Monday, September 30, 2013

Buffalo's Great Opportunity: The Outer Harbor

Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios.

According to the City's website, when City Hall was under construction, the chief architect John Wade apparently drew a sketch depicting the building in 2427. The Art Deco masterpiece, already one of the largest municipal buildings in the country, featured additions that made it twice as big in his drawing.

Though easily interpreted as artistic hubris, in many ways, this anecdote demonstrates the level of optimism pervasive in Buffalo during the 1920s. After nearly sixty-years of astronomical growth, it's almost no surprise people were thinking 500 years into the future.

Much of that optimism was tied to two incredible infrastructural developments that dramatically transformed Buffalo in the late nineteenth century. One was the completion of the New York Central Railroad's Belt Line, which opened up vast portions of the city to industrialization, and with nineteen stops spaced a mile apart, also lead to the rapid urbanization and expansion of new neighborhoods throughout Buffalo.

The second is the well-documented Parkway System designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect responsible for Central Park. The system was revolutionary in many ways, not only for it's ability to connect vastly separated parks, but also as a representation of a city's commitment to public space during a era decidedly focused on industrialization.

The centerpiece of Olmsted's vision, with the Belt Line to the East.

The two developments complimented each other, and in many ways lead Buffalo to a golden age of prosperity and optimism about the city's development and future. There's a reason why City Hall's design incorporates a foundation meant to support an even larger structure: the number of jobs, and the quality of life for many in the city lead to incredible belief that providence held the city's interests for decades, if not centuries, to come.

The collapse of that dream in Buffalo over the last half-century is similar to the experience throughout many other Rust Belt cities, but also represents a paradigm shift that ripped through most of this country's modernist aspirations and ideals, replacing it with a bitter realism that has pervaded our national ethos.

For many, the resurgence of Buffalo in the last five years is re-cultivating that former idealism, fostering incredible hope about this city's potential. It is fueled by the development in the harbor, the creation of the BNMC, the revitalization of Elmwood and Allentown, and the stabilization of areas downtown, along Grant Street, and in the East Side, often hand-in-hand with our city's greatest assets in the arts and ability to come together through festivals and community events.

This optimism is tempered, however, by the pragmatic embracing of our current reality; we're one of the poorest cities in the nation, encumbered by thousands of vacant and neglected properties, whole swaths of our population have abandoned any notion of attaining "Middle-Class"hood, our education system is in shambles, and employment is so scarce that collecting cans out of people's trash is a surprisingly popular industry.

An incredible example of this conflict is unfolding on the Outer Harbor, as the de-industrialized space is ripe for potential development, and Buffalo has the ability to create a park that's not only recognized nationally, but internationally, for it's uniqueness. The recent choice of the ECHDC to sell the old waterfront Ford Plant to Gracious Living represents the other side of the debate, namely, that Buffalo needs jobs and economic activity, and it's strategic location as the easternmost-inland water port should be fully utilized in an age where land-transportation is becoming increasingly expensive.

Naturally supporters and detractors of both sides have come into conflict, driven by black-and-white perceptions of the waterfront's possibilities, but they are missing the chance to expand the debate beyond a 400-acre section of land.

What if this is our chance to define Buffalo's next hundred years in the same way that the pairing of the Olmsted System and the Belt Line shaped nineteenth and twentieth-century Buffalo?

The 21st-Century Park
For many, the biggest problem with the new furniture factory is that it represents a regression to a failed past, as well as a missed opportunity to create a park that would not just make inland-cities envious, but metropolises all over the country. Few inland cities share Buffalo's unique vista, as it is one of the only places not along the West Coast where the sun sets in the west the water, and as we are all aware, it is truly a spectacular sight.

The combination of fresh water, green-space, and proximity to essential nature preserves make it an ideal spot for a park, and one needs only look at examples in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York to see how parks can positively affect a city, not only in perception, but in return on investment. A nationally-unique park would not only make Buffalo a more ideal tourist destination, but would also be another catalyst to the development occurring downtown, along Ohio Street, and in the Old First Ward. Additionally, as Buffalo looks to draw, and retain, young professionals (especially the influx of 10,000 medical staff and students downtown), an enormous waterfront park would be an incredible incentive for them to stay.

Aside from all the reasons listed above, one of the biggest reasons to keep the land as public space is the simple fact that much of the area is contaminated and lacks public utilities. This was, after all, the preferred dumping ground of municipal waste and toxic sludge dredged up from the canals over much of the twentieth-century. Any development there would need public infrastructure improvements, as well as significant remediation to be utilized. Though a park would also need funding for remediation, if both would require public subsidies, wouldn't we want the right to use what we're paying for whenever we want?

One of the biggest obstacles with this plan is the lack of easy access to the Outer Harbor, as well as the limited space for park-side development due to the elevated stretch of Route 5 that runs adjacent to Fuhrmann Boulevard. Any park on the Outer Harbor would require new access bridges for the public to fully benefit from it, as walking and biking are extremely inconvenient (and somewhat dangerous) at the moment.

Industrial Use
The selection of the Ford Plant by Gracious Living has many straight-forward benefits, including the reuse of a vacant and underutilized industrial facility, as well as the 250 potential jobs added to the area. Though that is hardly a dent in the overall employment issues, it represents a potential $10 million annually in income to city residents, which certainly offsets the public subsidy to relocate there.

Looking beyond that, however, is the potential this site demonstrates about Buffalo's continued viability as an industrial port in the twenty-first century. According to several reports, including this 2005 Study, the "Great Lakes" corridor has some of the greatest potential for maritime shipping as gas prices increase. Though Buffalo is often bypassed because of the St. Lawrence Seaway, it does have incredible infrastructure available, not only in its harbors, but with the many rail lines and rail right-of-ways that still criss-cross the city. On top of that, the city features a highway network designed for a metropolitan area twice as big, perfect suited to an industrial economy that no longer exists in the region.

This infrastructure could allow Buffalo to market itself as a true twenty-first century multi-modal industrial hub; transportation by ground, rail, water, and air, located between two of the largest metropolitan and shipping areas in North America (Toronto and New York), and overflowing with cheaply-valued and underutilized (if not completely abandoned) industrial facilities.

Considering this, the Gracious Living factory could be an incredible opportunity to demonstrate Buffalo's unique capabilities, allowing us to recapture a portion of our historic identity. It could be the flagship for future development, bringing back much-needed jobs to an area starving for employment.

Buffalo's Great Opportunity
Above are two chances for Buffalo to stop crawling into the twenty-first century, and instead catapult itself forward with truly visionary development. At first glance they seem antithetical, unable to coexist along our waterfront, but then again, Olmsted's ideas for public space flew entirely in the face of early-modern ideals of industrial efficiency and urban organization.

Much like Victorian-era Buffalo, we should not limit ourselves to one form of development. We have an historic chance to create a park that will draw people downtown and to our waterfront, not only from all around the city, but from all over the region. Simultaneously, rather than lament our industrial past, we can begin re-embracing it and promoting one the city's access to regional transportation network and production facilities.

Of course, the public needs to be vocal about our needs and wants. Why should the best parcel of land, which is immediately adjacent to the great development activity downtown, be used primarily for industry, or other plans that limit public access? When comparing the potential of this site as a park to say, a stadium/convention center complex, we need only look at how well Olmsted's hundred-plus year old system has fared compared to our region's current stadium and convention center, both of which were outdated nearly as soon as they were built. One clearly stands out as the better investment.

As marked in the map above, the potential for that southern portion is not some well-kept secret, as it was the site of Bethlehem Steel, and still is the home to several other industrial complexes. Furthermore, Republic Steel is currently planning on expanding it's operations, and Buffalo recently secured a Dubai-based steel company as well. There is a reason why it was a center of industry for so long, and as foreign-manufacturing returns to the United States, it could resume that role once again.

The increased commercial and industrial presence on the Outer Harbor could even work in the park-proponent's favor: the more people traveling along the waterfront, the better the justification for easier access, possibly leading to the creation of new bridge to the northern portion of the Outer Harbor. Even Gracious Living's selection of the Ford Plant could prompt regional leadership to reexamine a light rail extension into South Buffalo and the Outer Harbor as part of this development. For those craving commercial and residential options on the waterfront, a large park coupled with transportation improvements could bring visions like Trautman Associates "Queen City Landing" to life, nestling a commercial node amidst a long stretch of public space.

"Queen City Landing," Courtesy of Trautman Associates

There is a great deal of optimism about this city's future, and much of it is well deserved due to the activity coalescing downtown and in several of it's neighborhoods. Though we should be cautious and pragmatic, we should not be pessimistic because of our past. In the same way we shouldn't expect a return to 1920s Buffalo, when a new project doesn't meet our expectations, we should resist the temptation to say, "Well, at least it's something."

I think we can do better than that. It's time for this city to stop walking around with a chip on it's shoulder, and act like a city who has a future, maybe not as bright as its past, but surely better than the present.

One hundred and fifty years ago, city officials did not settle for "just a park": they hired the most prominent landscape architect in the country to design a system that survives (despite our best efforts to kill it, in some cases) to this day. One hundred and thirty years ago, this city paired that progressive action with rail infrastructure that allowed the creation of factories and neighborhoods that defined Buffalo's twentieth century.

Buffalo has an opportunity to make decisions just as monumental as those, decisions that will help it thrive during the twenty-first century. When it comes to this city's future, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: Buffalo needs only look at it's past for guidance.

The pairing of public space and industrial infrastructure brought Buffalo into it's first golden age, and a level of optimism that lead to a City Hall designed to last 500 years.

It's possible that that same pairing could help us realize our current potential, so that second golden age or not, maybe John Wade's sketch can still come to life in 2427.

Written by Derek King, Director of Architectural History at Preservation Studios. 

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