Lively debates over a virtual cuppa

The great stadium debate

an illustration of Ernest Sternberg and Hiro Hata faces in the foam of two cups of coffee.

Ernest Sternberg, left, and Hiro Hata. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

“If private parties want to pay for it all, that’s their business. But if the government needs to put in a couple hundred million dollars, that’s where the public interest really comes in. ”
Ernest Sternberg, Professor and Chair
Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning

Editor's note: At Buffalo was already in the mail when the announcement was made that Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula secured the winning bid to purchase the Buffalo Bills.

As we go to press, the Buffalo Bills are up for sale. While some suitors are pledging to keep the team in Buffalo, others most likely would not. Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the Bills need a new stadium for the franchise to remain viable. That has opened a debate on whether to further upgrade the current facility in suburban Orchard Park, or to construct a brand-new stadium elsewhere, with downtown Buffalo garnering most of the attention.

We asked two faculty members from the School of Architecture and Planning— Ernest Sternberg, professor and chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and Hiro Hata, associate professor of architecture and urban and regional planning—whether building a spanking-new downtown stadium is the right move for the city of Buffalo.

Ernest Sternberg: Certainly there’s a cost issue, and then there are what kinds of benefits are being claimed for Buffalo. First, is it good for the economy overall? Will it have a big multiplier effect? Another question is whether it’s good for the directly surrounding urban area; i.e., will it support local businesses and bring more people into the streets? Then there’s what it does for Buffalo’s reputation nationally. Fourth is what it does for the spirit of the people here in Buffalo and for our sense of identity about the place.

Hiro Hata: The economic issue obviously has to do with the sheer cost of constructing a new stadium, which is estimated to be about $1 billion depending on whether you’re going to do an open-air or a dome stadium. An open-air stadium is cheaper but it’s still going to require huge public subsidies.

ES: If private parties want to pay for it all, that’s their business. But if the government needs to put in a couple hundred million dollars, that’s where the public interest really comes in. A lot has been said about multiuse rather than single-purpose stadiums. But how many giant events can you have here in Buffalo?

HH: There are only 10 [Bills home] games per year. So how do you keep it occupied? That’s a huge issue.

ES: If it’s going to be only 10 events a year, it does not have a spillover effect for the surrounding area. Restaurants and other businesses cannot survive on 10 days a year. So you’re going to have a giant vacant area for 355 days, and then suddenly it’s filled with traffic for 10 days.

HH: I don’t think Buffalo should ever build a brand-new, stand-alone stadium surrounded by a sea of parking. This is an obsolete way of thinking for building a major sports stadium in the 21st century. If the construction of a new stadium downtown is to succeed it must come with the provisions of infrastructure, including new public amenities, public spaces and other facilities, such as housing.

ES: Somewhere downtown within the city, north and east of the I-190, is the best location. The waterfront is a very bad location. For one thing, it is far colder there than anyone appreciates. If you enclose it, you have to spend a lot of money heating it. Also, there’s only one highway in and out. It’s an impractical location.

HH: There are many residents who are not football fans. They like to have state-of-the-art, high-quality public space, and I think they are vehemently opposed to having the stadium on the Outer Harbor. The Cobblestone District and the northern part of the Old First Ward are potential downtown sites. They offer far better accessibility.

ES: You can take advantage of existing parking. And there are stores already there, so they’re not completely dependent on football but they get that extra boost from it.

HH: It’s also close to Amtrak service. The Exchange Street station could be modernized and could have great potential for downtown because there are fans from Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, even Toronto. They can come right to the train station and walk to the stadium.

ES: The Ciminelli concept for the Central Terminal [building an open-air stadium as part of a multiuse project that would also restore the landmark train station and the surrounding neighborhood] is kind of pie in the sky. You can get the same kind of effect close to the Cobblestone District, as Hiro just described. Of course, it doesn’t have the wonderful concept of reinvigorating the Central Terminal, but it’s not clear how you would integrate the terminal into the stadium.

HH: Urban design-wise you can do it, I believe. But the economic issue is mind-boggling, doing both at the same time.

ES: Let’s say you’re talking about a one-time public investment of $200 million. The logical way to make that decision is to compare it to other public investments. So let’s say we’re going to put $200 million into a major national high-tech research facility, energy research or something. Which would have a higher spin-off benefit for jobs in Western New York? I think the high-tech investment. But economic criteria are not the only ones being discussed here. It’s a matter of public spirit and recognition of the city.

How do you take your coffee?

Ernest: Double espresso, cream, no sugar
Hiro: Caffè latte