This week Buffalo got a look at the results of the transit-oriented development (TOD) study that the NFTA and GBNRTC have been conducting for over a year, along with lead consultant WSP (formerly Parsons). This was the first public engagement since the workshops held last year. Since then, clearly a lot of work has gone into the conceptual development suggestions shown for several of the station sites.
If you missed the presentation, not to worry – the presentation and display boards can be found here.
This was also the final presentation of the TOD study, a federally funded study to look at potential economic impact of investing in Metro Rail upgrades, particularly the extension into Amherst, but also all along the line. As such, the study shows potential development and increased density at several of the stations along the route that were identified early in the study as particularly good candidates.
Those stations are:
- Proposed Audubon Station
- Proposed Boulevard Mall Station
- LaSalle Station
- Utica Station
- Summer-Best Station
- Proposed DL&W Terminal Station
You can see the conceptual proposals for each of those stations at the study site here.
Before getting too concerned about details, keep in mind these really are conceptual suggestions of what development could be created on and around the stations. They provide a basis to analyze the potential impact, and not much more, so there is plenty to nitpick in each one. For example, the suggestion for LaSalle Station doesn’t show the rail-trail extending southeast across Main Street, and of course that needs to be baked into any proposed site plan there. And the DL&W suggestion shows generic mixed-use development in an area where rumor has it that after the gubernatorial election there will be an announcement of a stadium project, or a convention center project, or both.
It’s especially interesting to see the suggestions for the proposed Boulevard Mall and Audubon Stations in Amherst. Audubon is at the location of a major town government complex, with the Amherst police, Amherst town court, Audubon library, and a park. It’s an area currently largely inaccessible by transit, so changing that will be a boon for anyone who has business with the town. And Audubon will pretty much be the end of the line, with only a terminal station north of it at Dodge Road. This is a change from previous schemes shown for the Metro Rail extension, which could have gone as far as Crosspointe.
Boulevard Mall is proposed for conversion into a lifestyle center. The suggested concept advances the thinking there, but is far from the last word. New Amherst Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa, an architect and planner himself, is very serious about a better future for the mall site, and has recently shown some ideas of his own before groups such as the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership.
Kulpa told Spectrum News this summer, “The NFTA and the Governor’s Office, when they talk about the light rail coming out there, they always envision the Boulevard Mall being retrofitted. When light rail comes, we’re gonna need to already have the other public infrastructure, roads, sewers, sidewalks, lighting in place to accommodate the development.” To help with the planning and site preparation, the town has applied for a $10 Million grant from a state program called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
“Transportation and land-use planning go together like beer and wings.”
– Tonawanda Town Engineer James Jones
The Town of Tonawanda, with the other half of Niagara Falls Boulevard, is also heavily engaged in the process. After the presentation, Town Engineer James Jones told me, “Transportation and land-use planning go together like beer and wings.” He’s right, of course, and what better western New York way of putting it?
This isn’t the first time Buffalo has looked at transit-oriented development along the Metro Rail corridor. In the 1980s, there was a task force led by Gail Johnstone. You can find the report at the library. I’ve been told by one of the participants that the NFTA and Mayor Griffin didn’t really embrace the study, so never implemented the results. A good plan sitting on the shelf collecting dust here in Buffalo – imagine that. Hopefully, the NFTA will not make the same mistake this time, and will move on to the next step. But could they make the opposite mistake this time around, and move ahead too quickly?
Where are the site plans?
Earlier this year, NFTA jumped the gun, in my view, by issuing an RFP for TOD proposals for the Metro Rail stations. The problem is, they issued this RFP before the current TOD study was done, and without individual site plans for the individual stations.
One opportunity being missed here is that developing the site plans could bring people together, literally and figuratively. In the same way Main Street should be planned and designed to knit together the east and west side, planning the areas around the stations could bring together people from east side and west side neighborhoods who would not otherwise see each other or get to know each other. The planning process alone would build valuable social capital. The street and Metro Rail are common pieces of infrastructure that are made to serve all the community, both east and west.
The UB Regional Institute might be the best place for the NFTA and GBNTRC to turn to help them work with the community to help them develop those station plans. For one, it would build on the work UBRI has already done on the Queen City Hub plan and One Region Forward. UBRI could even tap the results of recent studio classes that have looked at areas around University Station, LaSalle Station, and Utica Station from one perspective or another. A studio class is not the same as a community-based planning process, and generally does not produce a consultant’s report. Yet the analysis done and concepts explored in a studio class can be a valuable addition to other work done by UBRI, including economic analysis of alternatives.
This is a view that was voiced during the TOD study last year: each station site needs a plan of its own, developed in conjunction with the community around it. Those plans would recognize the uniqueness of each community and station, and even incorporate common values across all the plans, including to what degree we preserve the architecture and art of the stations. Developing those plans can even help answer the question of what Buffalo wants Main Street to be: with Metro Rail, Main Street could become Buffalo’s equivalent of Boston’s “High Spine” – not in terms of building heights, but in terms of density.
With those plans in hand, then, the NFTA could go to developers to implement them — or elements of them. But without them as a guide, developers will respond to the RFP with what might work best for them. Then, the only option for the community will be to push back and oppose what it doesn’t like. Well, those kinds of “developer proposes, community opposes” battles are already happening every day around Buffalo. What we don’t need are more of them, or a process that will almost certainly result in more of them.
It sounds hackneyed, but when you fail to plan you plan to fail. And that’s where I fear we’re heading with this.
CITYLAB and El Museo: They Have a Point
At the same time, this month Mark Byrnes, who is no stranger to Buffalo – he is a graduate of the UB School of Architecture and Planning, and often writes about Buffalo including Metro Rail – wrote an article for CITYLAB about another potential problem with NFTA’s RFP process. As the NFTA looks to create density around the Metro Rail nodes, and perhaps even allow developers to build on its property, no one is thinking about the noteworthy art and architecture of the stations.
Well, not really no one, as El Museo recently conducted a tour of the Metro Rail system highligting that art and architecture. I took the tour, organized by curators Bryan and William, and it was really well done. Cleverly for their purposes, they started the tour at the northern end of Metro Rail and worked our way south, station by station. Along the way they gave us not only the history of the system, building an appreciation for the art and architecture and uniqueness of each station.
Then, when we arrived at the final station on the tour, Allen/Medical Campus, the contrast was striking: the upper part of the station was, essentially, just grafted on to the lower part. There was no attempt whatever to blend the architecture of the sections – not even a gesture. And the public art from the upper part of the station was simply gone – vanished. There was no attempt to even incorporate it into the new portion of the station, or even outside, in the walkway through the new building. This is very important to El Museo, as the arts collaborative was created to make sure Hispanic artists had the chance to be represented in the public art selections. Some of the art created by them for Allen Station was the only collaborative work created for the entire system. The public tour was a smart way for El Museo to call attention to this issue.
El Museo is currently working with the NFTA on a project to create art on the back of ticket machines at Utica Station. Four finalists have been selected, and there will be a formal announcement next week.
El Museo, Mark Byrnes, and CITYLAB are right to raise this issue, and they have a point. However, they are also hampered in a way often found with preservation issues involving 20th-Century architecture from mid-century through the 1980s: in addition to the fact that many find the architecture unattractive in the first place, the forms of the buildings themselves are often anti-urban. That certainly applies to the Metro Rail stations – single-use, single-story, stand-alone structures that occupy entire quadrants of key intersections.
The TOD study has been about fulfilling a long-held aspiration for Metro Rail: to use transit to build density that, in turn, helps support the transit. That would help bring vibrancy back to the Main Street corridor and keep it there, as well as boost transit elsewhere in the city, much of which links to Metro Rail. Yet the configuration of the stations as built actually inhibits density at key intersections on Main Street. And most Metro Rail stations are not closely integrated with surface transit, if at all – almost as if engaged in tit-for-tat with the surface transit station downtown that is utterly unintegrated with Metro Rail.
Still, with the Allen/Medical Campus Station as a cautionary tale, the NFTA may want to consider engaging an arts and preservation consultant to recommend the best way to treat the unique features of any station that is being reconfigured.