Pride is what helps make a good city great. Pride is the ingredient which planners cannot directly manufacture, build, design or implement. Pride originates from involved, invested and in-tune residents and it makes all the difference. Entering Buffalo, it is nearly impossible to miss the abundant and bursting pride residents have for their city. From the person at the traffic light that asks you where you came from, where you are going and what new thing you should check out in the city to the countless times we have been told to move here, the Queen City’s residents have a sense of pride unfelt by Robyn and I anywhere else. It was no surprise to us that our planning contact here is a self-described “Buffalo Booster”.
Buffalo, New York, is the second largest city in New York State behind New York City. Buffalo, which is located in Western New York on the shore of Lake Erie, experienced substantial growth in the 19th and early 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Erie Canal and Lake Erie. It became a major transshipment point while the Erie Canal was in use, which later brought large steel plants. Though Buffalo experienced widespread prosperity in its early years, major decline followed as barge shipments moved from the Erie Canal to the Saint Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal, followed by the eventual closure of the steel mills. While Buffalo has faced difficult circumstances over the past 60 years, including losing more than 50% of its population, the city has found greater stability in recent years. As population and the economy has stabilized, there has also been a greater embracement of Buffalo’s rich history and the asset of its lakefront location. Numerous projects have been and are in the process of being implemented which help to reconnect the city to its waterfront and celebrate the history which made Buffalo possible.
To talk with a person at the center of all things Buffalo, Robyn and I cycled into Downtown Buffalo to meet Angela Keppel, AICP, who is an urban planner, works with local farmers markets, gives history tours of Buffalo and is president of the local APA chapter among other ventures. Angela grew up just outside Buffalo where her family owned a pizza parlor just outside city limits. For her, the city is her love and her home. We met Angela in Lafayette Square, across from Hotel Lafayette, which has recently been remodeled to include not only a hotel, but apartment units in response to the growing demand for housing within Downtown Buffalo. Just a few years ago, this area was largely run down and vacant, making the vibrant activity around us truly incredible, with ground floor retail available and a grocery store in the works for a currently underutilized parcel of land.
Heading towards Lake Erie, we rode down Main Street, which is undergoing a transformation of its own. In the 1980’s a light rail system was built along the street, which was also converted into a pedestrian mall through downtown. With completion and opening of the line in 1985, Main Street in Downtown continued to face numerous challenges such as declining retail, office and residential occupancy, depressing the area. While countless factors were at play, such as the city losing half of its residents, retail moving to indoor malls in the suburbs, the decline of manufacturing in the region, etc., many prominent voices blamed the removal of automobile traffic from Main Street as the main culprit for Buffalo’s decline. This movement has blossomed into the “Cars Sharing Main Street” project, of which the primary objective is to reopen Main Street to two-way vehicular traffic in an effort to stimulate economic development in downtown Buffalo, increase multi-modal access options and transit ridership and improve the quality of life.
The project is being implemented block-by-block due to available funding, with two blocks currently completed. The finished blocks do feature a more inviting streetscape than the aging, neglected infrastructure from the mid 1980’s, such as new planters and landscaping, benches, lighting and textured sidewalks. While the completed blocks do look much better than the old ones, I still cannot shake the feeling that reintroducing cars onto a transit route is the opposite direction most cities are currently moving towards as planning has come full-circle from designing places for cars to designing places for people. Often times the most desirable parts of a city are sections that feature human-scale development, such as narrow roadways, 2-4 story buildings, landscaping, nice sidewalks, etc. Much like Main Street’s decline after the rail system was introduced in the 1985, it will be difficult to directly attribute possible resurgence along Main Street directly to the automobile access given that so many other factors are at play such as improved streetscape and developments in downtown and the surrounding area.
Reaching the end of Main Street, we found ourselves at Canalside, the redevelopment of the Erie Canal’s convergence with Lake Erie. Canalside features numerous public outdoor spaces and activities, ranging from water bicycles in the summer to ice skating in the winter. Next to Canalside is the development of Harborcenter, a mixed-use sporting venue which features ground floor retail, hockey facilities and soon a hotel. Angela elaborated on how the Harborcenter development has helped to enclose the Canalside development, transforming a waterfront from parking lots underneath a highway to a major asset for the city and its residents. One of the main purposes of the project is to bring people and their money back into the city from surrounding suburbs in an effort to boost the city’s economy and allow for further revitalization. Though excited for impact the development has had on Buffalo, Angela hinted that she wished the city would spend more time and effort on the diverse neighborhoods that are found throughout the city, believing it would be beneficial for the city to be proactive in helping out local business owners which often work and reside in those neighborhoods through outreach and assistance programs. Her concern is not unfounded nor unshared; in fact, a good family friend told us the other day that in 10 years he thought most of the affluent population would be living in cities with the poor being displaced to the suburbs! Robyn and I have studied the impacts of gentrification in our classes, and it is certainly true that as planners, we have to be careful that revitalization efforts in inner city areas do not harm or displace residents already living there through skyrocketing housing prices that result from the “new cool place to be”. Still, it was certainly neat to see Buffalo bouncing back.
Peddling past the Commercial Slip, we came to the new Bike (and pedestrian) Ferry which transports people across the Buffalo River from the Commercial Slip at Canalside to the Outer Harbor, access that formally was impeded by a nearly two mile detour each way. Bicycle ferries are often used to “bridge” a gap in the trail network until funding for a permanent bridge can be secured. This model has been used successfully in Upstate New York and Vermont. In Buffalo, any bridge over the Buffalo River must be movable to allow for barge traffic, greatly increasing the cost to build, meaning the Bike Ferry is likely to be a more permeant solution here than elsewhere. Still, as pointed out by our interviewee, sometimes it is the smaller things that can make the most impact in a city (early she had referenced the Adirondack chairs distributed throughout the development as a key driver of visitors, since simply having a comfortable place to sit can transform an area from a place you move through to a place you go to).
After paying our hefty $1 fare, we arrived at the Outer Harbor within minutes. From here we were able to ride along a fairly new multi-use trail which connects to new active (any physical activity) and passive (sitting and looking at the lake, etc.) recreational activities along the banks of Lake Erie. Our first stop was a lighthouse on the tip of the Outer Harbor which marked the beginning of the historical preservation movement in Buffalo. From there, we cycled to the other popular destinations on the harbor, including a new playground, Doug’s Dive, and Times Beach Nature Preserve, a brownfield (area where there is real or perceived contamination often due to previous land uses) site which Angela’s employer had remediated, finally arriving at a nice playground before turning back.
As we approached our ferry stop for the return trip back, Robyn asked Angela what she thought made Buffalo unique from other cities. Angela thought about it for a minute or two and then her answer was very simple: “Pride.” Buffalo inspires a distinct sense of loyalty and commitment from its residents that we haven’t seen anywhere else (to this extent). Robyn and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing first-hand some of the projects that continue to boost Buffalo and we encourage others to come get a dose of Buffalo Pride themselves!
*Many thanks to Robyn for her contributions to this post.