In many ways, Buffalo is Robert Shibley’s city. We’re all just living in it.
The dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning and recipient of the 2014 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture would no doubt scoff at such a statement. He refers to the city planning efforts he has spearheaded since the early 1980s as “a team sport” and downplays his own role in orchestrating the city’s current resurgence.
“We all want heroes, so we thump our chest and proclaim the kind of knight in shining armor coming over the horizon, saving the day,” Shibley said in a phone interview last week. “And there’s a lot of people who can stand up and appropriately thump their chests and should be deeply respected for their enormous contributions to this. But ultimately, it’s a team sport and runs across a broad cross-section of our community: public, private, not-for-profit, at every level of tiny to really substantial.”
But even team sports need leaders. And for Buffalo, Shibley was the right leader at the right time.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Buffalo in 1982, he set to work with local leaders to help formulate a plan for his long-suffering adopted city. In meeting after meeting, with mayor after mayor, he hacked away at the problem with a rare mix of academic rigor, political savvy and equanimity until he and his team had spelled out a clear way forward for downtown Buffalo.
There is a tendency, especially among those of us who have only been paying close attention to Buffalo during the past decade or so, to view its incipient resurgence as spontaneous or surprising. A popular narrative of the last few years has it that after the demise of the ill-conceived Bass Pro project, developers and politicians saw the error of their ways, got the idea that small-scale and piecemeal development was the way to go and injected the city with “lighter, quicker and cheaper” steroids.
And while there is some truth to the fact that Bass Pro’s failure hastened a new and more progressive mindset here, that narrative is incomplete. What’s missing from it is the long-term thinking and unflappable optimism of people like Shibley, who have been planning exactly this moment in our history for decades.
The plans now playing out most visibly on Buffalo’s streetscape can be traced back to a public summit in 1994, when Shibley and former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello convened a daylong televised public meeting on the future of the city at WNED Television’s studio.
That meeting eventually spawned a process that included input from some 6,000 people and provided what Shibley called “a citizen-grounded vision for the city.”
After the meeting ended, Shibley recalled, “Tony looked at me, I looked at him, we looked at the crowd. We had telephone call-ins, it was on the radio and televised, just an enormous amount of energy from a broad constituency about downtown. He said, ‘That was fun. Now we’ve got to take it out to the neighborhoods.’ ”
Over the next decade, that’s exactly what Shibley and his thousands of collaborators did.
In an article in The Buffalo News in May 2003, as the Urban Design Project’s award-winning “Queen City Hub” plan was being released, Shibley took stock of the trajectory of downtown Buffalo and urged community members to keep pushing for its revival.
“We have a new story to tell about downtown,” Shibley wrote. “It is that things are changing. Downtown is reviving and restructuring to meet the demands of the new century. We have a plan, and we are working together to make it real. ‘We’ is a consortium of business, government, colleges and universities and citizen organizations. No one of us can do it alone. All of us need to do it better.”
The fact that Shibley made that statement in 2003 shows the depth of his visionary thinking and serves as an example for the entire city about the practical power of optimism in the face of seemingly intractable problems. Across an extraordinary career, Shibley has shown us that you can will a new city into being by listening to the public, bringing an academic rigor to everything you do – and, perhaps most importantly, by refusing to give in to cynicism.
That trademark optimism continues today as he and his partners work on ways to extend the city’s burgeoning prosperity to its many disenfranchised residents, who continue to suffer even as construction cranes sweep the sky. And in the face of that immense challenge, perhaps larger than any he has faced so far in his career, Shibley is maintaining his positive outlook.
“I never find that the devolution into cynicism is helpful in any way,” he said. “No matter how bad the situation is, it never makes it better. You have to believe in the possibility of doing good work, and then you just have to design a way to make it possible.”