A rocket has landed in the backyard of 10 Downing Street, the British Prime Minister’s residence. A bomb has destroyed part of the core of Manchester; suicide- and terrorist bombers strike with regularity in Israel. Yet fiercely democratic England and Israel, long targets of terrorist acts, do not react with sweeping measures that, if implemented, would undermine the citizens, cities, and civic life they would protect. Things are done differently in the United States, where a set of post-9/11 federal building guidelines, heaped on top of post-Oklahoma City guidelines, is already changing the way Buffalo looks, functions, and feels, and not for the better. It is happening across the country. Indeed, a writer for The Financial Times of London recently observed (after the London Underground bombings of July) how the American overreaction to 9/11 itself threatens civil life itself.
Exhibit A in the today’s American way of urban death is the proposed federal courthouse on Buffalo's Niagara Square. The project is being shepherded by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara. Everything about it, from how it was conceived, sited, sold, and rammed through the approvals process shouts ego, hauteur, and hubris. The architect selection process began, as Arcara has said, with he and another judge touring new courthouses around the country that appealed to them. They wanted a bold, modern building. The architect shopping produced KPF (Kohn Pedersen Fox) Architects of New York, a celebrity firm that has developed a speciality in curvy glass towers high on the glitz factor. The starchitect in charge of the Buffalo project is William Pedersen.
Pedersen’s brief was apparently to do the KPF thing, with the post 9-11 guidelines, on a site chosen for its monumental possibilities: the northwest quadrant of Niagara Square. That would be cool.
What we got was a bold, glitzy building with no relationship to to Buffalo, Niagara Square, or the citizens who must live here. It is a lone sculpture on an impregnable plinth. And that is the perception from Niagara Square. The backside, facing South Elmwood and Niagara Street, is a cold metal buttock on a plate. A secure location for the Dick Cheneys of the world. It transforms a block of historic fabric between the Lower West Side and the downtown core, complete with three restaurants and hundreds of on-site workers into a single-use redoubt with very few actual users. Shutting out and shutting down our way of life.
This is all being done in the name of security. To suggest that we should do anything less than acquiesce to the guidelines is seen as reckless, uninformed, and verging on the unpatriotic. Yet the guidelines are just that, and they allow security objectives to be met any number of ways, including simply strengthening the blast resistance of buildings the closer they are to a public roadway or a private building. In short, there is no security concern that requires the 50-foot setbacks, total site clearance, and menacing walls. Following the guidelines is just easier than thinking (and quicker and cheaper per square foot of building space).
To understand why we must take the effort to think this through in our messy, time-consuming democratic process, we must understand why the current project is harmful.
Here’s a start:
1. It needlessly destroys four occupied buildings, including the National Register-eligible Balcom/Chandler House and Erlanger Building.
2. It displaces. Over 300 people work in those buildings, and many more daily visitors Those people generate thousands of pedestrian trips daily. Many will be lost to downtown forever
3. The displacement becomes depopulation, as the federal court is already on Niagara Square, in a landmark building.
4. A driving goal in the design is to discourage citizens from lingering or using the space by dehumanizing it. It works at the HSBC Center, Buffalo’s largest office building. With less than 5% of HSBC’s population, the court will be dead indeed.
5. The project disconnects surrounding blocks from each other, eliminating activity. In cities similar to Buffalo, over 50% of pedestrian trips are less than 500 feet (about one block). Eliminating the three restaurants on the site, would not cause people to walk farther in search of a meal. They will stay in their buildings, removing themselves from the population base.
6. It effectively delists its block from the Joseph Ellicott Historic District and negatively effects the remaining historic district, including City Hall and the Statler Building, as well as the very shape of the square itself.
7. The public participation intent of the public review process was a sham. There was no general public notice of the single public meeting in November 2003, it was held at an inconvenient time for the general public, there were no media present, and thus no public account, and no minutes of the meeting have been made available. The meeting for preservation interest groups, held immediately before the public meeting, was so poorly publicized that The Campaign found out about it by accident. It goes without saying that it would not have known of the later public meeting without having attended the earlier one.
The upshot? No consequential change in the project based on public comment. But there will be a photo display of the vanquished buildings, such as one might find at a Thruway rest stop. The court remains wildly unsympathetic to its architectural and social context.
Buildings embodying isolation, corporate coolness, indifference, and oppressiveness can cause or focus public resentment. Why build a symbol open to attack?