxpayers would actually be looking at a similar cost between Orchard Park and Buffalo. In total, the bill promises $110 billion towards roads, bridges, and major projects, $66 billion towards passenger and freight rail, and $39.2 billion towards public transit. Of the total $1 trillion, New York State is projected to receive the third highest amount of funding at a total of $26.92 billion. With Governor Kathy Hochul’s ties to Erie County, it is a safe assumption that if the bill passes, Erie County would see at least $1 billion of the money allocated to New York State under this Bill.

With that rant out of the way, let’s move onto the South Park Site!

The location was specifically mentioned as a distinct entity that New York State wanted AECOM to re-examine in the newest study commissioned by Governor Hochul’s office. I say “re-examined” because this is not the first time AECOM has been involved in the stadium saga. In fact, New York State commissioned AECOM to study stadium options for the Bills in the past, and in 2014 they submitted an extensive 141 page report. That study looked at 13 different sites in the area and identified 4 sites that were “shortlisted,” meaning they were identified as being the most viable at the time of the study. The full report is available here, but requires a fee to download. I downloaded and read it myself, so to save you the time and money, I will summarize the findings. The 9 sites studied that did not make the short list were:

Central Terminal
Outer Harbor
LaSalle Park
Niagara Falls
Republic Steel
West Seneca
Tonawanda Street
University at Buffalo

The four sites that were shortlisted were:

Orchard Park
Cobblestone District
Exchange Street
and (you guessed it) – South Park Site

Let’s take a look at some of the details of the “South Park Site,” as per the 2014 AECOM Buffalo NFL Stadium Site Options Analysis 

Largest of urban sites considered in the study
Potential for 122 acres spanning from the Buffalo River to the south of the stadium up to the I-190 north of the stadium
Northern half of site is comprised of vacated properties, including 15 vacant buildings that make up parts of the Commodore Perry Complex owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA)
With enhancements to Louisiana and Hamburg Streets, the site would have sufficient access to the high-volume traffic of I-190
Walking distance to parking options that are already serving KeyBank Center, Canalside, and Cobblestone district
The study recommended approximately $200-250 million in transportation improvements to serve the area including:

$110-$140 million for expansion of the NFTA Metro Rail (see the image from the report below for specifics) and the creation of a new NFTA light rail station and transit hub at the corner of South Park and Michigan Avenue. 
$90 to 110 million dollars to create a new entrance ramp to lanes I-190 at Seneca Street, Louisiana Street, and Hamburg Street; and widen Louisiana and Hamburg Streets from South Park to I-190.

Credit: 2014 AECOM Buffalo NFL Stadium Site Options Analysis, Page 50

What’s changed since 2014?

Looking back at the 2014 study, I think the South Park Site was the best option at the time, and it is an even stronger option now. In the past several years there have been countless developments in and around this site. To start, the Buffalo River underwent a massive clean-up effort through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. The goal of the project, according to Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, was to transform the Buffalo River into a “beneficial environmental, economic, and community resource.” It’s safe to say they accomplished that goal (and then some). Starting with the opening of Buffalo Riverworks in 2014, the shores of the Buffalo River have absolutely exploded in recent years with residential and commercial development, a thriving restaurant and nightlife scene, and several successful boat tour and water sports businesses. Resurgence Brewing Company, Hartman’s Distilling Company, Shuck Shack, and Silo City are just a few of many popular destinations along the Buffalo River that have made this area one of the most popular in Buffalo both for a night out and to call home.

Another major update since the 2014 study, is that the study’s proposal for for a new NFTA Metro Rail station (at the corner of South Park and Michigan) has already come to fruition via a separate initiative with funding from Buffalo Billion. The corner of South Park and Michigan, although not explicitly referred to as such in the 2014 study, is actually the site of the longstanding DL&W terminal, one of Buffalo’s many forgotten architectural gems of the past. In keeping with one of the themes that has fueled Buffalo’s recent renaissance, the DL&W Terminal is already in the process of being preserved, restored, and repurposed for the future with funding from Buffalo Billion.

Credit: Rendering of DL&W Station, Buffalo Billion

The project, which is currently in Phase 3, transform the space into “DL&W” Station,” a “public, multi-use destination that fosters commerce, social gathering, community, and a sense of place,” with the goal of generating “increased Metro Rail ridership and an enhanced rider experience for persons of all ages and abilities.” As part of the DL&W station project, the NFTA Metro rail is already slated to be extended beyond the current final stop at Canalside/KeyBank Center, and will instead continue to on to run inside the DL&W terminal where the “DL&W Station” is being built (which is exactly what was suggested in the 2014 AECOM study). 

To try to create a better visual of how things might look and feel with all the recent changes surrounding the “South Park Site,” I used Google Maps to get a current image, and then transposed the location of some of the specifics that were mentioned in the 2014 study.

2021 Projected Updated South Park Site 

Credit: Google Maps

The blue line above represents the NFTA Metro Rail extension inside of the DL&W Terminal (represented by the white box with blue star) that is already fully funded and in the process of happening under the “DL&W Station” project. The 2014 AECOM recommended these changes, and additional extension of the service beyond the new hub at DL&W Station, to the southeast. This is represented by the red line above. The study did not comment on exactly how far the Metro Rail would extend. In the image used in the 2014 study, it extended all the way to the perimeter of the satellite image they used, meaning it would presumably continue on to serve South Buffalo (and ideally the Southtowns as well). I added the yellow line  in the above image as a projected continuation of the Metro Rail into South Buffalo, but this pure speculation on my part and not an explicit reflection of the 2014 study. 

The white outline north of the stadium, which says Area to Create More Parking, is the location of potential additional parking described previously in the 2014 study. Part of this area is occupied by the 15 vacant buildings that make up parts of the Commodore Perry Complex owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA). There have been many conversations over the years about demolishing or repurposing these buildings in some way, while simultaneously ensuring new (more up to date) public housing options are created. It seems likely that these could be demolished as part of the project, and then ideally a new public housing project could be built near all of the development and public transportation improvements that would be happening as part of the stadium project.

Looking at the location of the stadium above in relation to all of the progress and growth that Buffalo has seen in recent years, it is hard to imagine a more perfect spot for a stadium in the city. Allow me to try to paint a picture of some of the unique amenities this location offers.

Consider a scenario where you are going to meet up with some of your friends before a game at the new stadium on the “South Park Site.” You plan on having a few drinks throughout the day. You want to enjoy yourself, and not have to worry about driving home after the game. You decide to hop on the Metro Rail, which lets you off at the new DL&W terminal station. You step outside and head towards Canalside to meet up with your friends, and enjoy the various the attractions and entertainment options that has made Canalside Buffalo’s top destinations for both locals and tourists. 

While you are in the area, maybe you could stop at the new Southern Tier Brewery at Harborcenter, The Labatt House/The Draft Room (reopening soon), or the Other Half Brewery at Seneca One for a beverage or brunch. 

You and your friends decide to stop at one of those spots, have a drink, and then step back outside. It’s a crisp fall morning and you are greeted by the warm and familiar scent of cheerios being made at the nearby by General Mills factory. You feel at home. You feel connected to your city, all of the progress it is making, the people that call it home, and the team that bears its name. You are feeling so good about Buffalo and the Bills that you wish you could put down some money on the Bills today. They are going to win big, everybody knows it. Suddenly, you remember, that you can put down money on the Bills (or any other NFL game for that matter) by simply walking 5-10 minutes towards the stadium to the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. While your over there, maybe you could check out Hofbräuhaus Buffalo, Ballyhoo, or Swannie House? After you place your wager, you and your friends head closer to the stadium. There’s still time for one more drink before kickoff, and Riverworks, Resurgence, and Hartman’s are perfectly situated on the doorstep of the new stadium for one last beverage prior to heading in for the game.

The above example, while romanticized to a certain degree by yours truly, does a nice job of highlighting some of the unique aspects of the “South Park Site.” An experience like the one above is something that could seriously change the perspective and narrative around Buffalo for people from outside the area that come to town for a Bills game. I have previously argued, Buffalo does not do a good enough job of forcing out-of-towners to spend time (and money) in the city. Bills game are probably the single biggest reason for someone with no ties to Western New York to come here. The Bills are really our single biggest chance to show our city off, and a stadium on a desolate sea of parking lots in Orchard Park is does us no favors in that regard. With an Orchard Park stadium, it is frighteningly possible for people to come and go for a Bills game, never once set foot in the City of Buffalo, and leave thinking that Southwestern Boulevard is the major thoroughfare Buffalo has to offer. In short, we are doing a little too good of a job at “Keeping Buffalo a Secret.”

Imagine all the money that could be spent at locally owned restaurants, businesses, and hotels in the city of Buffalo, that is instead going to generic, corporate, chain restaurants and hotels in the suburbs with the current Orchard Park stadium. When you also consider the additional potential for sports and entertainment events besides NFL football at the new stadium, it makes even more sense to bring the people that are coming here for said events to Buffalo, not Orchard Park.  

What about tailgating?

Perhaps the best thing about the “South Park Site,” in my opinion, is that as the largest of all the possible sites (including Orchard Park), it still has somewhat of sprawling, wide-open feel (especially to the south), that would lend itself well to tailgating and some replication of the atmosphere that many people love so much about the Orchard Park stadium. In addition to the proposed “Area to Create More Parking” in the Google Maps picture above, there is an abundance of green space and undeveloped land to the south of the “South Park Site.” Anyone who has been on a Buffalo River boat tour, knows how much of that area is still untouched and ripe with opportunity for development. I could see public and private parking lots and tailgating areas like those in Orchard Park being constructed in some of these areas to the south, with the option to walk or (depending on how far away) take a shuttle or the NFTA Metro Rail to the stadium.

I know one of the most common reasons that people are against a stadium in the city are the implications on tailgating, but I think that we are greatly underestimating the ingenuity of #BillsMafia with this. Bills fans will find a way to tailgate and have a good time no matter where the stadium is. Look no further than some of the videos from the 2018 playoff game in Jacksonville for example.

No city stadium will ever exactly replicate the current environment in Orchard Park, but the options for tailgating at the South Park site are honestly quite extensive. The area is easily accessible by personal vehicle by multiple exits off the I-190, and in addition to tailgating in the proposed parking areas outlined north of the potential stadium, there is also massive potential for tailgating within some of the existing parking ramp structures of Canalside/Cobblestone District, or potentially even the creation of a new parking ramp structure/tower specifically for the Bills stadium that would also allow tailgating inside the ramp. 

With the ability to create a somewhat similar environment to Orchard Park at the “South Park Site” in terms of tailgating and atmosphere, I think it is foolish to let that issue alone prevent a stadium from going in the city. I encourage people to consider the bigger picture of what a stadium in the city could do for Buffalo and Erie County; and the people that live, work, and pay taxes here. As outlined above, there would still be an option for tailgating to be preserved to a significant degree, but this stadium would also provide additional options for the pregame experience besides tailgating, such as being able to go out to brunch, have a few drinks at a local brewery or distillery, or laying down a wager on the game at the casino before walking over to the game. Some people may end up preferring that option. The nice thing about this location is there is something for everyone, no matter what their particular preference for spending gameday is. 

Last, but certainly not least, the “South Park Site” would allow #BillsMafia to take their tailgating game to the next level, because the publicly accessible Buffalo River would allow for fans to finally experience one of the rarest and most elite tailgating experiences known to man: tailgating on a boat, which has been affectionately dubbed “Sailgating.”

I know a stadium in the city is a highly complex, divisive, and highly politicized issue that everyone has a slightly different opinion on. There are additional variables that would still need to be worked out regarding the “South Park Site.” In addition to the Commodore Perry Complex, there is a residential neighborhood in the First Ward that closely borders this site, and the residents of that neighborhood need to be considered and involved in the decision-making process and planning if this site is chosen. We also need to ensure that concessions are made within this project to ensure the long-term protection, environmental integrity, and viability of the Buffalo River going forward.

Many people also have additional valid concerns about wanting a roof on the stadium, increasing the seating capacity, the presence of an adjacent convention center, and whether the stadium could host a Super Bowl. If those are potential concerns of yours, I encourage you to support the “South Park Site” plan for a stadium in the city, because all of those variables are far more likely to come to fruition if the stadium goes in the City of Buffalo, with the plan of it being the centerpiece of a larger city planning project that massively improves public transportation, stimulates residential and commercial development, and leads to the net long-term growth of Buffalo and Erie County both economically and socially for generations to come.

I encourage all of you to think critically about what is at stake here for the long-term future of Buffalo and Erie County, and consider how this will not only affect you, but your neighbor and your children.  Look past the fact that taxpayer money is being used, because like it or not, that is the reality of doing business with the NFL. Instead, focus on demanding that our elected officials fight to use our money to create a stadium and city planning project that best serves the needs of the community that is paying for the it both now and in the future. After doing so, I hope you will see that a stadium in the city, specifically at the “South Park Site,” is the only logical choice. 

If you agree please take a moment to SIGN the petition below (and more importantly) SHARE it with others so that our collective voice can be heard! 

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