Anyone who has ever lived in Buffalo, New York knows the city has a notoriously overzealous preservation committee – they’ll fight tooth and nail to rescue tool sheds that have been converted into crack houses. If you know anything about Main Place Mall, though, that not only may provide an explanation for their behavior, but a damn good explanation.
Main Place Mall is plopped right smack in the middle of downtown Buffalo as part of a complex nicknamed Buffalo Place. It has a covered walkway leading into the next-door Liberty Building, and it takes up most of the block from Church Street to Lafayette Square, sitting conveniently on Main Street’s lightrail line. To understand the preservation committee’s eternal worrywarting, you have to understand what that part of the city contained until Main Place Mall was built in 1969. The Erie County Saving Bank Building was there, a magnificent architectural piece which drew influences of European-style castles. There were several other beautiful buildings sitting on the block too, the traditional architectural styles of which can still be seen on certain blocks of Main Street today.
The history of Buffalo is similar to that of most other Rust Belt cities. The city exploded thanks to its ideal situation right at the tail end of the Erie Canal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the United States, and one of the richest. The place was an industrial giant with an enormous steel base, and over 70 percent of the grain that got shipped anywhere in the world ended up passing through Buffalo at some point because of Buffalo’s collection of grain elevators – the world’s largest, many of which still exist. Buffalo got hit hard when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and many of the traders who had to go through the Erie Canal were able to bypass the city completely. There was also the whole suburban White Flight trend that started hitting in the 50’s and 60’s. Everything started deteriorating, and the city officials, in their everlasting brilliance (note: that’s written with the highest possible level of venomous sarcasm), started wiping out everything in their paths in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the prettiest buildings in the entire country got the axe, and were replaced by structures which I suppose might have fit some definition of “modern” at the time. The newer buildings on the Buffalo skyline are ass-ugly. Brutalist architecture became a way of life to the 60’s developers, and it’s all punctuated by the 40-floor One HSBC Center, which is the tallest building on the city’s skyline, the most prominent, and the most likely to be mistaken for a giant refrigerator box. It might be the ugliest building on Earth. PS: It’s also largely abandoned these days. Most of the major tenants have run off – including HSBC itself, which occupied 75 percent of the available space in the building. 97 percent of the building will be vacant by the end of this year. There’s a reformation and renewal project in the works for the place which might spring it back to life, but it will unfortunately not involve razing the place, so hopefully the aesthetic remake will at least make it blend better with the rest of the city, or at least not make glancers want to gouge their eyes out.
Main Place Mall was one of those attempts at renewal. It’s a shopping mall which was intended to bring everyone from the suburbs back into the city for their weekend cash-throwing contests. It failed. Man, did it EVER fail.
Main Place Mall looks like the Death Star. I think it’s technically defined as a piece of late-century modernist architecture, but it really doesn’t look like it contains any of the standard giveaways of modernist style. In other words, if you’re looking for something Wright might have designed – Wright being one of the headmasters of architectural modernism as well as a guy who designed a couple of houses in Buffalo – Main Place Mall ain’t the place to start. This place looks much more like a brutalist building made out of metal: It looks heavy and angular, the side beams look like exposed steel beams, and the assembly could easily be mistaken for large slabs. Fitting, because Main Place Mall basically IS a large black slab. Main Place Tower, which is attached to the mall, looks like a giant version of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If you’re a first-timer in the Buffalo city limits, Main Place Tower is the only part of the building where the entrances are marked. So it’s the only way you’ll know you’ve found Main Place Mall if you’ve never seen the place before and somehow missed any online descriptions or directions: “If you’re walking along the lightrail line and you reach an ugly black slab, you’ve found it!”
Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s pizzeria both have direct entrances from the outside of the mall, which is good, because that means you can visit them both without having to actually set foot in the mall itself. Buffalo Coffee Roastery makes delicious coffee and baked goods. Its main function is just to serve as a coffee joint – instead of a full-time cafe, like a lot of other coffeehouses today – especially if you don’t plan on staying, because the only seats there are along the walls – there are no proper tables. The coffee is quite delicious, though, so it’s very convenient to grab an order as you wait for the lightrail to stop by the Church Street station. Gino and Joe’s is an oddball pizzeria by merit of the fact that it serves New York City-style slices instead of the Buffalo-style which is made by absolutely every other place in the city, save Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It’s damn good pizza, though, and at under $3 per slice, quite reasonably priced.
You now know of the only two places in Main Place Mall worth checking out. There are two floors in Main Place Mall, but no place else worth visiting unless you:
a – Have an unchecked fetish for footwear. I’m not talking about the unique stuff, either; I mean plain, old, average, everyday, ludicrously overpriced footwear. There are a few footwear stores in Main Place Mall, including a Foot Locker and a Payless.
b – Are in dire need of an emergency newsstand or dollar store. There’s one of each.
c – Work downtown and want a conveniently located Key Bank or food court. Let’s face it though, Buffalo is a strict Bank of America city now, despite once being the official capitol of North America for HSBC. And Bank of America is accessible in the next-door Liberty Building.
There are a couple of other stores, but basically there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting. Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s a shopping mall, Nicholas! Even if the retailers are bland, it would still be easy to visit the place and grab a new suit shirt should something happen to the one I’m wearing! Just go into the JC Penny’s or Macy’s or…. Hold it. Shut up. Let me stop you right there. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But when I said there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting, you were probably thinking the emphasis was on the “worth visiting” part, like a lot of other people would. That’s not the case. My emphasis was actually on the “nothing.” My little bullet listing up there wasn’t an emphasis; it was a summary of stores that are open in the entire place. I think there’s also one clothing store, and I know there’s a place for Buffalo-unique collectibles and T-shirts and a place to buy chocolates. Those are all on the first floor. However, it’s very easy to get to similar places all throughout the city – Buffalo collectibles are easily located on nearby Elmwood Avenue, sweets can be found anywhere within the nearby Elmwood Village and Allentown neighborhoods, and as far as the clothing store goes, even people in the suburbs probably live within easy distance of a strip mall with clothes stores in bunches.
Yes, the majority of the first floor is empty space. There are a large number of closed storefronts, most of which have been that way for a long time. The really depressing part, though, is how much of that space is NOT actual storefront. Anyone who frequents shopping malls is aware of the fact that malls have a habit of placing plain whitewall over spaces that haven’t been rented out to tenants in a long time. A good chunk of the first floor consists of that if it’s not closed storefront.
The second floor, however, is even worse. Outside the food court, there are no stores whatsoever. Just a hulking balcony. In the worse old days, there was a walkway to the building across the lightrail line, but that building has somehow managed to become even more useless than Main Place Mall, and so it’s now completely close – which means the entrance to the walkway is also boarded up. The eastern side of the second floor has closed storefronts. The western side? Entirely whitewall.
The one part of Main Place Mall which would make Main Place Mall worth a visit – besides Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s – would be the food court, but only if you happen to work downtown, and even then it’s pretty inessential. About half of the food court is whitewall. One of the food court restaurants is Gino and Joe’s – the very same place on the first floor, serving the very same food at the very same prices. Everything else is there just to satisfy hunger pangs. The food there does the job. It’s not exceptional, but it’s probably the only reason Main Place mall is still open.
Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s need to be given their own spots. Once that happens, Main Place Mall needs to be demolished. Aside from those two places, the only halfway decent thing I can say about Main Place Mall is that, with One HSBC Center just a couple of blocks down the street, it doesn’t look quite as ugly as it is. Some Buffalo tourism sites advertise Main Place Mall as one of the city’s premier shopping centers. That’s a bigger lie than any of our local politicians is even capable of telling.