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Imagine LaSalle partners unveil Initial Design Vision for future Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, UB Regional Institute and City of Buffalo officials share goals, input and process that informed initial designs

Now that the Buffalo Waterfront is finally starting to see some real improvements, it’s time for LaSalle Park to be added to the momentum. Forever and a day, LaSalle Park has been the shunned park – the park that was left behind. There were times when it looked as if this waterfront park was going to be invigorated, but then things fell apart, as administrations changed hands.

In recent years, LaSalle Park has seen incremental improvements – shots in the arm – the dog park, a skate park, and a pool investment, but there has been no master plan or vision, until now, thanks to the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation (RCWJRF). RCWJRF made a $100 million commitment to support Western New York’s Parks & Trails, including $50 million to transform LaSalle Park into the future Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.

The Imagine LaSalle Initiative, a partnership between the City of Buffalo, the University at Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI) and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation (RCWJRF), has been breathing new life into the 90-acre park, by working with community stakeholders and community ambassadors, to roll out a Community Vision Report (released last October).

The core design principles of the Community Vision Report included:

  • Celebrate the park’s culture of inclusivity/diversity
  • Embrace nature with inspiring landscape
  • Support exciting and diverse active recreation opportunities
  • Strengthen neighborhood connections
  • Design creative play areas for all ages
  • Sustain the park with creative financing
  • Connect people with water
  • Enrich the park’s event space
  • Provide a space for concessions
  • Create quiet, peaceful places by separating disparate uses
  • Enhance the park’s unique identity with public art
  • Enable movement throughout the park
  • Get smart about parking
  • Fix the basics

“From day one, thanks to the Wilson Foundation, this has been and will continue to be a community-driven effort to create a world-class waterfront park for the daily enjoyment of Buffalo residents, while also attracting visitors from across the region, the nation and around the globe,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “This model reflects and embraces the thousands of ideas voiced during last summer’s Imagine LaSalle community outreach initiative, as well as this winter’s public design workshops, and is a giant step toward the realization of what Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park will be.”

Adding to the momentum, this past December landscape architectural firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) was invited to participate in the process, by leading with the design of the park. MVVA worked with the community to come up with the various design aspects that we now see in the renderings put forth. At the same time, technical stakeholders such as the Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, Buffalo Dept. of Public Works, and Parks & Streets were also kept in the loop.

The Great Lawn

“One of the primary things we tried to do with this vision is to take advantage of the generosity of the space available to us, to make LaSalle much more interesting and diverse,” said MVVA President & CEO Michael Van Valkenburgh. “It’s currently very flat – a little too flat. We’ve focused on adding topography – hills, valleys, improved waterfront access, a lagoon with native Western New York vegetation, more dramatic views and a new children’s playground – all of which will enhance the kinds of spaces available to visitors.”

^The Great Lawn is an important new design feature that will improve the year-round flexibility of the space, allowing for a broad range of events, gatherings, festivals and performances, as well as a variety of informal activities such as picnics, yoga, snow shoeing and sledding.

 

Along with fixing up a number of the park’s popular athletic fields, a few new key aspects will be added to the park, including a 5K athletic loop, more than 3 miles of cycling paths, and an enhanced dog run. There will also be an effort to allow cars to park closer to their desired destinations.

Design Vision: The improved park proposes to enhance user experiences by quadrupling the extent of paths and introducing topographic variety, adding a 5K athletic loop and more than 2.5 miles of cycling paths, and redesigning its approach to vehicles to allow users to park closer to their desired activities.

“The design vision we see before us today is the result of a process that has engaged the vision and aspirations of neighborhood residents and citizens across Buffalo,” said Robert G. Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “As the design progresses over the next 18 months, we will continue to take inspiration from the community to ensure Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park stands as a landmark to quality design in service to the public.”

Moving forward, over the next 18 months, the design will be examined and tweaked accordingly to accommodate for technical studies, site limitations, and funding. There will also be a number of community meetings, via a design roadshow, where the public can weigh in on various park aspects. These events will be held at the Buffalo Central Library (May 4-8), Canalside (May 9-14), LaSalle Park (May 16-19), and Northland Workforce Training Center (May 20-24). Location addresses and viewing hours are available at www.ImagineLaSalle.org.

“There has been incredible collaboration across multiple entities and organizations to make the most of this remarkable opportunity,” said RCWJRF President and CEO David Egner. “It has been inspiring for all partners to see and will, in the end, make this park realize its full potential as a neighborhood and regional destination.”

The Lagoon: The design team has worked to ensure that the water’s edge provides the greatest possible environmental and experiential value. An “outcrop” land feature will be built and allow visitors to safely launch kayaks, while a new “lagoon” will feature native wetland plants and attract migratory birds.

 

In the end, the park will offer more things to more people. Not only will there be play facilities, there will also be more natural elements such as sheltered valleys and constructed wetlands, with formal allées (tree- or shrub-lined paths), and added amenities such as paths, roads, lighting, comfort stations and concessions to attract more people for longer stays. There will also be an “iconic pedestrian bridge over The 190, which will be considered the ‘front door’ of the park.

Along with all of the various new LaSalle Park visions, MVVA also added a sort of ‘wish list’ that it would like to see addressed in the future, including a potential 4th Street Park, Virginia-Carolina Street Interchange and Waterfront Park, as well as a reimagined Front Park.

Contextual Master Plan: The design team’s vision includes a long-term scope, which includes a proposed vision for a potential 4th Street Park, Virginia-Carolina Street Interchange, and Waterfront/Emerson Young Park, in addition to revisions to the existing Front Park along Porter Avenue.

 

“These concepts demonstrate other opportunities for the city to consider as a way to build added connections and extend the reach and access of this iconic waterfront park into its neighborhoods,” added Van Valkenburgh. “The potential that exists within this majestic space is tremendous, and our entire team has found this process to be incredibly rewarding and inspiring.”

The design also allows for other aligning projects to continue on their own paths, including:

  • Army Corps of Engineers seawall project;
  • Buffalo Blueway Priority project site, led by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, to create a public access point along the waterway;
  • Empire State Trail connection, including improvements from Erie Street to and through LaSalle Park;
  • City of Buffalo’s annual capital improvements planned for the park;
  • Niagara River Greenway Commission/Buffalo & Erie County Greenway Standing Committee grants for LaSalle Park improvements;
  • Pedestrian Bridge Replacement over I-190; and
  • The next phase of its skate park, supported by the Tony Hawk Foundation/Built to Play initiative

As for the cost of the LaSalle Park project in its current state, there is nothing in stone, although $65-70 million in funding has been identified for capital projects. The MVVA team says that the public can expect a fluid timeline, with a potential groundbreaking in Spring 2022, and an estimated completion date of Spring 2024.