Long Story Short: If it's not fixed, plan it

10/8/18



illustration by JP Thimot

 

With a little bit of luck—and a lot of planning

Buffalo is doing great. We’re in the midst of a celebrated resurgence, a veritable boom. How do you think that happened: luck, maybe? Well yes, a lot of it was luck—and Cuomo’s billion-dollar budget boost—but it’s also thanks to planning. Planning that goes back to 1994, when then Mayor Anthony Masiello asked Robert G. Shibley, of the School of Architecture and Planning at University at Buffalo (UB) to lead a public engagement process. What resulted was Buffalo’s first comprehensive downtown and neighborhood development plan in four decades, along with a blueprint for the parks and the waterfront, all of which were adopted and built upon by Masiello’s successor, Mayor Byron Brown.

 

The times, they are a-changing

Last week LSS discussed how climate change and the Great Lakes cleanup are positioning Buffalo to be the Miami of the future. How will we handle population growth, shifting demographics, and myriad other changes? How do we embrace development without gentrifying the city’s character into oblivion? How can we even begin to answer these questions?

 

A thousand planning scholars walk into a university…

As luck (there’s that word again) would have it, the annual conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) is being hosted this year by the Department of Urban and Regional Planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning. (Note the popularity of the word “planning.”)

 

Architecture and planning associate professor Bradshaw Hovey got an idea. Why not take advantage of all that brain power from around the world to host a planning workshop on the future of Western New York? And so “What’s Next for Buffalo Niagara?” was born.

 

On October 24, thirty local experts will join thirty planning scholars from ACSP,  plus ten UB faculty members and ten graduate students, to work in five topic areas: energy and environment, economy and employment, land use, transportation and metropolitan form, housing and neighborhoods, and governance and civic culture. That’s eighty people trying to come to an agreement on five difficult topics in a single day. Should be fun.

 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it …

The panel will be charged with drafting a set of statements about what Buffalo Niagara must do—now and in the future—to ensure that it continues to thrive as a city and region. And they won’t settle for the usual five or ten-year plan. They’re going for the next half century! “Now is not a time for complacency,” says Hovey; “Now is the time to ask ourselves what we need to do in the years to come to ensure prosperity, health and community fifty years from now.”

 

It’s no easy task to predict what the future will bring, especially with today’s much-hyped “mega-trends,” such as globalization, urbanization, demographics and climate changes, the digital revolution, the gig and sharing economies, human biotechnological manipulation, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and robotics, not to mention warp drive! “We can’t know exactly what these trends will bring,” Shibley says. “But we don't have to be victims of them. We can actually, in a cultural way, decide what kind of community we want to live in and make sure that the decisions we make and the actions we take lead us in that direction.”

 

The workshop begins at 8 a.m. in the atrium of Hayes Hall on the UB South Campus and continues from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in 403 Hayes.

 

The public is invited to respond

The workshop will generate a set of statements around the five topic areas. The results will be presented and discussed at a special public forum at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center on October 26, beginning at 6 p.m., with refreshments starting at 5 p.m. Activists, officials, the general public, and ACSP planning scholars are invited to this session to hear and respond to the workshop recommendations. Web and print versions will be published so this conversation might be “extended, deepened, and sustained,” to inform ongoing planning and action in the city-region.

 

The workshop and forum are sponsored by by CannonDesign, the Baird Foundation, Ashai Design Consulting Group, and Anthony M. Masiello. For more information visit the What’s Next for Buffalo?  

 

 

Fix that!

Buffalo is doing great. Yes, we said that already, but it’s really true. Still, there are things that need fixing. We’re not talking about social problems, education, or government waste. All of those and more could do with some work. But here we mean physical repairs. Some are just niggling little annoyances, while others involve major overhauls. These are things that make you wonder, why don’t they fix that?

 

For example:

Potholes

Last winter was tough on roads, no doubt about that. But as we leave summer behind and gear up for wintertime, it’s striking how many holes and cracks from last winter have never been filled. Take West Ferry for instance. It’s probably not the most severely eroded thoroughfare in Buffalo, but it provides a consistent spine-jarring ride from Niagara to Main Street.

 

Buffalo’s Department of Public Works rates streets throughout the city from one to ten, ten being perfect condition (one presumably being a rutted dirt path). East and West Ferry rates a six along most of its length, but then, so do the majority of streets throughout the city (give or take a point). My own street scores a six, and it’s pothole-free, which raises the question as to whether the Public Works Department arrive at the street ratings by throwing numbered darts at a city road map. LSS reached out to City Engineer, Michael J. Finn, at the posted department’s “contact us” email address, but didn’t receive a response.

 

Not surprisingly, potholes are a problem we would like to see fixed, but does Buffalo have the manpower and financial resources to get the job done? If not, then…

 

Fix that! And this:

The thirty-degree finial

More than $100 million, including $76.5 million in state funds, has been spent to restore the Richardson Olmsted Campus, particularly H. H. Richardson’s Buffalo State Hospital, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Perhaps the city’s most unique lodging and conference facility, Hotel Henry, opened in the complex last year. The massive twin towers with their distinctive copper roofs (originally clad in diamond-shaped clay tiles) have been a Buffalo landmark since their completion in 1880.

 

When the building was restored, why didn’t the team straighten one of the eight copper finials at the corner of the west-most tower? I mean, come on, would it have been so hard to bend it upright from its current thirty-degree tilt?  It’s easily visible from Forest Avenue, and it drives us crazy every time we see it.

 

 

The road to nowhere

A Niagara Falls Boulevard safety audit conducted by Amherst and Tonawanda has come to the following conclusion: the road was designed with cars in mind, and it’s dangerous for pedestrians.

 

How much did they spend on that audit? Because anyone looking at this bustling five-lane thoroughfare can tell that it’s made to move a vast number of vehicles quickly, and the fact that there have been six pedestrian deaths in the last five years strongly suggests that there are safety issues for people walking along the street. With poor night lighting, few signals or crosswalks, too many driveways and on and off-ramps, and up to 53,000 vehicles whipping by daily at forty-five miles per hour, the street is not meant for walking.

 

What are they doing about it?

For now, small changes include making sure pedestrian push buttons work and are located properly, eliminating some driveways, making the highway underpass navigable, and adding trees and pavers. Next year, crews will add more street lights.  The Department of Transportation has already painted high visibility crosswalks and stop bars at intersections.

 

How about long term?

What the towns want to do is change the culture, and that’s not easy. They hope to encourage pedestrian-friendly development to replace car-centric businesses. Maybe cut down the driving lanes or slow traffic.

 

But here’s the thing: for decades, Niagara Falls Boulevard was developed without a plan, vision, or controls. Malls, plazas, chain restaurants, and big box stores populate the road. Large parking lots provide drivers with plentiful free parking. This is what happens when development runs wild. Can a genuine culture shift occur in such a capitalist paradise?

 

The takeaway:

Fifty years ago, as a teenager, I knew the director of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, who was then planning the Audubon area of Amherst, and the University at Buffalo North campus. I recall him pointing to Niagara Falls Boulevard as an example of poor planning, resulting in an ugly suburban mess. That was half a century ago. It took until now, prompted by fatalities and lawsuits, to do an audit of the problem. What are the chances anyone can make the kinds of changes necessary to convert Niagara Falls Boulevard into a pedestrian and bicycle friendly roadway anytime soon? Maybe in another fifty years, but I won’t see it happen.

 

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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