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Urban Renewal Redux: A Wall Rises in Buffalo

Buffalo, like so many American cities, still has wounds and physical defects dating from the Urban Renewal era. Massive demolition programs claimed thousands of irreplaceable buildings. Many sites are vacant to this day (camouflaged, if you will, by parking lots). When new structures were built, they were often built with ignorance and disregard for how humans behaved and cities succeed. Thus, in Buffalo, we erected buildings with long stretches of blank walls, which suppressed sidewalk activity and destroyed the contiguity which made walking useful and pleasant. Jane Jacobs, in Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) pointed this out. That did not stop us from constructing the Central Library (1962) with solid walls on Clinton, Oak, William and Broadway; Main Place Mall (1969) with a 900-foot blank wall on Pearl Street, the convention center (1978) which killed everything around it on Franklin, Genesee, and Mohawk streets with hundreds of feet of implacable brutality, and just about every parking garage you want to mention. That is a lot of dead zone to overcome.

Cities the world over are tearing out expressways, replacing Brutalist compounds with engaging structures opening onto public sidewalks, even "daylighting" lost rivers and canals. Buffalo's first big opportunity to correct the mistakes of 1960s urbanism in Buffalo is the old Marine Midland Center (1972). We are on the verge of blowing it.

The Buffalo Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the Zoning Board of Appeals all approved a massive wall of concrete panels that is 12 feet high on the corner of Seneca and Pearl streets, and over 20 feet high on Washington Street. The wall, and related structures at Main and Seneca streets, are almost finished. And it is a horror to behold. Should we let this mistake last for the next 50 years?


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