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Placemaking in Elmwood Village

By charles gordon (with Jocelyn Gordon):

Building dense, lively mixed-use neighborhoods involves tackling complicated issues. In a previous essay we outlined several long-term recommendations for a parking solution that would enhance the Elmwood Village neighborhood business landscape without imposing additional stress on surrounding residential streets.

StreergeregeggProgramming for density – i.e. creating economic development – also implies planning for higher and better land uses.  With respect to Elmwood Village, a better land use scheme implies eliminating, or at least reducing, the many (10) corner lots that enable surface parking on Elmwood between Allen Street and Forest Avenue.  These corner parking lots are small, inefficient, create unsafe walking conditions, fracture the streetscape continuity, and are just plain unattractive.

Most professional placemaking experts concur that if the Elmwood Village is to continue to evolve, parking demands (even current parking demands) will require new, discretely placed and judiciously planned multi-level parking structures.  The parking structures can be incorporated with new mixed-use developments that include commercial and residential uses.  These new developments should include appropriate and clear walkways to enable safe passage to the street/sidewalk, sufficient noise and air quality controls, and professional operations and maintenance.

New parking, walking and cycling options for Elmwood Village are all part of the “Complete Streets” concept embedded in the soon to be adopted Buffalo Green Code—the 21st Century update to Buffalo’s ancient Zoning Code.   The new parking concepts I’m writing about fit right in with the “Complete Streets” concept.   Most people enjoy a walk along a variety of short blocks with comfortable, friendly sidewalks and views punctuated by inviting shop windows.  “Complete Streets” promotes lively, pedestrian-dominated street corners – not street corners dominated by parking lots.

But what of those who argue another, legitimate school of thought that considers Elmwood Village to be “maxed-out”? Some believe that those seeking increased density should instead look to fill in Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo and Grant Street in Black Rock, for example.

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A longstanding attempt to complete a mixed-use project at Elmwood and Forest bears witness to this conflict – a few different design examples are featured in this essay. After several years, the Elmwood-forest Gateway Mixed-use project is still foundering in the courts. The concept for this corner is a classic mixed-use project that incorporates retail space, shared parking, a boutique hotel, and upscale apartments into its footprint.   The project embraces all Green Code and current Zoning Code principles and is endorsed by the City of Buffalo, the Elmwood Village Association, the Albright Knox, the Burchfield Penney and the majority of surrounding residents who had numerous opportunities to provide community input.

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Yet a small segment of the surrounding neighborhood continues to argue –with the full weight of a nearly 150 year old legal deed restriction that effectively prohibits mixed-use as effective leverage—that  demolishing  a whole row of existing residentially scaled houses at this important intersection  would  damage the overall character of the neighborhood.  Those Granger Place residents living in direct proximity also complain about loss of privacy, more noise, less daylight and poorer views.

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Progress and change, while essential and inevitable, can be very painful too. Preserving the character of a neighborhood is important. Part of this character includes its old buildings, even if these individual buildings lack real intrinsic historic value.

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How can we, as architects, placemakers, and community residents, strike the right balance?  How can we embrace change, welcome new residents and businesses to the Elmwood Village, promote economic development, yet also pay homage to the history of our community?

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Buffalo-born author Robert Campbell places high value on the qualities that make a neighborhood a real place.  He cites 4 attributes of a neighborhood which resonate: Location, Intricacy, Sensuality and Memory.  Here Campbell reminisces with friends about Boston’s historic West End:

“…. I used to buy my nickel pickles at Klayman’s deli and had to sneak around the back of Blackstone School to eat them since my mother thought a whole pickle would turn my blood to vinegar… I used to love the smell of Cutler’s linoleum store, there was also the tailor shop on the corner of Eaton and Russell Streets, Gallo’s Bakery on Leverett for the Italian Bread, Godfried’s Bakery for sweets when company came…..”

Carpet-bombed by urban renewal in the 1950’s, Boston’s West End has evolved into a neighborhood that resonates with history, intricate density, and liveability.  Historic retail uses exist side by side with new mixed-use developments and creative parking, cycling and walking solutions.

Progressive zoning that promotes a “Complete Streets” approach is a valuable tool that can establish the connective tissue between Elmwood Village’s historic past and its future.

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Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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