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Unconventional Center: Kobayashi Maru

Note: This is the second in a series.

Don’t you just hate no-win situations? One minute you’re out enjoying a routine training cruise in the Gamma Hydra Sector (which is just beautiful this time of year), and the next you get a distress-call-you-can’t-refuse from the U.S.S. Kobayashi Maru, inconveniently calling from the Neutral Zone. But before you can get to it, you’re confronted by three battle cruisers loaded for bear. You can either leave people to face a horrible death, or risk starting an interstellar incident – and probably become space toast in the process. Neither option is acceptable, but you have to pick one or the other. I really hate stardates like that.

Back home in Buffalo, renown throughout the Alpha Quadrant for our architecture and radial street grid, we had a red-letter day like that just a month ago. On September 20th, the results of Erie County’s year-long but years-in-the-making (as I describe here) study of the potential for a new convention center in Buffalo were announced. In announcing the results, the county told the community that if it wanted a new convention center it could pick from two options, neither of which was terribly appealing and neither of which seems to have generated much enthusiasm. It brought to mind those other civic choices we’re called upon to make every fall, which all too often come down to having to choose the lesser of two evils.

How did we get here? In part because the county legislature wouldn’t fund the evaluation of more sites in the recent study. In part, as I discuss later, because the rating and ranking rubric of the study was problematic. But also because the set of sites considered, like the odd-numbered Star Trek movies, was mostly mediocre-to-bad to begin with.

And for that, we have the tightly closed process to thank, as I mentioned previously. There was no opportunity for public input early on. No one in the community was allowed to even suggest a site. And as Buffalo Business First’s Jim Fink reported on WBFO’s Press Pass, even players in the local development community weren’t asked.

Let’s train our sensors on these two sites, starting with the HSBC parking lot.

Where no man has gone before

HSBC parking lot

If you have trouble envisioning the proposed HSBC site, there’s a reason. Except for those using the parking lots (Buffalo News and HSBC employees), no one has ever been there – despite its proximity to all the things happening at Canalside and in the Cobblestone District. The site is fenced off and access controlled.

While the study shows that this site would allow for a convention center with an exhibit hall of the preferred size, and on ground level as preferred, and with all the other facilities recommended, it has several fundamental – perhaps fatal – flaws. For one, the immediate surroundings are fundamentally unappealing, probably beyond the ability of a convention center project to fully change. If, as convention planners have told us, site appeal is an important factor in site selection, then to invest eight figures building all the other things the industry needs, but on an unappealing site, seems ill-considered.

If, as convention planners have told us, site appeal is an important factor in site selection, then to invest eight figures building all the other things the industry needs, but on an unappealing site, seems ill-considered.

HSBC site plan

Another potential flaw is that in order to create an exhibit hall of 150,000 square feet, the proposed convention center footprint would have to extend east into the footprint of the site that some consider to be the best, most likely site for a downtown football stadium. You may not agree. And you may not agree with the Buffalo News’ recent editorial that a new stadium is necessary or inevitable. That question is above my pay grade, and maybe yours. But if there is a new stadium in the cards – and, as the Buffalo News revealed over the weekend, the Bills are setting aside money that could be used to plan for it – the single best proposal I’ve seen to date was published by Artvoice four years ago.

Artvoice stadium proposal rendering

That proposal was crafted by Architect and UB School of Architecture and Planning Professor Brad Wales, along with team members David Heaton, Wade Georgi, and Matt Kreidler. Artvoice contributor Andrew Kulyk who, along with Pete Ferrell, has visited every major-league sports venue in the nation (and many internationally), wrote the article. But what’s not generally known – and perhaps mentioned publicly for the first time here – is that the proposal was funded by Larry Quinn. Yes, Quinn drew a lot of fire for his involvement in Bass Pro and, more recently, his stint on the school board. But he does know more than a thing or two about building sports stadiums and downtown development.

What that means is – in the event that a new stadium is ever on the table – this concept is one that merits serious consideration. At the very least, it is far more substantive than anything else that has been published. One thing that makes it appealing from a planning perspective is that it continues to develop a sports and entertainment district, including Canalside and the casino. And it fits the site: before ever seeing this proposal I noticed that a stadium the size of the Cleveland Browns’ waterfront field could be built there. Also, even though County Executive Mark Poloncarz recently pegged the cost of building a downtown stadium at $1 Billion, the build it where it can share existing transportation and parking infrastructure with two other stadiums could help contain costs.

Artvoice stadium proposal site plan

Where the proposal perhaps goes too far is showing the stadium built atop a 190 put underground – especially in a place so close to the water table, where there is also a buried creek. In fact, the main thing I’d change about the proposal is to move it south, between South Park and Scott Streets. That would allow for the kind of synergies with the DL&W terminal that people call for with every waterfront project, and also allow it to be served directly by Metro Rail on one side and the Belt Line on the other.

Again, whether or not a downtown stadium is proposed, it at least seems like a serious possibility, and in the near future. Were that to happen, there has been one serious, substantive proposal put forward that seems to make sense. So – strictly in terms of land-use decisions (which is where we are at the moment) – building something else on its footprint before it has had the chance to play out seems like bad planning.

DL&W convention center

The HSBC site also raises the question of why the nearby DL&W terminal site wasn’t also considered by the county and its consultants. Whether or not it’s the best option, and whether or not every element of the proposal made recently on Buffalo Rising makes sense, it certainly merits at least initial consideration. The portion of the DL&W terminal without the historic train shed could accommodate construction of an exhibit hall far larger than the county’s requirement, and there would be no property acquisition costs, since the terminal is publicly owned. And as long as I’ve been aware, the NFTA has been looking for ways to utilize the parts of the terminal that aren’t necessary for Metro Rail operations. A convention center there would have direct access to Metro Rail and create a presence directly on Main Street – both important features not available at the HSBC site or any other site considered by the study.

Not only would the DL&W proposal keep a convention center out of the way of any nearby stadium option, it could even have synergies with it by connecting across South Park. When Poloncarz recently told the Buffalo News that the county is not looking at the two potential projects together, the News responded that perhaps it should:

The concept of combining a new convention center with a new football stadium has been talked about, and there’s no reason to dismiss it. Poloncarz recently downplayed it as an issue, but the model has worked in other cities. Merging two multimillion-dollar projects into one could well produce economies of scale that soften the bite on taxpayers. It would help avoid building a billion-dollar behemoth that is used only a handful of times per year.

Ultimately, though, any convention center proposed near the waterfront has a critical flaw baked in.

Convention goers and convention planners want to have hotels and amenities in walking distance of the convention center, and in Buffalo those are primarily in the center city. Bars, restaurants, entertainment, and night life are almost all uptown. Some of those, along with hotel space, could be created nearby, but they would cannibalize and dilute the existing offerings that, frankly, already struggle to build critical mass. Almost certainly, the casino would try to fill the void by providing nearby hotel space and amenities, but their tax-free status and business model of drawing in visitors and keeping them there would give them an advantage that other commercial providers would have trouble competing with. Fundamentally, convention centers are civic buildings and, all things being equal, are best located in the civic district.

Fundamentally, municipal convention centers are civic buildings and, all things being equal, are best located in the civic district.

Finally, another potential fly in the ointment: Jim Fink on WBFO’s Press Pass recently alluded to rumblings that HSBC may not look too kindly on losing its parking lot. There may be limited opportunities to build underground parking at that location, as the site is close to the water table. The site is, essentially, on the former flood plain between the Buffalo River to the south and Little Buffalo Creek (now underground) to the north.

So, given the lack of appeal and potential problems associated with this option, perhaps the other one would be better? Not so fast.

The Procrustean Petard

RED ALERT! A Borg slab is assimilating Franklin Street! All hands to battle stations!

Four decades ago, Erie County flexed its pecs by muscling in to build a convention center for Buffalo that the city’s own residents had voted against funding, shoehorning an unspeakable design into an ill-considered location. In doing so the county was, in a way, hoist on its own petard, as it soon was locked in a never-ending cycle of efforts to expand and improve an unexpandable and unimprovable facility. In an action worthy of Procrustes, the figure in Greek mythology who forced his unhappy visitors to conform to the size of his guest bed by either stretching or truncating them, the county eviscerated downtown’s midsection for a two-block concrete catacomb in which it immured a dismembered jumble of facilities.

Image: The Buffalo News, Buffalo Stories

That violent injury that inflicted decades of trauma and damage on the urban fabric of our downtown core was described in a recent edition of the Buffalo News’ Torn-Down Tuesdays, by Buffalo Stories’ Steve Cichon.

Yet instead of learning from that mistake, the county went looking for other sites downtown to repeat it, like a tragic figure from mythology doomed to endlessly repeat self-destructive or fruitless actions, or our modern equivalent, a Star Trek character caught in a causality loop. In the 1990s one such iteration condemned another chunk of downtown to a decade of “planners blight,” the effects of which were felt even on the gateway blocks of Genesee Street. I was told by a former county legislator that the county officials who pushed that plan admitted it was a mistake – but only years later.

Yet now the county is seriously considering making the same mistakes again? It’s surprising that the option of expanding the convention center at the existing site hasn’t already been widely rejected by the community, given how much is wrong with it:

  • It does more of the same: wholesale demolitions and shoehorning.
  • It’s a kludge. Any expansion scenario there involves trying to use skybridges to tie together a collection of essentially separate spaces on separate blocks. That’s not how convention centers work in regard to the large, contiguous exhibit space that the county is aiming to create.
  • It accepts the unacceptable damage done four decades ago to our urban fabric, throwing away our once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse it. Commenter Michael Smith recently pointed out the irony of our convention center using, as a logo, the radial street grid it helped destroy.
  • Even demolishing an entire city block would yield an exhibit hall only at the low end of the size the county is looking for, with nowhere to go for expansion.

Some claim that a support infrastructure has risen up around the current convention center, as a reason to expand there. But has it really? Yes, the Hyatt and now the Curtiss are nearby. The Hyatt even has a coatless connection of a sort. But those hotels could provide service for a convention center located anywhere in the central business district. After all the study, in inventorying available hotel space, included all hotels of a certain level or above all over the CBD. Yes, there are also some parking garages nearby. But those also serve downtown workers and, like the hotels, could serve a convention center located elsewhere in the CBD.

What that means is that, unlike other cities, we don’t have dedicated infrastructure for our convention center – no official “convention hotel” seamlessly connected or even integrated, no dedicated or even connected parking garage, and not even any transportation infrastructure like a convention center off-ramp or subway stop. So unlike other cities that do, we could create a new convention center at another location without abandoning any of those “sunk costs” associated with our current convention center. Because we simply don’t have them. Keep that in mind if anyone tries to tell you that abandoning the current site would mean abandoning investments made around it.

The City (Block) on the Edge of Forever

“Someday all those buildings will be torn down and replaced with an ugly concrete bunker.”
“I don’t believe it. That sounds like science fiction!”

Given its potential to solve a big, ugly, concrete chunk of the convention center issue, it’s surprising that the county’s study didn’t include the option of traveling back in time to prevent the current center from being built (and maybe also warn people about the red-green budget to boot). But time travel can be messy, as we know from the works of Harlan Ellison, who wrote the single best episode of any Star Trek series ever (fight me): The City on the Edge of Forever. In that story, a down-on-its-luck city is the setting for a pivotal moment in history, where an important choice means the difference between a brutal or a brighter future.

Of course, in the real world we can’t travel back in time to fix mistakes – all the more reason to avoid making them in the first place. Yet with one of its two alternatives, this convention center study actually proposes to repeat one of the biggest mistakes made by county leaders who built the current convention center: wholesale, block-level destruction of urban fabric. Like Star Trek, the Motion Picture, which debuted a year later, the convention center was a blockbuster unveiled to great fanfare that no one ended up liking.

Late-70s blockbusters
Crosby Building

The option to expand the convention center at its current location proposes to bust yet another block, bounded by Franklin, Mohawk, Delaware, and Huron. Let’s take a look to see what we’d be losing there, starting at Franklin and Mohawk, outside the doors of the convention center.

The first thing you notice is that, except on the Huron end, you have a rare, intact city block. It’s one of the few things in the vicinity of the convention center entrance that alerts you that you are, in fact, in a city.

The block is anchored by the great Crosby Building, which is anchored by the great Osteria 166. It was designed by Robert North, who today is best known for his ecclesiastical architecture. He was a partner of Olaf Shelgren, an early figure in Buffalo’s preservation movement.

While it will never appear in any architectural textbooks, the Crosby Building has fine proportions and fine neoclassical detailing. At eight stories, it provides just the right mix of attractive first-floor space and enough density above to help support a thriving downtown and house creative businesses. Buildings like this were all too often displaced in larger cities by modern high-rises and sacrificed for “urban renewal” and surface parking in mid-sized cities. In Buffalo, buildings like this exemplify our city in its peak decades and provide just what we need in our ongoing effort to rejuvenate our downtown. We need to fight to keep them.

Osteria 166
172 Franklin

Also worth fighting for is the rest of that block of Franklin, which miraculously survived the building of the convention center and its effects on the surrounding cityscape. Almost all the way north to Huron the urban fabric of block is intact, a sad rarity downtown.

174 Franklin

If you look at the urban form of Buffalo’s downtown (more on this to come), you see that principal streets such as Main and Delaware have larger, more prominent, and more elaborate buildings. Streets behind them, such as Pearl and Franklin, often provided necessary, but more quotidian support services, and their buildings tend to reflect that. Mostly smaller, less highly designed – Veblenian, if you like – they were crucial to the functioning of downtown in their day. Today, they are no less crucial, because they provide lower-cost space and the more gritty, authentic backstreets vibe that many seek out in cities. Most of these areas were lost to redevelopment in larger cities and for surface parking in cities like Buffalo – so where they remain, they are important to protect.

As our Steel said a decade ago about one of these buildings, 174 Franklin,

There is nothing great about it other than the fact that it helps create a nice urban streetscape. That alone is worth heralding. Cities are not composed solely of magnificent landmarks and masterpieces. Cities need the everyday unnoticed buildings like this one to form the connective tissue between landmarks. These simple background buildings are what make up a majority of even the greatest cities.

Buildings like this also often have unexpected stories to tell. Like an ædificial palimpsest, they are more likely than buildings on principal streets to be older buildings that were reworked, refaced, or added on to. That seems to be the case for 172 Franklin, next to the Crosby, which appears to have an older building with a forward-sloping roof (so probably antebellum) behind its Spanish colonial revival facade.

And what about the Delaware Avenue side of this block? Although unfortunately gapped with surface parking lots, it also has a couple of noteworthy buildings. 135 Delaware Avenue, built in 1961, is one of the earliest international-style buildings in Buffalo. It is a good example not only of the style, but also how, early on, buildings built in the style played nicely with others and respected the street grid. This is one of several good mid-century modern buildings on lower Delaware Avenue that are worth hanging onto, individually and collectively, because they help tell the story of Buffalo’s post-war prosperity.

Then we have the Hotchkiss-Lothrop House. Now known as the Old House Downtown (A.K.A. Big Blue), it is the last mansion remaining on Delaware Avenue downtown – once a street of mansions – and the only 19th century residential house remaining downtown. George Thomas Apfel has the history here. Before Howard Goldman purchased it to preserve and rehab it, the house spent seven decades as a series of restaurants and nightclubs. Most notably, beginning in 1965 it housed George Steinbrenner’s Roundtable restaurant. It was the site where he announced his purchase of the New York Yankees. The restaurant closed the same year the convention center opened.

Old House Downtown 1950s

The house is currently home to the Buffalo Ice Cream Museum and hosts outstanding events and dinner parties, as I learned firsthand earlier this year. In the decade-plus that Goldman has owned the building, it has once again become a downtown place beloved by many – and more every year. This house will not be lost without a fight.

But why would we even have such a fight in the first place? Everyone taking the Kobayashi Maru test knows that trespassing into the Neutral Zone means an inevitable confrontation and conflict. Any captain ordering their ship into the zone will be reminded of that by their officers. With the convention center study, did no one warn the consultants and Erie County that any attempt to intrude onto this block would be met with resistance?

Actually, they did. In 2013, the Preservation Ready Survey of downtown Buffalo actually recommended adding much of this block to the existing Joseph Ellicott Historic District, which adjoins it on the south. The survey also identified several properties on the block that were eligible for the state and national registers of historic places. The survey was partly funded by New York State. What this means is that it could prove challenging for any project funded by New York State to seize and demolish this block – especially for a non-essential project that could be sited elsewhere.

There would be ample grounds to oppose it, and resistance would not be futile.

It could prove challenging for any project funded by New York State to seize and demolish this block – especially for a non-essential project that could be sited elsewhere.

Given that, why did the county direct its consultants to not only look at the option of expanding the existing convention center onto that block, home to a potential preservation district? Were they thinking they or someone else could produce a plan to shoehorn in an exhibit hall without sacrificing the block’s existing properties? Yet there seems little chance for that, given the stated need for an exhibit hall of 120,00 to 150,000 square feet of contiguous space. According to the study, taking the entire block yields an exhibit hall at the bottom of that range, and with no room to expand in any direction.

To recap a long episode: trying to expand at the current convention center site wouldn’t allow us to adequately repair our damaged urban fabric and would actually require us to damage more. It would be a kludge of cobbled-together spaces, with a barely adequate exhibit hall and no option for expansion. It would ignite an unnecessary preservation battle that the county would likely lose, leaving a taint on the entire effort. All in all, it’s hard to see this option as anything other than some kind of poison pill – to have something ready to show anyone who simplistically asks, “Why not just expand at the current site?” and to direct interest and energy toward the other option.

The Trouble with Rubrics

CAPTION: “Well, the nearest thing I can figure out is that they’re born pregnant. Which seems to be quite a time saver.”

How did we end up in this situation, where a study undertaken with high hopes yielded only two fundamentally flawed options that no one seems terribly excited about? And didn’t even consider what appears to be a promising option at the DL&W, and ruled out another site that, in my view, is the single best option, because it scored poorly in a perhaps poorly designed ranking/rating rubric?

One possible reason involves a dirty little secret about studies. What is the trouble with tribbles? They are born pregnant. Similarly, many studies are born with intended results baked in. Often, a study’s results are predetermined by the way the study is scoped, by the makeup of the steering/advisory committee (if there is one), the amount of funding available, the consultant chosen, the timeframe, and the design of decision mechanisms such as rating/ranking rubrics. Without getting too deep in the weeds, let’s study the study in that regard.

When a study recommends an option or options based on a matrix of ratings and rankings (the rubric), it can present a false sense of objectivity and “science.” But such evaluation tools are merely a codified reflection of the values of those doing the study. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as all planning, after the analysis, comes down to values at the end. A McHarg-type analysis for land use planning captures fundamental characteristics of the site on maps, then superimposes them. But the final choices depend on which characteristics are most valued. The same with a Lynch analysis of urban form. I assisted with a UB seminar where planning students initially conducted a Lynch analysis (among other kinds) of a neighborhood, but then had to suggest design guidelines for infill development there. Shifting from analysis to recommendations requires bringing values into the mix. In many cases, that is done by encoding them in a ratings and rankings rubric.

There are several possible criticisms of the rubric used to yield the two sites recommended by this study. You can knock yourself out with your own analysis here (see Appendix A). But let me highlight a glaring one. In figure A-2 (pictured), under “Site Considerations,” notice the ranking of factor “Subject to historic site restrictions”: 1 (one). The lowest ranking. Really? Given that one of the few advantages our city has been able to tout is its historic architecture and urban fabric, and given that preservation battles over projects are common here (one of the reasons we still have so much of that architecture left), and given that the convention industry’s own literature says modern convention planners and convention goers seek places with authenticity and a story to tell, and given the disaster of demolishing two city blocks for the current convention center, shouldn’t we have ranked that higher? Like a 4 or 5?

Who assigned preservation the lowest importance in this study, in a preservation city? The consultants? The county? The advisory committee? Oh, wait – there was no advisory committee.

Who assigned preservation the lowest importance in this study, in a preservation city? The consultants? The county? The advisory committee? Oh, wait – there was no advisory committee. Maybe if there had been, it would have resulted in a better rubric. Perhaps this factor was initially given higher importance, but then it turned out that it caused the option to expand at the existing site to drop in the rankings more than the client wanted. Or something.

This is just one example of how studies can be “born pregnant” – skewed or predetermined toward a desired result. You can look for yourself and perhaps find other examples – you don’t have to be a Vulcan to find problems with this study. Let me mention a couple more.

Funding: for a study of this importance, $150,000 seems like an inadequate amount, especially when the county’s original plan in 2013 was for a $500,000 study. For comparison, $150,000 is just a little more than ULI charges when they come to Buffalo for a week to do conceptual planning. While ULI’s work has been essential in helping us set the direction for some critical projects, what they provide is essentially a road map. More detailed analysis, planning, and design follows and, of course, costs money.

Community engagement: it’s astonishing that the county didn’t, apparently, involve UB in any meaningful way in this study. The UB School of Architecture and Planning spent years developing our downtown master plan, and assisted Erie County with community engagement last time a new convention center was considered. Two people directly involved at that time, now-Dean Robert Shibley and Bradshaw Hovey, are still there. In addition to their track record in community engagement, UB recently began offering a degree in real estate development, meaning they have even more in-house expertise to tap into.

Defeating the Kobayashi Maru

We can beat this Kobayashi Maru situation, but only if we, like James T. Kirk, can rise above the two bad options we’ve been presented with. As he did, we can reprogram the scenario. If it were up to me, I’d start by asking UB, realistically, what an adequate study would look like in terms of scope and cost. I’d ask them to design a community engagement process to reach out to both the general public and downtown stakeholders, as well as a screening process to welcome all proposals yet winnow out those that don’t warrant more expensive study. They can also refine the rating/ranking rubric to better reflect our community character and values so that, for example, it wouldn’t highly rank a proposal requiring the demolition of a historic block.

Above all, if we need additional resources to make the best decision, we need to get them – if the county legislature can’t or won’t pony up, then we should seek them from Empire State Development. After all, would the state want to throw away a few hundred million on a poorly chosen facility because it wouldn’t spend a few hundred thousand to fund an adequate study?

Would the state want to throw away a few hundred million on a poorly chosen facility because it wouldn’t spend a few hundred thousand to fund an adequate study?

And while we’re at it, and talking with UB, it may be time to engage them on an updated master plan for downtown, building on and refreshing their award-winning Queen City Hub plan. With people and investment coming back to downtown, it wouldn’t hurt to put some thought into the development and infrastructure decisions that we’ll likely encounter along the way. Whether it’s a convention center, stadium, train station, the Skyway, transit-oriented development, waterfront development, or mixed-income housing, some foresight and rational analysis would serve us better than the continual propose-oppose fire drills.

To talk about a better convention center, we first need to talk about what kind of downtown we want to have a decade or so from now to go along with our shiny new convention center. What will be the setting for the jewel?

This doesn’t have to be a no-win situation. The key is knowing the situation enough to be able to find a better way and a better option. I believe there is one.

Next: Vision 2030

Previous article: Unconventional Center: If You Build it, Will They Convene?

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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