Is an innovation district needed in Buffalo?

Graduate planning studio presents innovation district feasibility study

Vita Wu.

MSRED student Vita Wu presenting during the Prospects for an Innovation District in Buffalo presentation at Hayes Hall on Tuesday.

by Tyler Madell

Published May 21, 2019


Working in consultation with high ranking planners from the City of Buffalo and real estate development professionals, Professor Ernest Sternberg’s MUP studio investigated the feasibility of locating an innovation district within the City of Buffalo.

Studio members, including graduate students in urban planning and real estate development, presented their findings to community members last week at the studio's end-of-year review in Hayes Hall.

Innovation districts are a relatively new term used to describe mixed-use urban areas that have a high concentration of innovative businesses and often anchor institutions such as a university. They may also be centered around business incubators and accelerators, with startup businesses located around them. Innovation districts generally have high walkability and transit access. Another key feature that the presenters was its level of “funk,” or prevalence of eclectic locally owned and creatively inspired businesses.

Thirty four cities have planned innovation districts or are planning some in the future, however not all of these are true innovation districts. Koury noted that some cities are just using the term for marketing purposes and don’t actually incorporate mixed use into these areas.

According the the studio report, key benefits of innovation districts include strengthening the local urban economy, revitalizing historic neighborhoods, and spurring an expanded tax base. Students also highlighted the need to make sure people in need of affordable and low-income housing are not priced out of the neighborhood.

Based on case studies of existing innovation districts MidTown Cleveland, InnovatePGH (Pittsburgh), and MaRS Toronto, the students began to conceptualize a rubric for rating possible sites in Buffalo.

For their proposed innovation district in Buffalo, the class focused on downtown and the medical campus as possible locations - home of 36 percent of the region’s innovative firms and five incubators. Four sites were chosen in this area.

Map of innovation districts.

Map showing the four areas selected as potential innovation districts in Buffalo. 


The first site was Middle Main, with Summer/Best and Tupper as boundaries on the North and South sides respectively. Its benefits included its walkable distance to the “funky” neighborhood of Allentown.

The next proposed site was the Lafayette Square district which includes the largely abandoned Main Place Mall, a possible location for a new anchor institution.

Other proposed sites included a Lower Main site including One Seneca Tower and a Waterfront district including Canalside, the First Niagara Center and the cobblestone district.

In order to identify the best of the four sites, the class developed a rubric which rated each area through a number of different categories including prevalence of existing innovative firms, mixed use, nearby activity centers, a “funky index,” density per acre, property value, and vacancy rate.

Scoring the highest was the Lafayette Square district. Students highlighted the potential for a co-working space in the Main Place Mall as a catalyst for development of the surrounding area. The vacancy rate in the mall itself is 80 percent and the Main Place Tower has a 30 percent vacancy rate.

Chair of the urban and regional planning department, Professor Daniel B. Hess commended the class on its forward thinking research and analysis, “you’ve propelled us in a new direction.”

As for the future of this project, Professor Sternberg says, “Several local economic development organizations been interested in our study and already have copies of our final report.  Maybe by this summer we will see the convergence of efforts to launch an innovation district in Buffalo.”