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The Public Realm – Great Streets Create Neighborhoods

Author: Charles Gordon

Streets (infrastructure) always comes first – good and great architecture follows – NOT the other way around!

With several new buildings going up stretching from BNMC anchoring NE, to Waterfront Inner Harbor Center and Canalside anchoring the Waterfront, it is very important to consider the impact of these and other development initiatives on Downtown’s “Public Realm.” We must now try to integrate these new “Objects in a Field” into a “Field of Objects” – a well understood thoughtfully developed connective tissue – AKA “URBAN REALM.” This is largely Public Infrastructure that can enhance, even create potential new places – and cohesively link them together. This initiative means much more than curbs, tree plantings new sidewalks/benches, street art etc etc – although that certainly is part of it.

But, the “Public Realm” is much more – it means a series of small to very small humanly scaled people places, shaped by quality architecture – with cars sharing these places – connected by well-proportioned streets.

What are really good streets? Just wide sidewalks and trees with no “building edge” to define/contain these streets – no good!

Too bad, but Main Street Downtown can never be a great street – at least in its present configuration – it is way too wide – 100’ wide building-wall to building-wall is too wide by 20%. Many many years ago, Toronto based Moriyama-Tschima Urban Design consultants, in a wise and bold recommendation, strongly urged reducing the Urban Street “wall” to a more humanly scaled 60’ or so; by recommending a variable 16’-20’ development encroachment zone on both sides – so the resulting space would more closely resemble Georgetown DC-like proportions, or similar. People instinctively gravitate toward this kind of narrow-street. They flock to them and they shop at them – think Newbury Street in Boston or similar.

Pedestrian-scaled streets – streets wide enough for traffic, buffer and sidewalks, but narrow enough to feel comfortable for walking. Suburban streets usually don’t work – too wide, designed for vehicular circulation, no street wall. Recall any remembered place you’ve ever visited in USA: NYC, Boston, Toronto, Chicago – or abroad: great places/streets abound throughout Europe.

Narrow streets – especially good are winding streets with appropriately scaled and detailed buildings defining the edges, lots of little space interrupting – streets like these create a rhythm and a connective tissue.

The City of Buffalo/BUDC recently (very wisely) commissioned an Urban Realm Study – this thoughtful study tackles and makes general recommendations on many of the above related issues. I consider six places of particular significance to enhance Downtown’s re-invigoration.

Here they are, with a “recipe” – on the ground in detail, to make them better:

  1. “Green” the Foot of Main Street
  • Actions:
    • Reduce or eliminate small parking lot for NFTA employees and create an enhanced pedestrian environment
    • Link DL&W Terminal to existing Canalside initiatives
      • Impact: Increase economic value of existing infrastructure improvements with minimal economic investment
      • Impact: Place positive image of historic DL&W Terminal on public radar



  1. Extend Ellicott Street “Complete Street” enhancements
  • Actions:
    • Link Ellicott Street south from Goodell to heart of “Flower District”/M&T Corporate Campus and Genesee Street Gateway
      • Impact: Induce private development in an area where two major identities already join each other
      • Impact: Reduce psychological distance between Medical Campus and Genesee Street Gateway – only four blocks total but seems much farther


  1. Reimagine Niagara Square


  • Reduce vehicular traffic lanes
  • Strengthen pedestrian connections to buildings surrounding square including new Federal Courthouse, Statler Building, City Hall and Genesee Street
  • Introduce strong connections with pedestrian paving, street calming, low maintenance landscape
    • Impact: Establish Niagara Square as Civic Heart of Downtown and functioning hub that can reconnect Square to water, via Pearl Street to Canalside, via Niagara Street and Peace Bridge Gateway, and from Genesee Street to East Side
    • Impact: Create a truly shared urban space not dominated by auto traffic
    • Impact: Enhance economic value of all public and private property
    • Impact: Connect Civic area of Downtown to Inner Harbor



  1. Enhance Washington Street Corridor
  • Actions:
    • Strengthen connection from Genesee Gateway through Lafayette square terminating at Harbor Center.
      • Impact: Build on recent and ongoing improvements along Washington Street
    • Impact: Stimulate even greater private investment potentials for downtown residential living.
  1. Improve Chippewa Street/Ellicott Street/Genesee Street Intersection
  • Actions:
    • Build on the Ellicott Street extension and create urban piazza/traffic circle
      • Impact: Turn a true negative traffic environment dominated by parking lots on five corners into a true public space shared by all modes of traffic
      • Impact: Establish a strategic intersection that joins rather than separates Flower District, Genesee Street Gateway, M&T Campus and Market Arcade building



  1. Erie Street VISION—restore HISTORIC alignment
  • Re-establish historic physical and visual connection between MAIN STREET and Waterfront via ERIE STREET
  • ERIE STREET, back in the day,   terminated at Evans slip. Evans was among several ”commercial” slips that facilitated shipping activity along Erie Canal
  • Remember: Great Streets come first
  • Create small scaled “Urban City Blocks.”   A traditional Urban block network –no matter what the Architecture- will inherently create economic value
  • Urban Blocks – intelligent development also encourage many, not few, developers to participate
  • Avoid at all costs any development that encroaches in any way on this vital corridor –whether now or in the future
  • Encourage sound Public official /Public policy LEADERSHIP—avoid “leadership” by any Private entity and/or developer
  • Oppose a recently ill-conceived mixed use/hotel type development, whose most recent version from 2013 would stand squarely in historic Erie Street ROW.
    • See below Graphics about 2002-2004 restore Erie Street Vision




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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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