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First Look: Train Station

Send this half-baked plan back to the kitchen. As Tim Tielman told WBEN this morning, “it’s a spiffy new building, but it doesn’t change anything.”

You wouldn’t go to a podiatrist for a toothache – you’d go to a dentist. You wouldn’t have an urban planner design a dam – you’d hire an engineer. Yet, around here, we have engineers, and organizations run predominantly by engineers, create urban plans. And despite always getting bad results – ranging from substandard to catastrophic – we continue to make the same mistake over and over. So by one classic definition of insanity, we should be institutionalized.

With the 198, engineers working for an engineer-dominated agency drove a one-size-fits-all expressway through our city’s most significant cultural, recreational, and natural landscapes. But that was long ago and we’d never make the same mistakes again, right? Wrong. Just a few years ago, our public works department drove a one-size-fits-all asphalt bike path – that could have been lifted from the Riverwalk or the Tonawanda Rail-Trail – through the heart of the most important cultural district between New York City and Toronto with little-to-no meaningful public input or urban planning. (I still have people ask me what it is, assuming it was something installed temporarily while the adjacent street was being reconstructed.)

More recently, on North and South Division Streets, a perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity to put those ridiculously overbuilt streets on a road diet was lost when the public works department decided to literally play around the margins, adding some bicycle and pedestrian facilities at the edges. Advocates for complete streets – complete presumably meaning not just engineered transportation facilities but also incorporating good urban planning – never said a peep to the community about this opportunity.

Over on lower Niagara Street, a public-works (read: engineer-dominated) process created a streetscape that is nothing short of astonishing in its design incoherence. And on Allen Street, public works seems poised to remake one of the City’s greatest neighborhoods based on arbitrary engineering standards rather than good urban planning – meaning, if you can believe this, traffic lanes will be widened while sidewalks will be narrowed.

Now the engineers are at it again – not just any engineers, but the ones who run the New York State Department of Transportation. Aside from top leadership who are politically appointed, the rest of the organization – including regional leadership, who tend to rise from the ranks – is dominated by an engineering culture, primarily dedicated to the efficient movement of automobiles. Monday they unveiled preliminary designs for the new downtown train station that confirmed their organization’s bias. “They understand the automobile very well, but they don’t understand any other mode,” Tim Tielman told WBEN this morning of what he saw.

As you couldn’t possibly have forgotten, last year’s siting process recommended locating an intermodal station downtown, in roughly the same “crossroads” area as the current train station. The exact location wasn’t specified when the DOT began design work early this year. But the design unveiled today locates the new station on the footprint of the existing station. But where last year’s process involved extensive public input, a representative advisory committee, and capable advise and leadership from the UB School of of Architecture and Planning, the DOT appears to have abandoned all that afterward to move toward this substandard result.

And it shows. Although the architecture itself is good, this project misses the mark in several critical ways. Here’s a rundown.

Hits

The architecture and scale are good on this twenty-million-dollar-project. It seems to take design cues from the only remnant of Buffalo’s downtown railroad passenger terminals, the D.L.&W. Terminal, and also – ironically – from the Central Terminal. The firm that designed it, Sowinski Sullivan, has a specialty in transportation facilities. However, they are located in Philadelphia. While the building is nice architecture, and is rightly raised up to street level and brought to streetside, it would have benefited from more local input.

Not only do you not hire an engineer to do urban planning, but this design suggests you don’t necessarily hire an architect – even a capable one – to do so, either.

The site plan shows the potential for addition of future inter-city bus service. While that should be included from the beginning to be truly intermodal – and to begin the phase-out of the current, poorly located, non-intermodal bus station – at least the station is designed with the eventuality in mind. Now, we just need the cooperation of NFTA to move the inter-city buses.

Misses

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this project is it doesn’t include an all-weather connection to Metro Rail. A perpetual source of frustration and dismay for anyone who uses transit and Amtrak in Buffalo is that, where Metro Rail crosses Amtrak, there isn’t even the simplest connectivity for riders. That’s essential, because when folks get into town on rail or bus, they need to seamlessly connect to the spine of our two-county transit system.

But it’s also crucial for local reasons. A tight connection between Metro Rail and Amtrak could also set the stage for a new light rail link to the Larkin District. A single mile of track, laid alongside Amtrak, would allow a Metro Rail train to operate back and forth and allow transit-oriented development in the Larkin District. With the growth there, every available acre has been converted to surface parking, but transit-oriented development could allow additional density to be added. A station where Seneca Street crosses Amtrack would put three million square feet of development within a standard ¼ mile transit shed, much of it with the potential to be linked to a station via coatless connections.

This station also falls short in not connecting in any way to One Seneca, or to any of the other significant buildings located nearby, One Canalside – which has lodging – or the Buffalo News. It also misses the opportunity to have significant access from the south side of the tracks at Washington Street, the importance of which Tim Tielman rightly recognized in his proposal, whether or not you agree with all its details. It doesn’t appear to even connect to the parking garage just across Exchange Street.

Seth Triggs of Citizens for Regional Transit explored the potential for this extensive connectivity in a 2016 guest post on Buffalo Rising that struck me as some of the best thinking on the train station discussion. (He also made a strong case for a role for both the Central Terminal and a downtown intermodal station. I agree.)

This lack of connectivity is where we’re missing the boat here, I think. A couple of months ago, I talked with the developer of One Seneca Tower, Douglas Jemal, who said he would welcome a multimodal station at the building, but didn’t have a say in the selection process. It would be a missed opportunity not to make this part of the One Seneca redevelopment. NFTA should be fully on board, not just with relocation of inter-city buses, but also its headquarters, to One Seneca (then you could turn the current bus station into a redevelopment opportunity). For passengers, One Seneca could provide dramatic spaces for waiting, purchasing tickets, getting information on local attractions. The plans for the tower call for a variety of food options on-site. The platforms themselves, next to the tracks and under the expressway, only have to be clean, comfortable, well-lit, and safe – not expensive.

Under such a scenario, you could connect to the “business end” bus and train platforms via walkways. That would also have the benefit of being cheaper, because the platforms and walkways could be more utilitarian. Those spaces don’t need to be fancy, with faux century-old architecture, they just need to be clean, warm, well-lit, safe, and easy to navigate. After all, they are located under an expressway viaduct, so trying to dress them up too much seems silly.

All aboard? Not so much.

This design not only needs to go back to the kitchen, but we need to consider ordering a different entree entirely. The DOT would be wise to do this rethink in conjunction with One Seneca and a solid advisory committee that can help it think outside the box. Because as attractive as this brick box is, with its arched windows, what we really need here is high connectivity between people, places, and transportation modes.

But is that likely to happen? Ominously, the DOT talked about this project much the way they talked about their 198 plans a half-year ago: this is what you’re going to get, and don’t expect it to change – much. “There was no attempt to get written comments from the public,” DOT Spokesperson Susan Surdej told the Buffalo News, adding the display would be “the only opportunity for the public to see and weigh in on the renderings.” An official representing the Governor said “We’re going to put a shovel in the ground this year and get this thing built.”

In other words, this project will be part of a whistle-stop tour of election-year ribbon cuttings for the Governor. It’s on a fast track, and we’re going to get railroaded. It would take real leadership to see significant changes at this point, and unfortunately, some local officials who could have been leaders on this have rendered themselves irrelevant on the project by insisting the only answer is to change the location to the Central Terminal.

But Tim Tielman, for one, isn’t ready to lie down on the track and let the train roll over. “There is always time to change minds,” he told WBEN this morning. “We’ll be holding public meetings about this, for sure.” It’s about time someone did.

But what do you think? You know how to tell us.

See full NYSDOT PDF

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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