The North Park Theater building sits at the heart of the growing Hertel Avenue shopping district in Buffalo. It is one of my very favorite buildings, not because it is a masterwork of some great architect and not because it makes some grand heroic statement, but because its a composition of quiet logical urbanism. It is a simple background building, city architecture at its best. It is much beloved in the neighborhood and is the kind of building we should be constructing in multitudes but rarely do anymore. It is big (Hertel's biggest at 73,000 sf) and is long, filling the entire length of the block. It is actually made of of three connected buildings constructed in 2 phases. The simpler 2 story east and west wings, with a vaguely Spanish / craftsman style rendered in warm brick and tile, flank the taller more ornate neoclassical / art deco theater entry rendered in gray stone. The wings are similar but not quite identical which adds visual interest. The long unbroken block of this building is rare in Buffalo today, where the pock marks of parking lots have become way too common. This building with its large number of shops and mixed uses gives great life to the street. It has been at the center of the Hertel rebirth and likely is a major reason for it as well.
A few years ago the building was just another sleepy old commercial building in a sleepy commercial district. It was in a slowly declining state when Tom and Alice Eoannous bought it in 1996 with the intent of breathing new life into it. Investing in a large building like this in a mostly residential neighborhood was certainly a big risk for the new owners but they saw its importance in the neighborhood and the opportunity presented by the building. They persevered where others would not have dared. Their stewardship of the building over the last 6 years has been spectacular not because they have done anything spectacular. Instead they have been making simple and incremental improvements which has in turn given the building back its elegance while attracting a steadily improved quality of tenants. It is heartening to know that this building is in such good hands.
I noted that we do not build buildings like this very often, especially in American cities the size of Buffalo. It is clearly a good building form that should be emulated. Unfortunately this kind of great building is almost impossible to build because of the laws that forbid it and misguided do-gooders and NIMBYs who would fight it tooth and nail. I have been thinking a lot about the North Park building as I read James Howard Kunstler's book titled "Home From Nowhere". The book focuses on urbanism and a better way of building our cities. Written a couple decades ago, it may be more relevant now than ever before. Kunstler is a well known new urbanist writer and podcaster. He has much to say about the stupidity of our current way of building. In this book he describes several people-scaled mixed used development projects, both proposed and completed, from the early days of the New Urbanist movement in the 1980s and 90s. The completed projects were spectacularly successful (see Mud Island in Memphis TN). Other projects never got off the ground as they were sunk by narrow mindedness and stone age zoning which demanded sprawl style development. Kunstler describes a project developed for the small town of Mashpee on Cap Cod Massachusetts which would have created a densely built commercial and residential center reminiscent of the typical historic New England town people love. Unfortunately Mashpee had locked in a set of laws which required large lot development in a misguided effort to save the remaining pristine rural land from over development. Bad zoning along with regional bureaucracy doomed the proposed dense walkable development and ultimately spurred the kind of spread out sprawl that currently blights the Cape area today. Kunstler notes that they love their dense historic town centers but legislate against them! This Cape Cod story makes me think of North Park because it is a great anchor to a walkable city neighborhood. It is clearly an asset to the area and people love it. It is the centerpiece of the best part of Hertel Avenue. It would also be impossible to build today.
To build the North Park today you would need to increase the property area by 63% in order to provide parking and another 10% for "open" space as required by the current zoning laws. To accommodate the building's 7 apartments, 800 seat theater, 14,658 sf of retail space and 4,300 sf of commercial space you will need to build140 parking spaces (more if any of the stores contain a restaurant).
It currently only has 11 parking spots (and this parking area is not coincidently the ugliest part of the block). You would also need to set back the corners so that the building aligns with the fronts of the houses on the adjacent residential streets. To provide this additional space for parking and other requirements you would need to purchase and demolish perhaps 6 neighboring (tax paying) houses. Of course those houses are in a residential zone so you will need to have their zoning changed to commercial. You could appeal for a variance but once you do this you are open to public complaint. It is likely that the neighbors will not like the project and will fight you. They will complain about the traffic and will probably complain about parking even though you are already tearing down the neighborhood to provide the parking. They will say your building is too
big and is not in scale with the surroundings. They will complain about demolishing the neighborhood to provide the parking too. If you are successful in getting your parking lot they will probably force your curb cut onto Hertel Avenue rather than the side streets as has been done with other recent projects on the street. This means you will not have an unbroken line of shops but will need to break the building to allow cars to pass to the parking in the rear. Or perhaps you will not be able to demolish the houses and will need to make your building smaller and put the parking right on Hertel where you had intended to have shops.
Anyone looney enough to propose a building like the North Park today would be blocked at every turn with protest and lawsuits even if they could get past the archaic city zoning and parking restrictions. The lawsuits will tie up your project for years or perhaps the city will just not approve your project in which case you might just build a Rite Aid instead with a typical street-life killing parking lot moat around it. No one will like the Rite Aid but it will fit the zoning and will be easily approved with no public debate. In the future people will look at your Rite Aid as a reason why all projects need to be fought to the death. Buffalo is not alone in this. It is the way America is mostly built today. Cities across the country outlaw the very kind of development that often results in higher tax revenue, livelier streets, and higher property values. We legislate against buildings like the North Park without giving thought as to why. Current zoning is all fear based and knee jerk. Even though we can plainly see that the North Park works and should be emulated it is illegal to build and would very likely be fought to its death if proposed today. The North Park building does not cause traffic and parking armageddon in the neighborhood. It is the jewel of the neighborhood. Try to build one like it today and the irrational car fearing NIMBYs will come out of the woodwork to defeat it. It is time to start being smart about how we build our cities. Buffalo is developing a new code which will hopefully turn the tide and bring Buffalo to the forefront of a new way to build. Let's hope so. The Green Code can't get here soon enough.
See some great stuff on the theater part of the building here