A city the size of Elmira, New York isn’t necessarily going to have much in the way of a robust old downtown. Its population according to the 2020 Decennial Census is a mere 26,523—nothing huge. Virtually any major metro has at least a few surrounding suburbs of similar size that lack any true organized, historic commercial center. Chicago has dozens of ‘em. Cities in Texas and Arizona have suburbs five times this size, many of which are fundamentally massive real estate speculations spread across the desert plains that incorporated themselves, and then kept ballooning to 100,000 or even 200,000 people…all without anything resembling a historic town center. My hometown of Indianapolis has a suburb, Avon, which is fast approaching the size of Elmira (21,474 in 2020—nearly double its 12,500 in 2010), and since Avon consists of little more than a dozen small subdivisions clustered together like grapes on a stem of a state highway and some country roads, all incorporated in 1995….Avon has no downtown.
But Elmira is not an Avon, nor is it a sunbelt boomtown like Gilbert or Chandler, AZ. It’s a freestanding small city in southern upstate New York, just north of the Pennsylvania state line, economically tied to Corning, just twelve miles away. Corning is a smaller city (pop. 10,500 in 2020) but enjoys an embedded advantage of hosting the Fortune 500 company Corning Incorporated (formerly Corning Glass Works), the maker of CorningWare and a large variety of other ceramic products. At its turn-of-the-century peak, Elmira hosted a variety of industries that capitalized on its location at the junction of canals and (later) railroads. But none of Elmira’s factories rose to the height of Corning Glass Works; most of them closed or moved to other states in the 1950s and 60s, prompting Elmira’s precipitous decline from its 1950 peak just shy of 50,000 people. The city has lost nearly half of its population.
Elmira is not lacking a downtown. But, for a city that matured in the first half of the 20th century and was more than five times the size of Phoenix in 1900, downtown Elmira isn’t all that much.
Like a dazed boxer stumbling after a few carefully timed blows, Mother Nature delivered a knockout to Elmira in the summer of 1972, when the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes caused the banks of the Chemung River to swell to levels never before recorded—as much as twice the discharges of a 50-year flood. Though the flooding affected a huge portion of southern New York, reaching as far as Salamanca seventy miles to the west, as well as nearby Corning, it devastated Elmira, forcing about 15,000 people to evacuate from over 5,000 damaged homes, while inundating nearly the entirety of the downtown.
The overwhelmed City of Elmira quickly harnessed both the state and the nearby business community to aid in the redevelopment. Eastman Kodak quietly restored or rebuilt several dozen homes, but the damage to downtown was formidable enough that the State determined much was unsalvageable. The redevelopment commission razed virtually all the structures closest to the Chemung River, replacing it with a riverside park and two large parking garages. Over the space of just a few months in the fall of 1972, Elmira lost 40% of its downtown structures.
Exactly fifty years later, it doesn’t appear that Elmira has enjoyed a great deal of recovery. It still has a downtown, but not at the scale of a city that once contained 50,000 people.
The photos I have featured thus far represent downtown Elmira at its most architecturally muscular: the handsomely maintained Wisner Park, spread across two half blocks that straddle North Main Street, as well as a handful of four-story buildings that date from the early 20th century. I counted exactly two taller downtown buildings; one is in the photo below:
The eight-story Mark Twain Building serves as downtown Elmira’s signature building, not just because of its size and age, but because it does appear to offer recently renovated market-rate rental units. The foreground structure in the photo not only adds storefront massing to this central block, but it serves as Elmira’s largest events hub: since its 2000 construction, First Arena hosted minor-league hockey teams up until 2021, with the hopes that another team (Elmira Mammoth) will organize for ’22-23. First Arena also hosts musical performances, conferences, basketball, and pro-wrestling. It is no stranger to financial troubles, changing hands multiple times and facing tax delinquency allegations, while alternating between private and public ownership that sidelined essential repairs and upgrades. As recently as a year ago, the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency (frequent unintentional owner) considered demolishing the facility. It’s a saving grace that IDA determined that the damages were insufficient to justify tearing the place down; it’s one of the biggest single magnets for activity in downtown Elmira.
The second magnet is a few blocks away:
The Clemens Center, the region’s largest performing arts venue, is a more highbrow counterpart to the rowdy events that take place at First Arena: symphonies, theater, lectures are common to Clemens. Unrecognizable though it may be, the original building dates from the Vaudeville era (1925), but a 1946 flood and the 1972 Biblical flood caused considerable damage; rather than demolish, the restoration efforts expanded and enhanced it beyond recognition. (For those surprised with all the Samuel Langhorne Clemens/Mark Twain references in Elmira, our elementary school lessons taught us he hailed from Hannibal, Missouri. But his wife came from Elmira, and they spent twenty successive summers at his wife’s home near the city; he wrote some of his best-known works there, and his grave is in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery.)
As important as these two nodes are at luring people to Elmira’s downtown, they are windowless, forlorn leviathans during the 98% of the time when no event is taking place. It is rare that such venues can singlehandedly revive a downtown, as I noted many years ago when a new arena in downtown Evansville required demolition of an entire block of historic buildings. At least Evansville had several other blocks where old commercial buildings flank the street. This is the closest I could find in Elmira:
This half-block of Water Street somehow survived the devastating floods from the Chemung River just 150 feet away. A Monday morning (when I took these pics) isn’t a surefire bet for downtown activity, even in more vibrant places. (Mondays and Fridays remain the most likely work-from-home or extended-weekend days.) But the buildings are about 70% vacant.
I wish the best of this little wine bar, the bike shop, or two sports bars that seemed to be operative when I was there. But they’re up against great odds. Can they align with a hockey game at First Arena or an Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes performance at Clemens Center? As seen again in a previously featured photo, the City of Elmira Public Works Department ostensibly added a decorative median to help humanize and beautify the block…
…but it seems to have executed these improvements on the cheap.
Beyond these structures, I counted one other important node: the intersection of Water and Baldwin streets, which I failed to visit but here’s a Google Street View. To the left in the static image is the six-story Chemung Canal Trust Company—the second largest structure in the downtown Elmira area and a mid-century modern beauty with diamond-shaped windows. This bank building most likely pre-dates Elmira’s great flood, but it’s hardly an architectural product of the city’s heyday in the early 20th century. By contrast, the buildings on the opposite site of the street (to the right in the Street View) are vintage: late 19th century commercial buildings, impeccably restored. I believe they mostly serve service-oriented office functions. But they offer little in the way of street-level activity beyond a single cafe. Scattered elsewhere in the area is an eleven-story apartment tower (I believe for seniors), and the mammoth St. Joseph’s Hospital complex, as well as a few county-level government buildings (Elmira is the seat of Chemung County). But these structures are, at most, on the outskirts of downtown—too far for most people to consider walking if they park in the core.
And boy, do they have options to park:
This older parking structure has benefitted from an upgrade into the civic space next to it, all re-envisioned into Clemens Square, a plaza for outdoor concerts, markets, and gatherings, completed at the inopportune time of the peak of the pandemic (winter 2020). The Centertown Garage features leasable retail space on the lower level, presumably with the goal of attracting restaurant tenants, while the plaza itself links to the artistic performances at neighboring Clemens Center. But tenants are going to be chary to sign a lease if Clemens Square can lure people in with fun events; the website for the new development currently tells us nothing.
These scattershot observations all should clue the newcomer to downtown Elmira’s biggest challenge: it isn’t so much pockmarked with massive parking lots; it’s really just parking lots and vacant land interspersed with occasional buildings. Here’s an aerial:
It’s not completely lacking in urban fabric, but it has the urban fabric of a city of 10,000 spread across the number of blocks one might expect for a city of 50,000. And the efforts to fill in the holes don’t exactly synergize. After the 1972 flood, when huge portions of structures along Water Street came down, the City, County, and State redevelopment leadership determined that much of the area was too flood-prone and turned it into Mark Twain Riverfront Park:
Visible on the right in the photo below, this park (currently again under significant renovations) replaced at least one to two dozen buildings. But, like the arena, the plaza, and the performing arts venue, it’s difficult for any of these attractions on their own to achieve sustained appeal the same way that run-of-the-mill offices and apartments can. Spread too thinly across too large of a space, downtown Elmira just doesn’t yet coalesce.
It’s not for lack of trying; here’s a bit further on that same block of Water Street:
On the left is the newest structure in downtown Elmira: a mixed-use apartment building, which, from what I can tell, likely finished construction in 2019. This building, also touching the recently reimagined Clemens Square, appears mostly or fully tenanted with first-floor retail and office:
But notice an important feature: it’s all built several feet above the street, requiring stairs and a ramp for access. Why? It sits directly across from the Mark Twain Riverfront Park, and the Chemung River beyond.
The legacy of a disaster from a half-century ago still lingers. Modern structures must account for the possibility of another catastrophic flood. It’s not ideal for this new building to endure even this slight change in grade between the sidewalk and the retail, as I’ve noted in the past. It compromises the visibility of those essential storefront windows. But new construction in downtown Elmira this close to the river has no choice. And frankly, this four-story wood-frame apartment building, though completely unremarkable in a city of 100,000 people, may actually sew the seed for Elmira’s eventual revival. Certainly a lot more likely than a hockey arena. Perhaps most importantly, it overlooks what I believe to be Elmira’s most cherished piece of architecture: a railway viaduct.
Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned the viaduct, but if you see a bulky, indistinct thing framing a few of the other downtown photos, it’s probably the “Promenade”—a recently restored railway viaduct, originally belonging to the Erie Railroad and now under Norfolk Southern’s control. It’s the most visually distinct feature in the city, spanning the Chemung River and stretching at least five blocks northward through Elmira’s downtown before it returns to street level. It’s the sort of structure that could easy be an eyesore and a locus for crime; I’ll concede that it cleaves downtown views. But it’s a visual outlier, and it’s good to see that the community recognizes the value in keeping it clean and maintained. The efforts to salvage the Promenade show that, even if Elmira has lost more of its historic fabric from water—far more than even most cities did through disinvestment and decay (and Elmira had plenty of that as well)—the civic spirit survives in fits and starts. It’s enough to generate market demand to live in Elmira’s battered, bruised downtown. To its credit, downtown Elmira doesn’t have many blighted buildings. Fill in a half dozen more of those vacant lots with homes and offices, and Elmira might someday look once again like the downtown to a city of 50,000 people.