Americans, especially citizens of Buffalo, are great believers in sports. In an otherwise complicated world, the ground rules of sports seem so straightforward and results are immediate -- two competitors, one winner, one loser.
But if such simplicity serves us well in the world of sports, it does not do so in other arenas. In downtown development we know that everyone loses when teams conspire to defeat other constituent teams.
One recent Buffalo event demonstrates the potential for a "non-sport" approach to developing our city. On Dec, 4, Downtown Buffalo 2002! held a public review of Mayor Anthony Masiello's draft Strategic Plan for downtown as part of a continuing effort to redefine the rules of the game in Buffalo development.
The summit was not a contest; this was no heroic battle between two teams. Instead, the summit functioned as it was supposed to: 38 small, facilitated groups involving over 400 people allowed a complex range of perspectives to be heard about a great variety of issues and projects.
Downtown Buffalo 2002! is charged with organizing this complexity of ideas and agendas. It seeks a working consensus on a few high priority recommendations so that the private, public and not-for-profit sectors of the community can move forward. Even conflict, well managed, can add value to the resulting developments.
It is time to be creative about assuring that no one voice dominates the development process at the expense of more diverse public concerns. We need a balance of interests rather than a one-dimensional -- and ultimately fragile -- win/lose strategy. This reasoning is pragmatic. Often what appears to involve clear lines of opposition are, on closer inspection, really agreements with variations on how best to implement the agreement. Take the Inner Harbor project as an example. Some preservation interests call strongly for an authentic re-creation of the western terminus of the Erie Canal.
At the same time, many other groups brought up the Inner Harbor development as a hoped-for source of employment, business activity, tourism and family entertainment. These other groups were less specific, but they too expressed a wish for an "authentic" development that would be true to the character of Buffalo and its history.
This divisive and false political framing of the issue (are you for authenticity or not?) can become consensus based practical action on how to achieve it. We need a broad range of understandings about what constitutes historical authenticity even while building on the array of other objectives that make the project possible.
The constituencies that came together in the Inner Harbor discussions are only the most visible example of the topics explored at the downtown summit.
The next time someone complains of community inertia, remind them of the 300-400 people who helped review and launch downtown Buffalo's strategic plan.
ROBERT SHIBLEY is a professor of architecture and Director of the Urban Design Project at the University at Buffalo. This essay is developed in collaboration with the staff at Downtown Buffalo 2002!, a partnership between the University, Buffalo Place Inc. and the city created to review and, where appropriate, facilitate implementation of the emerging strategic plan for downtown Buffalo.
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