As visitors to Buffalo, the estimated 1,300 “New Urbanists” in town last week had plenty of good things to say about the community: the people are friendly, the food is good and the architecture is fabulous.
They, too, sensed Buffalo is on the rise.
But as some of the top planners and architects whose job is to revitalize neighborhoods and downtowns, they pulled no punches when asked what needs to be done for Buffalo to realize its full potential.
Tear down the Skyway.
Slow traffic downtown.
Use the outer harbor to help rebuild the city.
Bring more housing and shopping to downtown.
Those are just some of the thoughts architects and planners from around the world shared with The Buffalo News during the Congress for the New Urbanism conference, which wrapped up Saturday.
The New Urbanism movement is about creating more walkable, vibrant communities. The theme of the four-day conference focused on planning principles for building more dense, compact neighborhoods with a mix of green space, housing and retail.
There was, of course, criticism of the Skyway, the 1.4-mile ridge connecting the inner and outer harbors, which is just the opposite of what the New Urbanism movement is trying to accomplish.
“I’d tear down your highway,” Douglas Farr, president of an architecture and urban design firm in Chicago, said of the Skyway. “That is cutting off all the real estate value to that waterfront.”
In fact, the Congress for the New Urbanism left a parting gift, of sorts, for Buffalo by introducing its own plan for the outer harbor.
Architect Stefanos Polyzoides, based in Southern California, presented a plan that would leave a third of the outer harbor green, but integrate housing, commercial and retail space to create a fashionable location to help with Buffalo’s rebuilding.
“It’s not going to happen in one shot,” Polyzoides told the conference goers. “Think about this. Don’t get overwhelmed by it. And for god’s sake, start.”
The visitors gushed over City Hall, but were less impressed with the architectural design of the Convention Center.
While Buffalo has a well-designed pattern of walkable streets, the downtown traffic needs to be slowed down.
The most vibrant communities don’t have traffic speeding alongside pedestrians, said Jennifer Hurley, a planner from Philadelphia.
“I would do some things to give back a little more space to the pedestrians and the bicyclists – adding bike lanes, widening the sidewalks, narrowing down how much space is given to the cars, because they shouldn’t be able to drive that fast in this kind of environment,” Hurley said.
While Buffalo is an interesting place with a comfortable feel, the visitors questioned why so many of the city’s grand old buildings are under-utilized.
“A lot of towns and cities around the country would kill for the architectural legacy that Buffalo has,” said Russ Preston, founder of a planning and design firm in Boston. “I’m wondering why the policies haven’t fallen into place to incentivize development and occupation of these buildings that are downtown.”
One of the biggest things Buffalo can do now is to take advantage of the tactical urbanism movement going on across the United States, Preston said. That’s basically making some small changes now rather than waiting for the larger plans to come to fruition a decade down the road.
“I can imagine with the cool art scene that is here there can be a lot of really fun little interventions,” said Erin Christensen Ishizaki, an architect from Seattle. “Take over some storefronts and have an interesting art show or put out a bench and a couple chairs on the sidewalk.”
The locals, meanwhile, point out all the progress in Buffalo and the New Urbanism principles that have been put into practice: more pedestrian walkways, added bicycle lanes, the development of the city’s proposed zoning and land-use code. That’s one of the reasons Buffalo was chosen for this year’s annual conference focusing on “The Resilient City.”
“I think it will elevate Buffalo’s place in the national consciousness for people who are really thinking about urbanism,” said Tim Tielman, whose group, Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Art and Culture, hosted an event at Silo City that drew upwards of 1,000 people.
The conference also proves that people who have pushed for New Urbanism approaches in Buffalo, including the preserving of old buildings, have been on the correct path, said architectural historian Francis Kowsky.
“The people who are accused of being obstructionists have been right all along, and this conference validates a lot of what we’ve been saying,” Kowsky said.
Buffalo did receive its share of praise from those at the conference last week, whether they were first-time visitors or returning home.
“I left in 2003, and I joke it was before the city got cool,” said Jason Haremza, an urban planner in Rochester, who grew up near Buffalo. “Great things are happening.”
On Buffalo’s resurgence:
“It seems like Buffalo is headed in a positive direction,” said John Young, a blogger at UrbanCincy. “The city has all the ingredients, the great bones of urbanism, to be a really great American city once again.”
On its architecture:
“The buildings are incredible here,” said Mary Vogel, an urban landscaper from Portland, Ore. “I had no idea you had such a rich architectural history. City Hall and County Hall and Erie Community College were dumbfounding.”
On the grain elevators:
“I think it’s one of the most spectacular environments I’ve seen because of its grit and authenticity and edge,” said Gilbert Rochecouste, an urbanist from Melbourne, Australia. “Going to a place like this opens your mind to the most amazing and creative opportunities. Buffalo could be globally iconic, and locally distinctive.”
Among the attendees were local builders and developers, 103 students from 32 colleges, as well as 94 public officials – although few elected ones.
Still, there is hope the conference will have a lasting effect in Buffalo.
Bill Tuyn and George Grasser, co-chairmen of the conference, believe the exposure of New Urbanism principles to a broader local audience will ultimately lead to building better places in Western New York.
“People will now know that they can say ‘no,’ ” Grasser said. “No – that’s not the way you should do it, that’s not the way that makes it more livable.”
“These ideas are not out of left field. They are tested,” said Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning. “New Urbanism is old urbanism, it’s back to the future. Embrace your city, love your city and make it better.”