(Blue Dog, 15 November 2001)

Building Buffalo

James Pitts:
Looking at the Future in the Rearview Mirror

(The second of two parts)

by Bruce Jackson

Last week, in the first part of this interview, Buffalo Common Council president James Pitts commented on the development plan for the city of Buffalo produced by real estate developers Carl Paladino and Larry Quinn and several architects and designers. He even gave it a name: the “Fountain Plan,” after the spectacular fountain in Lake Erie they suggest as a symbol for a reinvigorated Buffalo. He said he agreed with the developers’ suggestion that the present convention center be torn down and the city’s radial boulevard design restored and he discussed the changes wrought in the quality of city life when the Kensington Expressway (which he would like torn down as well) slashed through what had previously been viable neighborhoods. He continues his comments on the restoration of Buffalo here. (Click here for links to part one of the interview with Mr. Pitts, as well as previous interviews in this series focusing on Buffalo’s current problems and future options.)


That ugly-assed monstrosity

The Fountain Plan reestablishes the city’s radial street grid and suggests ways we might reconnect the city and its waterfront. Some critics worry that the economic engine for the Fountain Plan seems to be a casino and a convention center.

Yes. Those are the two things that I think have provided some impetus and motivation for their plan.
 I said to them, “You don’t want such a fundamentally good plan to be tarnished by a person’s view of whether or not a new convention center should be built or if one should be here or there, or are you against casinos or are you for casinos. Just deal with the infrastructure issues and those other issues will play out themselves.”
     I said, “Why would you put a casino or convention center right next to St. Michael’s Church? Why would you attempt to take [M&T bank president Robert] Wilmers’s parking lot when you know they’re going to resist that because they’ve got hundreds or thousands of employees who use it every day? Why would you build a convention center in such a way that it recreates a wall between downtown and the East Side?” People still talk about the new Gold Dome building, where all of the glass and beauty and style is on the Main Street side and you have this flat wall facing the East Side.
     Why do that? Just deal with the question of the boulevard and creating the magnanimity of reconnecting Genessee Street. Don’t just put trees along Genessee all the way to Michigan Avenue; come up with a plan that connects it with Martin Luther King Park. Come up with a plan that connects it to some of the new housing developments that are happening within the community.
     We have these uses and these things that can occur as a result of reconnecting, of getting rid of that ugly-assed monstrosity there [he points out his office window, across Niagara Square, toward the Buffalo convention center], of creating focus down here— a fountain, a tower, whatever. It would be reconnecting communities and neighborhoods with the water, making it easy to get to. You don’t have to pay to get there, you can walk there, you can run there, it’s there.

And nobody owns it.

Nobody owns it. It’s public access. It’s ours. It’s the community’s.

Get rid of all the mistakes

And then talk about a way of beginning to do the same thing along the water. Get rid of the Skyway. Tear it down. The traffic engineers will say—and we’ve had this conversation—“Oh my God! We’ll create a nightmare!” So what? It’s already a nightmare. Try going up there on a really windy day. They close it down. In the wintertime they close it down.
     I said to the traffic engineer, “What happens when they close it down?”
     “Well that’s a different story.”
     How’s it different? In fact, people don’t want to go on the Skyway because they’re afraid for their lives.
     Wouldn’t it be better to provide infrastructure into places like the inner and outer harbor, which then allows us to begin to plan the redevelopment of those areas? As long as you got the Skyway, you never will. Furhman Boulevard is never going to reach its greatest potential.
     If you’re talking about the importance of the focus provided by that fountain, when you have that boulevard going down along the water, going out into South Buffalo, into those areas that are now being looked at, like the Union Ship Canal, even reconnecting with Lackawanna, you then are restoring what made this area great in the first place. Its waterfront.
     I also said to them, “If you begin to push this you then settle other issues.” Right now you got people saying,  “We need downtown housing, downtown housing.” Well, we’ve got downtown housing: the Lower West Side, Allentown, along Michigan Avenue. The reason that those areas are not readily seen as downtown housing is because there has not been a restoration of those radials. There are one-way streets that are cut off.
     Here’s an example of why I think this plan is so great. Some years ago, Clinton, from Michigan Avenue over to what is now Pine Street, used to be one big vacant lot because all of that stuff was torn down. It was blocked off and cut off because of Sheehan Hospital and some other things that were part of urban renewal. As part of our new housing construction, I said “Let’s reopen Clinton street.” My point was, if you’re going to make these communities viable again, you got to put the streets back. When Joseph Ellicott and others designed the place, their design was a good one. It made sense and it provided the basis for Buffalo to grow, so let’s get rid of some of the recent mistakes. When we reopened Clinton Street, we had immediate buyers for those houses. It reconnected that East Side community with downtown.
     Same thing here. I think that there’s a real need to get rid of the mistakes of all these throughways and expressways that have cut us off and alienated us. Reopen Genessee Street, reopen downtown, somehow atone for the mistake of putting a trolley car system on Main Street, reconnect with the southern boulevard that connected South Buffalo with the rest of us.
     I think that would provide the basis for unified growth and better understanding and communications and relations among communities in the city. It’s important for us to do that.
     There’s another result that I think would happen with this plan: you would then provide traffic, ease of circulation, and greater pedestrianism and uses in other places in downtown, so you would bring back retail. You give new hope to Washington Street, Ellicott Street, you give new hope to Franklin.
     Look at Franklin now:  the Main Place Mall was built and it cut off those streets coming across. Church Street was reoriented, half of Eagle was cut off because of Main Place Mall. A lot of people don’t know that.
     So I think this is the right way to begin to talk about how we revitalize the City of Buffalo, because now you’re beginning to go back to the things that made the city great, and we can improve upon them instead of trying to change them because we thought they were wrong.

The hole in the donut

You get a lot of people who look at America and say, “Gee, it looks like the economy is bad, how can we grow, how can we become more progressive?” One of the ways is to embrace diversity. The same here: if the city of Buffalo is going to grow, you cannot talk about revitalization in the future without dealing with poverty and without talking about redeveloping the East Side. The East Side cannot be Irv Weinstein’s legacy to Buffalo. You know: “Pistol packing punks on the East Side.” That’s not its future. Its future is to be the place that it was initially: a point of embarkation for the new immigrants who are coming to this country, and also for those people who want to be and who are urban, and who want to live in a place that’s got a decent quality of life. That’s how Buffalo’s going to grow. If you keep leaving a hole in the donut, you’re going to end up looking like a donut.
     You’re never going to change a suburban person’s mentality or mindset who says, “I don’t want to be bothered with the city.” Or “I haven’t been downtown in 25 years.” You have people in the city of Buffalo who haven’t been on the near East Side since they were born. And why? “Oh my god, this place is terrible. If I walk over there I’m going to get shot in the head or I’m gonna get raped, my god, there’s nothing over there but devastation.” I had one person who had not been over there since he was a kid and he had heard about all this stuff that we had done over there, new housing and the rest, and he said, “Why don’t you take me over there and let me see?” I took him around, and he was flabbergasted. “Well, this places isn’t like Beirut. It’s an alive part of the city and it also has tremendous potential.”

It’s not just the East Side. Lower West Side is part of that.

You’re absolutely right. And portions of South Buffalo. Take the First Ward as an example.

Which for a lot of people might as well be another country. They don’t know how to get there.

They don’t know how to get there, plus the people who are there are paranoid about so-called urban renewal. Take the whole zoo issue. They were, “Yeah, we heard that before. You’re going to come down here, take all of our property, say you’re going to build a new zoo, and it’ll never happen. Throw us in the street. Where are we going? I don’t want to live nowhere else. I want to live right here. This is where I grew up and I don’t believe you.” That’s exactly what they said, and you can’t blame them. Because promises have been made and not kept.

Looking in the rearview mirror

Earlier today I said to someone, “If you consider the mindset of those who are in the private sector—the Luiz Kahls, the Andy Rudnicks, and the others—they’re still in this old industrialism mindset. They’re not looking at the future. They’re sort of driving along, going down the road, but they’re looking in the rear view mirror. They’re looking in the rearview mirror and they’re driving that way.”
     We cannot look at our future as we’re traveling through a rear-view mirror. We have to begin to look at what is the reality and what are the things we want to do. I think that’s where the Fountain plan breaks through that crust, because now we’re not talking about a specific project: “Well, it’s just a convention center. Or it’s just casino gaming. Or, we gotta have downtown housing over here.” No. You’re dealing with fundamental structure and design.
     If something is going to be spectacular and positive and successful you have to lay the groundwork. This Fountain Plan is laying the groundwork for Buffalo to be great again because it reconnects communities and neighborhoods with downtown and it gives a new centrality, where we begin to erase those old mistakes that don’t work.
     I think from that point of view it’s really one of the brightest ideas that I’ve seen come out in a long time.
 And you think it could work without a convention center and casino?
 I think they should not be the focus. The focus should be to reopen those streets, reopen those radials, redesign those thoroughfares and infrastructure to reconnect those communities and to connect these thoroughfares with existing projects that are out in the city. Major projects.

Fundamental things

By dealing with infrastructure, you’re dealing with fundamental things. You’re dealing with roadways, landscaping, you’re dealing with the very stuff of what cities are made of and why cities are designed. Cities are designed along transportation routes, the ease of accessibility to what is called natural capital, natural resources, whether it’s water, whether it’s vineyards or whether it’s places where you’re able to grow food.
     We don’t have to allow the car to control us. We can control the car. We have to develop boulevards and streets that accommodate different interests and different designs. That’s what the proper design of infrastructure does.
     I’d like to see a city-wide design competition where we would just simply look at infrastructure and try to undo some of those mistakes that were made in the past, where we would reorient traffic and interest and activity and energy in such a way that it restores our community’s neighborhoods and commercial areas.

But not for looking backwards.

Not for looking backwards, no. It has to be forward looking because we do live in a different day and age. We live in an electronic age and Buffalo is one of the best wired cities in the whole nation. To what end? People are still looking in the rearview mirror.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson