The “transformation” of Tim Tielman is complete.
From “obstructionist” to project-shaper, from “obstacle” to asset, Buffalo’s foremost preservationist is finally getting the mainstream due he has always deserved.
Tielman, in fact, never changed. Only the public perception – fueled largely back then by vision-challenged power brokers – of who he is and what he does has finally shifted.
The shift came full circle with Tuesday night’s packed-crowd unveiling – at, fittingly, the Larkin Square public space Tielman designed – of “Buffalo: America’s Best-Designed City.” John Paget’s beautifully shot 12-minute promo film is a tribute to the ongoing revival of a city that – after years of lurching like a barroom drunk from one silver-bullet plan to the next – has finally shaken its mega-project addiction. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBsi5FGbY2Y
Tielman is a primary talking head in the rebirth-celebrating flick. Once maligned and marginalized by the powers that be, Tielman now is used as a civic spokesman. Not since Linda Blair’s head swiveled in “The Exorcist” have we seen as dramatic a turnaround.
Although promotional in intent (it was partly funded by the state and Visit Buffalo Niagara), the film reflects reality. Logjams have been broken lately on the downtown waterfront, on the outer harbor, with downtown housing and in the growing realization that preservation is not a roadblock to development, but an economic and aesthetic key to it.
In recent years, we resurrected history and created a waterfront park at Canalside. We broke the transportation authority’s 50-year stranglehold on the waterfront. We are repopulating downtown and transforming such icons of the past as the Lafayette Hotel – saved from the wrecking ball – into foundations of our future. It’s deeply gratifying for all of those who fought over the years for civic sanity.
Tielman was at the center of much of it. Many people missed this, but for every Bass Pro or mega-convention center he opposed, he offered a saner alternative. Every time he prevailed, the community benefitted. From Canalside to Larkin Square to various architectural gems, the sites glorified in the film are to varying degree products of Tielman’s battles and vision.
“Looking at the track record of Tim and the preservation community collectively, from Shea’s to Canalside to the Guaranty Building, there is nothing they fought for that we look back at with regret,” said Ed Healy of Visit Buffalo Niagara. “So many of the stories we now tell about Buffalo and our identity concern sites or buildings that were saved by preservationists.”
Canalside’s Commercial Slip and public space are there largely because of Tielman. His Preservation Coalition led the fight, which included a federal lawsuit, to resurrect history. He understood that a big-box retailer had no business doing business on our downtown waterfront.
Tielman helped to turn aside a mega-convention center that would have obliterated the Ellicott District, since resurrected by Rocco Termini and others. Chunks of Main Street, Ani DiFranco’s Babeville, the H.H. Richardson Towers and the Webb Building are on the Tielman-led “save” list. Larkinville is a product of businessman Howard Zemsky and his partners, who revived the old Graphic Controls plant. But Zemsky hired longtime pal Tielman – the two visited European cities to study urban design – to plan the Larkin Square public space.
“I just think Tim is an asset to the community,” Zemsky told me. “He’s super-smart, creative, and he understood the value of our architecture and history as unique resources long before that view was widely adopted.”
I don’t want to overstate this. Buffalo’s rebirth is not the story of any one person. Tielman (often working with his ex-wife, Sue McCartney) had a larger hand in some things than others, and plenty of help with anything he did. The list of preservationists, activists, public officials and concerned citizens who fought various battles is admirably long. Mark Goldman helped to craft the post-Bass Pro “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” waterfront philosophy. Termini has been a force in downtown revival. Rep. Brian Higgins has for years whipsawed change on the outer harbor. But Tielman was so marginalized for so long and led so many uphill – but often victorious – battles, that the triumph of his sense and sensibility is worth celebrating. In numerous ways, his efforts contributed to, and dovetail with, Buffalo’s rebirth.
“It’s nice to see that what we’ve been saying all of these years is bearing fruit,” Tielman told me. “We couldn’t have achieved it if there wasn’t a groundswell of popular opinion behind the ideas. People made their voices heard.”
Tielman’s ascent in the mainstream public eye not coincidentally coincided with Zemsky’s rise in the civic ranks. As Andrew Cuomo’s main man in Buffalo, Zemsky (who partly funded the film) brought a sorely needed progressive sensibility to the region’s corporate boardrooms. He carried with it an appreciation of Tielman’s resume and talents.
There still are plenty of battles to fight. But in recent years, big pieces have fallen into place. The film celebrates what we are doing with what we’ve got. In it, Tielman comments on the fruits of his own labor. Nice work, and it’s nice to see him get some credit – and to see the larger community finally “get” him.