Thursday, September 25, 2008

Heimat - Buffalo NY

Heimat is a great German word that can be translated as hometown, but it means more than that ... German speakers use it to indicate more of a connection with your hometown. Maybe it's a function of the fact that Europeans move around less than Americans.

Anyway, I am visiting my hometown of Buffalo NY this week. Buffalo has been really hard hit over the last decades. The population has gone from over half a million to a quarter of a million. It's a classic rustbelt city, now the auto plants and steel factories (I used to work in one) are closed - they even cut-up the steel buildings in my old steel plant and melted them down as scrap.

The nice thing about the city's shrinkage is how quickly nature comes back. Things are growing and quiet ... although there is still lots of pollution that needs to be cleaned up before it's healthy, but the greenery is nice.

Buffalo also is a veritable architectural treasure house; there are buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham - all very famous turn of the century (1900) architects. But there are also industrial buildings: most important are the reinforced concrete grain elevators - many of which are now surrounded by the returning nature in a sort of surreal landscape. These grain elevators were very impressive to modern architects in the 1920s and were highlights for European architects visiting the USA at that time.

Buffalo, it seems to me, has made mistake after mistake in trying to address its economic problems. These problems probably started in the 1940s as the city failed to invest and embrace innovative new ideas. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, the city was really struggling and was grasping at any solution. I always think of Michael Moore's movie "Roger and Me", when he interviews the director of the Flint economic development agency, the guy says we need a festival marketplace - then the urban planning solution - and it's exactly what Buffalo was saying. How many downtown festival market places were created in those years? (Lots!)

Buffalo also made huge mistakes with its urban planning. Locating the State University of NY at Buffalo's new campus at a sprawling greenfield site in the suburbs (12 miles from downtown) is a great example. Another is spending half a billion dollars (1970s dollars!) on an underground (5 miles) streetcar line with a one-mile surface mall downtown. The underground portion was expensive and unnecessary while the surface mall pretty much killed off all the remaining downtown businesses. Compare to Zurich which spent about 100 million rebuilding its surface streetcar and bus lines to make them more attractive. I know the problem with federal money only being available for specific types of projects and the 'get in line' for funds mentality, but this was a monumental waste of money. (By the way, Buffalo is not unique, these problems took and are taking place in cities all over the USA.)

So, what's my solution? I think that conditions are serious (and given the economic situation now: extremely serious). Solving problems will require very hard decisions and very drastic actions. I would start with focusing on the city's strengths: its beautiful location on the shore of Lake Erie, its architectural heritage, the reemergence of nature in the city, and the strong feelings local people have for their city.

Clearly the city and suburbs will need to merge into a regional government; state funding is going to be severely reduced and local communities will need to work together to solve growing problems.

The city needs to do triage - what neighborhoods will be saved, which neighborhoods will be allowed to die (remove infrastructure, don't maintain old infrastructure). Focus on adding multi-family housing with amenities and local services in the locations that remain in order to create new active walkable neighborhoods.

This triage could be done by creating a new open space master plan - similar to Omstead's plan for Buffalo from the 1800s. The master plan should Create a real historic park linking the grain elevators, open-up the waterfront for people, bring back natural creeks (e.g. remove the Scajaweda Expressway that runs through Delaware Park to the Niagara River - replace it with a greenway and sunlight the creek; sunlight the creek all the way to Cheektowaga).

As Daniel Burnham said, don't make small plans!

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts as I sit at the airport waiting to leave Buffalo.


Anonymous said...

Of course you realize that indeed the Metro area has turned the corner. So far this year the Buffalo metro has the 38th largest increase the number of people employed in absolute year over year data. That's 38th out of 376 metro areas in the country. Construction permits according to the FW Dodge division of McGraw hill are up and I quote "Construction contracts signed in the two counties during the first eight months of 2008 were worth $971.8 million. That was up 36 percent from $712.2 million in the period of January through August 2007"

The Airport is on pace to set yet another passenger traffic record despite a national downturn.

Bus and subway ridership is showing increases far above the national average with the subway line leading the nation in ridership increases over the past year. In fact according to the federal statistics Buffalo's subway carries more passengers per car per day than any other system in the nation.

wcs said...

That's a good set of thoughts about these older cities.

One thing I'm kind of happy about in my home town (Albany) is that, because of the large movement of people to the southern and western US, the city and its suburbs didn't get ruined by the crazy over-development we all know and hate.

I think the smaller northeastern cities can be saved, and should be, as we enter the post cheap gasoline era. There's room for good urban development, sprawl is not as rampant as in the sun-belt, and that old architecture is still there, lovely as ever, waiting for a little TLC.