Building Buffalo #1 (Blue Dog 18 October 2001)
Building Buffalo #2 (Blue Dog 25 October 2001)

An interview with Mark Mendell
part 1

by Bruce Jackson

Buffalo has no effective long-term planning, so nearly every proposed development project results in a war over whether, where, who, and when, no matter if the project is large or small; if it’s housing for the poor, the middle-class or the rich; if it’s a convention center, a gambling joint, a new bridge, restoration of an old building or construction of a new one; if it’s about access to the city’s mostly inaccessible waterfront or reclamation of some of the city’s destroyed parkland. Hardly anything happens here without a struggle, and often the struggle is so debilitating that nothing happens at all.

Late last month, the Buffalo News reported Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello’s had a new city development plan.  The “lynchpin” of the plan, said the News, was a downtown gambling casino.

Three other names prominent in the article were commercial property  developers Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino, and Mark Mendell, president of Cannon Design, one of the nation’s major architectural firms. Mendell joined Cannon in 1974 as the firm’s director of design and became its president in 1992. He  was Cannon’s principal for such award-winning projects as Sabanci University in Istanbul, HSBC USA, the Occidental Headquarters in Niagara Falls, and Tel Aviv Medical Center; he was managing principal of the Greater Buffalo International Airport Design Group.

I asked him to talk about how this development plan came about. I asked how this plan conflicted with or enhanced other development plans already in motion. Does it compete for funding with schools and health care, for example? Is the plan project driven or is it an overarching idea into which any project could or should fit? Is it just a way of diffusing public opposition to a casino and a convention center, a way to steamroll those projects along without the public discussion some politicians and most developers find so vexatious? I asked him how could any small group come up with a plan that effects every aspect of economic and social life in this city without submitting it to some sort of public process. I asked him if the mayor wasn’t really reporting on a bunch of people in the construction industry finding a slick way to do what they want and make money or if it was instead really a major step toward the one thing everyone concerned about Buffalo’s future says we must have and don’t: a rational development plan.

In response, Mendell spoke for a long time. The first part of what he said is printed below. Next week we’ll print the rest: his comments on the place of a new convention center in the grand plan, whether or not the plan goes belly-up if the downtown casino doesn’t happen, and the place of self-interest and money in all of this.

Mendell’s remarks are interesting and enlightening—but they only take us part way. This issue is so complex and far-ranging that no single point of view can clarify all the implications of it. In coming weeks, therefore,  we’ll put questions about this plan, and other questions about Buffalo’s future, to key public officials, among them Mayor Anthony Masiello, Common Council President James Pitts, State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, and Erie County Executive Joel Giambria.

A Problem and a Vision

A few weeks ago, Mayor Masiello announced a new development plan for the city of Buffalo. How did it come about  and who’s involved?

I think it came about kind of innocently in a conversation between Larry Quinn and Mayor Masiello talking about what was the right thing to do for the casino. The mayor asked Larry if he would help advise him where the location for the casino should be. Larry’s answer was that he was going to get together some of the best and brightest in this town to try to go to the root of the problem, which the lack of a bigger vision for the whole city into which any project like a casino might be able to fit. He convinced the mayor that that was a good idea.

He called me. He called Dean Gowen from Parsons, a landscape architect. He called Charles Gordon. He called Chris Guerra from Hamilton Houston Lownie. I asked Harry Warren, a design principal at Cannon Design, along with Bill Greeley from our office, to participate as well. Carl Paladino also participated. Larry asked all of us to pool our thoughts and our skills in a collaborative way. He asked us to address something that was bigger than everybody, which was, “What is the real vision for this city?”

After about a month and a half worth of work, there was a presentation to the mayor. He was encouraging and asked the group to refine the ideas that were hatched during the collaborative discussions. The result is what has emerged as this panoramic perspective on big ideas for the future of the city.

What specific problems did you address?

I think most people who have an interest and a concern about urban design, about city, would agree that we haven’t had a real vision or master plan for the city for generations. And it’s hurt us in a number of ways. It’s created a circumstance where every project of any size becomes a battleground, a source of controversy, but more or less without a context. It’s almost as if you’re trying to pass laws without a constitution.

That’s not to say that people can’t have legitimate and very deep disagreements. But the absence of a context is a serious impediment to achieving some of the bigger values that go beyond what any single project might be able to do for the city. The result is that there’s been what I think most people would agree, retrospectively, were a lot of errors, you could say blunders even. They’re legion among people who are concerned about this. The construction of the original convention center, which blockaded half of Genessee street. Construction of the atrium and ballroom of the Hyatt in front of that, because there was only a little stub of Genessee street left. The way the Main Street mall has played out. There’s a big debate over the convention center, whether there’s traffic on Main Street, casino, the Peace Bridge—they’re all in some respects emblematic of the absence of a bigger vision that people have an understanding and appreciation for, can understand and can relate to.

I guess my perspective would be that one of the principal responsibilities of leadership is to create the vision and to champion its realization. So one could say that there’s been to some degree a lack of leadership. Because of this lack of context, there’s often a negative anticipation to new projects: “If ‘they’ are proposing it, it’s probably dumb, there’s probably some hidden negative that will haunt us generations from now, we’ll rue the day we ever did it, it probably doesn’t deserve support, and probably in some cases it really calls for opposition.” That’s been characteristic of the way development has occurred or not occurred in the sort of parochial perspectives that have never, at least in my time, had opportunity to relate to a vision that in effect is bigger than all of us.

Five Themes

That’s what is behind this whole project. It’s not yet another project along with the three or four other major projects that people have to chose sides about, what priorities would be. It’s the creation of a framework and a set of big ideas that can allow discourse about individual projects in a practical way that moves the city in a very specific direction, which many people feel has been inadequately addressed or inadequately articulated for many many years. One could say for several generations.

So what is the plan?

The plan has five main themes:
    —Reestablishment of the radial grid connecting to the water.
    —Establishing a core.
    —Defining zones of land uses.
    —Creating gateways.
    —Creating a physical symbol of the city which towers over every element of the city and becomes the embodiment of the spirit of what the Queen City on the Great Lakes should be.

Restoring the Radial Grid

I guess I would say the first thing is the restoration of the radial plan, the opening of the Genessee street.

One doesn’t need to be a historian or a city planner to have an understanding about the origins of the radial plan of this city, with Niagara Square as the centerpiece, and Genessee Street, Court Street, Delaware, Niagara, all being elements that radiate into a series of center points—Lafayette Square being one. Most people, I think, know that plan was achieved by Joseph Ellicott, who, with his brothers Andrew and Benjamin, assisted Pierre L’Enfant in planning Washington, D.C. That radial grid has the potential to create a city that is much more dynamic in its character than a traditional orthogonal grid, which is maybe more characteristic of places like Manhattan, which were laid out to make it easy for immigrants to understand to navigate through the city.

Over a period of time, with places like the Main Place Mall. the Convention Center and the Hyatt, we’ve kind of obliterated the grid. In the process we’ve reinforced this spine character of the city, which is very concentrated around Main Street, and that has left no real sense of core.

Restoration of the radial grid would permit the establishment of a core, which would bring back some of the potential for a pedestrian level city, a city that can be easily circulated through, and one that has some special character.

The first step in doing this would be the reestablishment of Genessee Street as a primary corridor, a boulevard that links the city to the water. This has is particularly important because it reaches into the East Side. One of the characteristics of Main Street, as many people have observed, is that it is kind of a cordon sanitaire between the downtown and the East Side. It’s a very difficult line to penetrate. Restoration of Genessee Street as an expression of the radial is an opportunity to engage with other parts of the city besides the immediate surroundings of Main Street in a way that has a significant potential for embracing everybody. This is not just a plan for some people, but a plan for everybody.

A Triangle at the Core

The second piece would be the building of a core that takes advantage things that are working well in the city. For example, the entertainment activity that has come to be a source of pride now on Chippewa. If there is a way to create a linkage between Chippewa, Delaware, Niagara Square and Genessee street,  we’ve got the makings of a triangle which is very different from a spine. It could truly function as a core from the perspective of a development strategy. If we work hard at developing the edges of that triangle and then work inside it, we have a vision which can guide projects and can guide where you put certain things.

This triangle formed by Chippewa, Delaware, and Genessee  suggests very strongly locations for areas of entertainment, retail, and housing.

One very obvious issue is a convention center and another is a casino. But this plan is not about the convention center, and it is not about the casino. It is not advocating a specific project. This plan probably should have been in existence ten years ago before these projects were even mentioned as potentials for the city. What we’re suggesting is that within this triangular corridor that there be two anchors. One would be a convention center. The other could be a casino.

An Entertainment District

This could become an anchor for the entertainment district, and that whole perspective of amenities for restaurants, entertainment and other nightlife, which is a very important part of the whole booking and marketing strategy for convention centers. Which, parenthetically, is one of the reasons why it was not a good idea to locate the convention center, if there was going to be one, in an underdeveloped zone of the city because you wouldn’t be able to attract convention bookers very easily: they’re very concerned what their people do after the meetings are over.

There has been a study that suggests that the existing Mohawk building, which I think is a favorite of many people in town, could be easily converted into a 400-room hotel, which could be the headquarters hotel that’s necessary for the existence of a convention center and would easily be tied into that.

Which then places the significance of Genessee street as a major boulevard into a relationship with the water and to Niagara Square where the edges of Genessee Street would become tremendously valuable properties. When was the last time anybody heard about increased land values in Buffalo? That again is one of those what we would call “big ideas” which isn’t project-driven but has a broader motive.


We often hear Buffalo referred to as the “Queen City of the Great Lakes.” Our relationship with the water should be a dominating factor in the character and development of the city. That’s one of the things that we see as a big idea, part of the big vision that would involve removal of some impediments that now block the city from the water.

We could go back decades.  Some people would lament the construction of the Marine Midland tower at the end of Main Street blocking off the access of Main Street to the water. But as Main Street south has now developed, the opportunities for connection to the water through Niagara Square and Genessee Street are much richer and much easier to accomplish.

This plan suggests that the section of the 190 which is the principal barrier between the city and the waterfront be removed; it can be put underground. Aboveground would be a lakeshore boulevard not dissimilar from the kind of lakefront that has been developed in Chicago, which then provides a lot of potential for development. This would create a zipper rather than a barrier between the shoreline, the waterfront, and the city. And that would become an obvious zone for the development of housing.

By “zipper” you mean—

I mean something that brings two parts together as opposed to keeping them separated, a boulevard which then can become the basis for development of housing which has focus on the water and a perspective on the water. If the 190 goes under a cut-and-cover arrangement we can extend our parkland. The ability then to move across Erie Street and make a connection to the Outer Harbor is enormously enhanced so that a potential for even more rich development into the future could be easily opened up.

And with the reestablishment of  the radial grid along Genessee, this lakeshore boulevard has the potential to make this not just the white man’s plan, but a plan for everybody.

Part of Larry’s whole idea was:  we know this town. We have a lot of bright people here. We don’t need to import somebody from New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco to tell us what’s wrong with us and tell us what we should do. And if you can get the best and brightest around the table right here in our own town to sort of focus on something they all care about with some passion, but is bigger than any one entity or group, you can produce something that is very powerful. That appealed to this community. I think that’s part of the message here that somehow should come through, that this not the white knight whose galloped in from the east or the west or the north or the south. This is us!

(Next week, part 2: What happens to the plan if there’s no casino, and who makes money on Buffalo?)

An interview with Mark Mendell
part 2

This two-part interview with Mark Mendell, president of Cannon Design, is the first in a series of interviews with public officials and private individuals working on plans or engaged in projects designed to alter the quality of life in Buffalo.

In last week’s segment, Mendell discussed aspects of a comprehensive long-term development plan for Buffalo offered by several architects and urban planners and by commercial developers Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino. Their plan focuses on a new center of energy in the heart of the city,  a triangular space in which entertainment and retail sales would flourish and about which new housing would develop. The plan would restore Joseph Ellicott’s radial grid, and reestablish the city’s access to the waterfront, foreclosed decades ago by route 190. According to the Buffalo News, their plan hinges on a gambling casino and a new convention center. We’ll begin with Mendell’s comments on the role of the casino in the group’s plan for Buffalo:

The Casino

How does a casino figure in the plan?

The group that came up with this plan is not an advocate for a casino. I think the group, like the community, is quite divided about it. But if there is to be a casino, then we ought try and do two things.

First, try and locate it in a way that would give some benefit to the city as opposed to being a totally isolated decision which may end up causing serious problems down the line which we don’t anticipate because we don’t have a larger framework for it.

Second, we’d suggest that whatever revenues come to the government from casino operations should be used to fund some significant bonds that can help underwrite the rebuilding of our city.

We’re suggesting that if one anchor of the downtown triangle is a convention center, the other anchor could be the casino, which would be focused around the Statler. We know that there’s a significant amount of parking that needs to be accommodated for the casino to work. We’re suggesting that north of the Statler, the casino itself be built on top of a garage, ringed around with retail. That provides an opportunity to recreate a retail corridor on Delaware, where one used to exist, taking advantage of a casino.

It wouldn’t be focusing attention on Buffalo as a casino city but using the traffic that will come from the casino to get people to leave some of their money here some place other than the slots. That retail environment can begin to reinforce this notion of zones of development which would allow the city, or whoever is going to drive a plan like this, some kind of a rational basis for urging, directing or inducing certain kinds of development in certain places.

You could maybe reconceptualize the whole debate about a casino, perhaps analogous to the debate about the lottery, which is the state inducing people to gamble, but here’s a mechanism, if people are going to gamble anyway (there are lotteries everywhere), to help fund some educational initiatives. If there is a casino here, why don’t we take advantage of it and use that as a lever to redirect the future of our city in a positive way? So we’re not doing it to support gaming,  and we could even be very uncomfortable with the idea, but use that as a source of revenue to support what could probably be in excess of $700 million of public funding.

If there were no casino, what other things might form that anchor in the triangle? Does the geometry survive without something major of that form?

I would have to say that it does. I’m not sure that I have the right answer now. But there’s no doubt in my mind that retail is the right thing for Delaware. That’s where it was. That’s where it can be. And that’s the logic of the core.

This is not a tomorrow plan. It a ten-, fifteen- or twenty-year plan. We think there are significant federal dollars which are accessible, hundreds of millions of dollars. Over the course of 20 years or so there’s been close to half a billion dollars worth of block grant money that has come to Buffalo. You put some of those numbers together, even without the casino, and you have a potential to realize some of the ambitions of this plan.

I think it’s constructive, or instructive, to think about where we would be if we’d had this plan ten years ago. We wouldn’t be asking ourselves “What are the priorities we have to chose from amongst the various initiatives that people can dream up for our city?” We would already be convinced and on the road trying to guide those projects or those individual initiatives in a way that conforms to the bigger idea.

So I would say that while the casino could be a very convenient lever, the plan should still be seen as something this city, the leadership of this city, needs to embrace and needs to promote.

City Planning

You have to understand that the work you see here is mostly work that’s done on a volunteer basis.

If you were to go into any major city and go into city hall and ask to see the master plan you’d be presented with lots and lots of drawings and maybe volumes that would be many inches thick. We have not done, nor have we had the opportunity or other resources to do, a very detailed, analytical review, answering in a thoughtful way with plausible alternatives all the kinds of questions you raised.  We haven’t been able to address all the details of the funding or the mechanisms of how we would significantly engage the whole community in a spirit of public participation.

I wouldn’t want this plan to be understood or characterized as something that was dreamt up in secret in the back room that is somehow going to be forced upon this community. It’s a way in our mind of getting some discussion going and some serious commitments to the basic principles that I think ninety percent of this community would applaud. Maybe a very detailed piece of work deserves to be done to embroider this in a way that enhances its substance and ultimately its credibility.

But I think that we all know that these really are the issues for Buffalo and any plan that’s going to be successful in transforming the city to maybe have the possibility of realizing its potential has got to embody these things.

Are there cities that have been in disarray and despair that have come up with a plan that actually worked?

It would be interesting to do a little case study on the transformation of Cleveland, which is a city was struggling, a city which had a lot of the physical characteristics that you would normally think of as assets which became almost embarrassing negatives, like the fires on the Cuyahoga River, the demise of the whole industrial base, racial conflicts, and a very politically divisive environment.

A number of people, primarily in the private sector, had the initiative and the courage to come up with a vision. It was more ambitious than this. I think it was more than $2 billion. They actually led the redevelopment of their city, and the mayor cooperated with that. Now he’s the governor. So that’s not so bad.

I think Cleveland is a very good example of a city that was coming from a place comparable to where we are, where there was energy and there was determination and there was a plan that was led essentially by private citizens and executed through a government apparatus.

Vote-Getters and Money-Makers

This all looks very good and it’s a huge amount of development. But once it gets out there, how do you keep it from getting taken over by short-sighted politicians and people who are primarily interested in making a buck?

I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being a politician. I’m not an anti-government person. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in business. I’m not an anti-business person. But I do think, to the extent that we are ruled by the ballot box, and priorities change every election or have the potential to change every election, and/or there are parochial interests that have the skill or the capacity to round off some corners which shouldn’t be rounded off, which should be kept square, that this whole plan would be well served by creating an entity that could be above that kind of a battle.

One of the suggestions is the mechanism that was used to develop Times Square and Battery Park City, almost like a special commission which would not be subject to the vicissitudes of the ballot box. If this is a 10-,15-, or 20-year plan, the people who start it aren’t going to be the ones to finish it, so you have to have a mechanism for continuity. A public authority can respond to individual parochial demands that might harm the overall plan, and it could redirect or improve it in constructive ways.

This is a city which is so desperate for any new investment and any new development, it almost seems like it doesn’t matter what the proposal is. If someone is going to invest money, we will embrace them. Wouldn’t it be great if we had some ideas about what should happen and what people should do and what people should respect in the context of their investments? Think of successful cities that have very specific requirements for development. They’re in a position to do it because the return on the investment will justify it.

I’m confident that the chances of that happening are slim, perhaps nil, unless and until there is a vision around which people can rally and have some kind of a basis for making these kinds of decisions or for making demands in both the public and the private sector. The public sector, who are for funding and support, and the private sector, for getting in alignment for what in the end is going to be good for everybody. Because, if this is a great city, all the people who live here are going to benefit from it.

And to the extent that we’re unable to build a momentum that we would all like to see, we’re going to find ourselves in this flat uninspired zone of disappointment and, for some people, despair about our future.

Getting It

This plan is about a positive view of the future. We can do it. A lot of people here, who represent the next generation of leadership, want very much to make this a great city. We’ve got all the assets to make it happen. We have not had the vision and maybe we haven’t had the unity of will to create the vision that could then be the basis of defining our future.

I think that the idea of the radial street pattern, the idea of trying to create a core and heart to the city, the idea of connecting to the water, the idea of creating gateways to the city are the principles that people have been lamenting for years and years and years.

People say, “Why don’t ‘they’ get it?”  Well, this gets it.

The possibility of having a plan that’s simple, that’s understandable, that people relate to whether they’re private citizens or they’re in the private sector or public officials or elected officials, seems so compelling that we would like to see this become the plan with a thousand fathers. Not that it’s a business plan or it’s this person’s plan or that person’s plan, but it becomes everybody’s plan. Then it becomes the basis for driving what we do in the future.

Complex questions remain:

 —Can this plan really work without both a casino and convention center as the driving engines?

 —A few of the individuals involved in the development of this plan stand to make a good deal of money if the proposed gambling casino is located in downtown Buffalo. How can we know if or how much their private interests influenced this public plan? If the plan is a good one, need we even worry about their private interests?

 —Does this plan or any plan like it exist at a level of abstraction above specific projects, and is it therefore unsuited for kind of scrutiny and public review now going on with the proposed Peace Bridge expansion, or is it so basic a charter that it demands greater scrutiny than any single project or group of projects?

 —How should and how can the public be involved in whatever master plan comes out of this or any other group’s work?

 —Is it possible, in what some observers describe as a poisonous political atmosphere, for any good ideas to translate into real projects?

We’ll put these and other questions to key individuals in Buffalo in coming weeks. Next week: State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt.