Planners from around the world had just arrived in Buffalo this week when they headed to the region’s most walkable, vibrant streets.
Their first stops were in Allentown and Elmwood, two of Buffalo’s better examples of urbanism.
And then those who came for the Congress for the New Urbanism – maybe to the surprise of some – headed for the suburbs, namely the villages.
They walked Center Street in Lewiston.
They stopped to see Williamsville.
They wandered around East Aurora.
And they learned how the Village of Hamburg reclaimed its Main Street.
They liked what they saw.
Dan Burden, co-founder and director of the Innovation and Inspiration for the Walkable Livable Communities Institute in Port Townsend, Washington, led a group of more than two dozen people on a day-long tour of the region’s Main Streets.
He first saw Hamburg when called in as a consultant in the early 2000s.
Burden this week marveled at the changes along Hamburg’s Main Street – the refurbished storefronts, the outdoor seating, and the well-behaved motorists.
“It’s one of the greatest transformative towns in America,” Burden said. “I’m so proud of them.”
Led by Burden – considered one of the gurus in the field of walkable communities – the group of planners, engineers, government officials and activists looked at what these places are doing right.
And they looked for lessons to take back home.
“Start with one intersection,” Burden said. “It can be one school project where schoolchildren need a better way to get around. It can be a bridge across a creek. Whatever it is, it’s got to be one where people start working together and realize the power of having the community take charge of their community.”
Some commonalities exist among these vibrant villages, for sure. In each, elected officials or a passionate community core led the charge, while state government jump-started a movement with millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements.
Not all communities will have the same advantages.
But a number of villages and hamlets that can become more walkable again are waiting to be resurrected.
“The good news for many towns in the Buffalo area are that those patterns were created so long ago that they’re there,” Burden said. “Now, you can go rescue them.”
The bus rolled up to St. Peter Catholic Church at Center and North Sixth streets in Lewiston, where Mayor Terry Collesano greeted the tour group.
Collesano explained how the state Department of Transportation’s reconstruction of Center more than a decade ago helped bring the village alive. The project reduced the number of travel lanes, slowing traffic. Amenities, like the brick sidewalks and crosswalks, added character to the historic village.
Soon, the 90 businesses along Center began sprucing up their storefronts. Potted plants and white picket fences appeared. A growing number of community volunteers helped the effort.
“It caught on. It was very contagious,” said Collesano, who owns a village barber shop. “You can’t just do it on your own. People have to become involved and there are so many volunteers in this village that got involved.”
As Burden and tour organizer Chuck Banas led the group down Center toward the Niagara River, they discussed the subtle designs that add to the village appeal – the positioning of the benches, the shade trees, the large store windows that give pedestrians a feeling of safety.
Burden and the group duck down an ally that opens into a tranquil little pocket park.
“What a wonderful little discovery,” Burden said. “These are the kind of surprises that really make it come alive,”
Daniel DeLano, among those on the tour, said he will bring the ideas to his own village of Williamsville.
“Oh, yeah,” said DeLano, a Williamsville village trustee. “We take pictures and bring them back.”
More than 33,000 vehicles travel Main Street through Williamsville each day, a challenge when trying to make the village more friendly for pedestrians.
“As you can see, we have our work cut out for us in this village,” Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa told the tour group.
But the work has begun. Williamsville is trying to “take back” the congested commuting corridor from automobile traffic and make the village more walkable.
Its “Picture Main Street” initiative already has been rewarded with more than $3 million in federal money to help pay for a number of projects, such as installing “refuge islands” in Main Street’s turning lanes for pedestrians to cross traffic.
The initiative also seeks to create more interesting spaces for people to walk to, including pocket parks, gardens and a new village center along East Spring Street.
“It’s not about what the government wants,” Kulpa said. “It’s about groups of residents, groups of merchants – people wanting to push for that.”
The tour concluded at the old water mill on Spring Street, the new home to Sweet Jenny’s ice Cream. Owner Howard Cadmus likes the village’s direction.
“We saw a lot of opportunity, because we understand the vision of having a walkable community,” said Cadmus, who is buying the old mill with his wife, Tara. “If it was not for the village doing their “Picture Main Street” initiative, we wouldn’t have been as interested.”
James Jones, the engineer for the Town of Tonawanda, visited Main Street in East Aurora as the tour wound down.
Tonawanda is starting to renew its urban fabric, and these tours have encouraged Jones to think more broadly about projects that can revitalize the character of his community.
“Maybe a little more sidewalk, more landscaping or something creative,” Jones said.
“I think a lot of these ideas are starting to take root, as people are looking at the City of Buffalo rise from the ashes,” Jones said.
In the Village of Hamburg, the turn-around began with four roundabouts.
When the state proposed a $23 million reconstruction of Route 62 in 2001, village officials brought in Burden to present ideas on how to calm the traffic along Main and Buffalo streets.
The eventual design – which included four roundabouts – was more pedestrian-friendly and a turning point for the community.
Today, Main Street is more about people than the automobile, said Village Trustee Laura Hackathorn. Traffic accidents are down, while property values are up, she said. Meanwhile, the road reconstruction sparked a rebirth of the village’s downtown district, as merchants obtained grant money to improve their buildings.
“We took advantage of an opportunity,” Hackathorn said. “The money would either make us into something we didn’t want to be, or it could make us better.
“There’s energy here now,” she said. “There’s momentum and there’s a cool factor to it.”