You might say that Robert G. Shibley mapped Buffalo’s rebirth.
Over the past three decades, through thousands of public meetings and private conversations, he helped to plan the city’s resurgence. You can see his imprint on the waterfront. In the medical campus. In fact, the entire downtown corridor.
Now, as many of the plans Shibley spearheaded begin to visibly transform the cityscape, one of the lead architects of Buffalo’s resurgence is stepping into the national spotlight.
The American Institute of Architects announced today that Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, will receive its prestigious lifetime achievement award in June for his role in expanding the public’s understanding of architecture and spurring the revival of his adopted city.
Along with honoring Shibley’s contributions to public design and architecture in the region, the award spotlights the accelerating transformation of downtown Buffalo and its rising stature among urban design advocates across the United States.
Through his work with UB’s Urban Design Project and the City of Buffalo, Shibley and his students have played a guiding role in the growth of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, spurring the infusion of residential and hotel projects in a long-dormant downtown and the pushing the ongoing resurgence of Buffalo’s waterfront.
“I think we would be very hard-pressed to witness the success that we have if it weren’t for Bob Shibley,” said Robert Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation and leader of the Erie Canal Harbor Restoration Corp. Gioia, who has worked with Shibley on several plans and projects over the past three decades, praised his work on the medical campus above all.
“Ten years ago, I don’t think people would have ever thought, or five years ago, that you’d have Children’s Hospital, the Gates Vascular Institute and the Clinical Translational Research Center,” Gioia said, adding that Shibley was able to synthesize the previous plans for the campus into one unified approach. “It’s only people with a talent like Bob’s that are able to do that.”
Shibley, 67, who founded the Urban Design Project in 1990 and also heads the UB Regional Institute, will receive the 2014 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture, considered one of the highest honors for American architects, along with Arizona architect James L. Abell and Carole J. Olshavsky of Ohio.
In a phone interview earlier this week, Shibley shared credit for the national recognition with the entire community, a tendency toward modesty that has served him well in the highly political world of urban planning and development.
“It’s very flattering, but I think city-making is a team sport,” Shibley said. “There have been so many people at the university level, at the municipal level in our region, in the development community, the not-for-profit communities who collectively have established the conditions for us to begin to imagine a much better quality of life in our region. I’m just part of that mix.”
Even so, it would be difficult to find a significant change to Buffalo’s streetscape over the past 30 years that doesn’t have Shibley’s fingerprints on it.
After arriving in Buffalo in 1982 to chair UB’s architecture department, Shibley immediately set to work with the administration of Mayor James D. Griffin to plan the development of the city’s underutilized waterfront. Over the next 30 years, across three mayoral administrations, five New York State governors and thousands of meetings with community residents and politicians, Shibley oversaw the creation of several of the region’s most important long-range plans.
These include the documents that set the stage for the emerging medical campus, the proliferation of hotel and residential projects downtown, the ongoing efforts to restore and revitalize the city’s Olmsted park system and the celebrated transformation of the waterfront. That work is encapsulated in “Queen City in the 21st Century,” Buffalo’s comprehensive plan adopted by the city in 2006 and which contains the seeds of the city’s ongoing resurgence.
Shibley also was instrumental in transforming Lafayette Square from a poorly designed traffic circle into a beloved public space in the late 1980s and devising an ambitious master plan for the University at Buffalo. And he played a key role in ramping up public excitement for the city’s upward trajectory in frequent interviews and opinion pieces in this newspaper and elsewhere, a factor that Bates said was important in his selection for the AIA award.
“A lot of the development and positive things and rehabilitation of various areas of the city were directly attributable to his efforts and the work of the students in his design labs,” said Pittsburgh-based architect Bill Bates, who chaired the jury that chose this year’s Jefferson winners. “I think it’s appropriate to recognize someone like him, and it also helps the public understand there are people who think about this, and that those people are architects and urban planners, and it’s not just serendipity that it turns out to be a nice place to live.”
In his work with residents, developers and non-for-profit groups, Shibley said, he has learned the importance of balancing the public’s desires with the need to promote progressive ideas about public architecture. Unlike some city planning strategies that have included public opinion phases merely as tokens, Shibley’s approach has been painstakingly democratic.
“I spend a lot of time in public meetings, having long conversations at small tables over maps and drawings and have for 32 years as part of that conversation,” Shibley said, stressing that his job is always to make sure that both “local knowledge” and “expert knowledge” always play into important public decisions. “It’s always messy, and in that sense I view it as one of the core sites of democratic action.”
Former Mayor Anthony Masiello, with whom Shibley began the work that would result in the city’s comprehensive plan, praised his ability to incorporate public opinion into his work.
“He was indefatigable,” Masiello said. “I mean, we’d be in public hearings and there’d be angry people, there’d be concerned people, there’d be all different kinds of opinions, personalities and he just handled every one the same way – calm, cool, collected. He made everybody feel as though they had something to offer and that their opinions were important. He was that way when I first met him 20-some years ago, and he was that way when I had breakfast with him last week.”
In reflecting on his Jefferson award, Shibley said, “We’re going to be in a continuous struggle to create an environment where we can all live life well, and there’s an awful lot of people in our region who haven’t felt the positive impact of the changes that are occurring yet, and need to.
“It’s easy to get caught up in how good things feel and I think they are moving in the right direction. But there’s just a huge amount more work to do,” he said.