excerpts from feature story

Barry A. Muskat

It isn’t often that Buffalo Spree gets out its ruler to give certain aspects of Western New York life an admonitory tap. But even though we prefer to look on the bright side, we can’t ignore newspaper headlines and the evidence of our eyes any more than you can. Our region is beset by many problems that cause our young people to leave and our neighborhoods to decline. Some of them are due to economic conditions faced by all cities where heavy industry has all but disappeared; others are the result of the larger worldwide fiscal crisis of recent years.

But some of our problems we bring on ourselves and we need to fix them ourselves. In the following pages we detail many of our failures with some suggestions on how they got that way. We’ve kept it balanced, though. There are also many reasons WNY is a great place to live, work, and play—we talk about those as well.

Of course, this is just a sampling of both the good and the bad. We know we’ve missed a lot—if there are omissions you’d like to talk about, respond via email or comments on buffalospree.com.



WIN
A sleek new tower spells success

By Barry A. Muskat

Avant photo by kc kratt.
The Avant has become the new icon in town, an emblem of how to do things right. It’s an example of a first-class, mixed-use, twenty-four-hour, vibrant urban building in the heart of downtown that has transformed the block it occupies. It’s a hub where people can work, live, dine, and house their out-of-town guests. This is a sophisticated building that would stand out even in cooler cities like Toronto, Chicago, or Manhattan, but it’s right here on Delaware Avenue.

The former Dulski Federal Building (a particularly ordinary precast-concrete brutalist building from the ’60s) has been stripped to its steel skeleton and reinvented with a sparkling glass skin. Glass replaces all exterior walls so that views extend from ceiling to floor and wall to wall. The cityscape scenes are beautiful from inside looking out, and the view looking back is incredible as well.

The structure occupies the full city block bordered by Delaware, South Elmwood, West Huron, and Carey Street. Cleansed of its aggregate stone shell and asbestos-ridden interior and given some new curvilinear elements, its profile now reads as a unique, bold, and elegant tower.

It sets the standard for the type of multiuse center that we’ve been teased with for years in elaborate plans by a series of developers for the Statler, AM&As, and the waterfront. But the difference is that here’s a project that’s actually come to fruition. It takes the best elements from other successful single-use entities, carefully zones them (with their own distinct entrances and circulation), then blends them together.

As the first true multiuse complex in the city, it proves that commercial tenants, condominium residents, hotel guests, and itinerant diners can interact in a thriving environment. This is first-class urban development and a sexy addition to our skyline.




FAIL
“Shabby” is putting it kindly

By Barry A. Muskat

Main Street photo by kc kratt.

All too often, photos of war-torn Beirut are the first images that come to mind when thinking of Main Street’s downtown blocks. The 500 block in particular has languished and deteriorated for years, declining even before rapid transit construction decimated what was left of the mercantile corridor. Other sections of the street have managed to reinvent themselves, but the east side between Huron and Mohawk remains an eyesore. The neglect and dysfunction continue back through to Washington Street.

The west side of this block was the site of one of the city’s earliest successful preservation efforts: E. B. Green’s Genesee Building was rescued and incorporated into the Hyatt Hotel. In recent years, the sadly missed L. L. Berger’s department store was converted into lofts to become the Bellasario Apartments. But hotel guests and apartment dwellers looking at Main see only vacant storefronts and deteriorated signage. These potentially cool buildings are begging for renovation, remediation, or gentrification—almost any positive “-ation” that would replace the stagnation and deterioration they’ve endured.

Rocco Termini had optimistic plans for the block. His Century City Lofts project would have saved most of the buildings, with infill structures and additional floors to blend original façades with new construction and create a new urban density on the site. The proposal also included a new parking ramp on the Washington Street side that would support the activities of the complex.

But the plan was abandoned. Termini says, “Unless the city is willing to do eminent domain, it’s dead. There’s no way to get consensus from twelve different owners.” (Eminent domain is the inherent power of the state to seize a citizen’s private property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner’s consent.) Termini can no longer see Century City happening without strong leadership from City Hall, or new cooperative energies from the existing building owners.

One bright spot on the block is the former Stewart & Benson building, which has been bought and rehabbed by well-respected restaurateur Don Warfe. Renovations to the late-nineteenth-century three-story brick building are nearing completion. The second and third floors will become two large apartments. Warfe will occupy the second floor, while the third, a large one-bedroom loft, will be rented. The first floor will be future mercantile space and incorporate parking for the units. The apartments feature the original historic materials, enhanced by skylights and new hardwood floors. The façade of the building keeps the outlines of the original windows (following preservation guidelines) while creating open porches.



FAIL
The hotel that wasn’t

By Barry A. Muskat

Elmwood photo by kc kratt.
Three years after the demise of the Elmwood/Forest boutique hotel project, the five shabby buildings on the east side of this corner have deteriorated even further into unrepaired, almost-derelict, mostly vacant structures.

How can the few residents of Granger Place who blocked the construction of a small, upscale hotel possibly think they did the right thing? They won the battle, but they surely lost the war. Their very private battlefield remains a very public eyesore and is a monument to missed opportunity.

It’s admirable to save the built fabric of our community, but these particular buildings have little architectural merit. They show no signs of investment or maintenance and there are many better examples of their type throughout the city. A ridiculous deed restriction that dated back to the 1880s was the technicality that killed the project, but the fact is that the lawsuits took the wind out of the developer’s sails.

The hotel project was designed to serve visitors to Buffalo State College, the Albright-Knox, and the Burchfield Penney, and would likely have been an instant success, with consistent occupancy. There was a committed operator in place and interesting plans for work-study programs with the college.

The new structure would have meshed with the community in terms of its physical structure, following specific urban guidelines that the neighborhood itself set for development on Elmwood. With community input, the architectural plans for the hotel had morphed into a design that really fit the neighborhood and was approved by Common Council as well as the Planning and Preservation Boards.

For years, city businesses have tried to figure out ways to bring out-of-town visitors directly to the Elmwood Strip to shop and eat and to patronize the small shops and restaurants of the area. This project would have fulfilled that goal, as well as enhanced the streetscape, the neighborhood, and the quality of life for Elmwood businesses and residents. Finally, the project relied on private financing, not on public funds.

What more appropriate design could be presented for that important corner?


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