Buffalo, N.Y. — More First Impressions

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by James A. Bacon

Let me say up front that any comments you read in this post about Buffalo, N.Y., are totally superficial and devoid of authority. They are based upon a single stroll through downtown last night without benefit of an informed guide. Upon presentation of evidence to the contrary, I will recant everything! However, I would say this: First impressions are lasting impressions. Many other visitors will see the same things and draw the same conclusions, subliminally at least, even if they don’t have the same obsessive need to articulate them for the reading pleasure of the blogosphere.

That said, downtown Buffalo is a mixed bag. Let’s start with the positives. This city is blessed by a colorful history, a heritage borne of past economic prosperity, and a rich inventory of beautiful buildings and parks (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) reflecting that past. The architecture of the structures constructed circa 1900 is classic — great lines, proportions, detailing, etc. Any city would be proud to have them. Also, Buffalo has an extraordinary natural setting, on Lake Erie and the Niagara River at the juncture between Erie, Lake Ontario and the Erie Canal. And, of course, the larger metropolitan area includes the Niagara Falls, one of the great natural wonders of North America. You can get a sense of what the region, which is roughly the same size as the Richmond metropolitan area, has to offer in this video.

But someone, somewhere along the line, violated every sound rule of urban development. The city blasted freeways through the city, razed old neighborhoods, erected Cabrini Green-style projects, occupied vast spaces with parking lots and threw up ugly structured parking. Moreover, Buffalo had the misfortune to endure this spasm of redevelopment in an era in which the prevailing architecture for new buildings was 60s-era concrete chic. Some of the ugliest buildings I have viewed in my life are located here in downtown Buffalo, and some of the streets were among the most visually barren I have encountered from a walkability perspective. I can’t begin to fathom the decision of the Congress for the New Urbanism to hold its annual conference here — unless it is to use the city as a case study that violates every rule of New Urbanism. (I am sure there are lovely neighborhoods beyond downtown that are elegant examples of the old urbanism that inspired the New Urbanism but I haven’t seen them.)

I will say this about the housing projects shown in the photo above. They were the nicest housing projects I’ve seen — very clean and very safe. Our walking tour cut right through the projects without a thought to safety. There was a cute little community garden in the center… but very few people to be seen. As was typical of the mid-rise projects of public housing, little thought was given to creating hospitable public spaces.

The waterfront has great potential. What little activity I saw downtown took place here, where people were enjoying the Navy & military park, marinas and walking paths. It’s a bit of a jumble; the pieces are not connected very well. But the same could have been said of Richmond’s canal walk before it re-developed. It takes time for great places to evolve. Give it time — Buffalo will get there.

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3 responses to “Buffalo, N.Y. — More First Impressions”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    SF, Vegas (with Groveton no less!), Buffalo with unlimited wings and killer beer?

    Bacon, how come you get these gigs and we don’t?

  2. larryg Avatar

    because when you are looking for examples of Conservative/Libertarian SmartGrowth – you have to look far and wide!

    Buffalo is an old city.. 1789… though about 100 years younger than Richmond.

    Both have been around long enough to have established pre-road-culture urban cores…

  3. […] modern American city design. They are going to be very focused on the blatant failures of Buffalo (see Bacon’s Rebellion). They are many and the critiques are already showing up on the internet. Sure they will see some […]

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