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Death Star: County plan for Convention Center doesn't address problems it created. Our 1999 plan does.

As a 17-year-old, I went to look at the model of the brutalist Buffalo Convention Center on display in the lobby of the Bank of Buffalo at Pearl and Court Street in 1976. I worked next door at the Otto Ulbrich Company as a helper in the shipping department and was very familiar with the neighborhood and its daily routines. I was a tiny actor in its urban ecosystem. The Convention Center would destroy all of that. That was easy enough for a 17-year-old with a GED to see.

First, it would cause the demolition of the Andrews and Tucker buildings on Court Street for the fire egress from the main exhibit hall. Then the elegant classical Edwards Department Store building that fronted on Genesee and wrapped around to Franklin and Pearl. Lastly, some smaller buildings on Franklin and Pearl, including the Second-Empire style Ace's Steak Pit restaurant building.

Second, it would shut off and occupy West Genesee and West Mohawk streets between Franklin and Pearl. Not only that, the new building and its over-scaled and overhanging roof truss enclosure—crushing scale and threatening horizontal projections are a feature of brutalism, after all—come so close to Green & Wicks's YMCA building as to "disappear." The Y's grand entrance portal was closed off and two buildings demolished for a new entrance court and offices on the north side of the building. The already-narrow walk connecting Franklin and Pearl is further narrowed by emergency egress and stairs from the ground floor level of the Convention Center. This sinister clove, shadowy at mid-day, was made darker and narrower still by an ill-conceived later overhead rat run to the former Hyatt Hotel, seldom ever used, even in winter.

Third, the immense four-front dead zone created by this proto urban death star reduced pedestrian traffic to almost nothing. Stores spaces in all directions closed for lack of foot traffic. For decades. Even McDonald's, Burger King, and a shoe store at Main and Mohawk—a documented 100% corner, in real estate parlance—failed when the pedestrian stream between Main and Niagara Square was constricted.

There's more, but you get the picture.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s and calls for a larger convention center to address the failure of the current one to transform Buffalo (in a positive way). It would have been the mother of all urban death stars, leveling four blocks east of Main. Having lived through this story before, your correspondent was part of the leadership of an ad hoc group called Citizens for Common Sense which, with the Preservation Coalition of Erie County (I was executive director) helped turn the tide against the project.

Part of that effort was to come up with a cheaper-better-faster mitigation of the current convention center. Herb Guenther of Premier Presentations donated his architectural rendering skills to the cause. We called it the GEM—General Entertainment and Meeting— Center.

Twenty years later, we have a new set of drawings released by the County that seeks to mitigate the brutalist harshness of the Franklin Street facade by hanging a 1960s-style screen over it. That may strike some as an improvement, it does nothing to waken the surrounding precincts from the coma the convention center itself induced. While we might change some of the details, our mitigation strategy to help the host neighborhood remains valid and should be implemented. In terms of urbanity, a building is a gem only if it makes everything around it better.

CC from Main & Mohawk  2016
The Convention Center blocked both West Mohawk and West Genesee, cutting off foot traffic between Main Street and Niagara Square, dooming businesses and the attractiveness of the very place the convention center purported to uplift.
CC from Mohawk & Franklin
Convention center's Brutalism, scale, and obstruction are evident in view eastward near Franklin Street.
CC Walkway Mohawk
Mohawk Street passage between Franklin and Pearl is the stuff of urban nightmares.

GEM Mohawk to East jpg
Reestablishing the Mohawk viewshed between Delaware Avenue and Main Street is critical. Removing failed skywalk, reducing roof overhangs, and eliminating Pearl St. access ramp enclosure would open vistas, reveal historic YMCA facade.


Pearl St facade CC
Pearl St. facade of convention center is a 600-ft-long spirit-sapping, commerce-killing concrete rasp.


GEM Pearl St. south
Reducing scale with canopy, softening facade with ceramic mosaics of Buffalo scenes and brick walls, and eliminating enclosure of truck ramp would humanize this deadening stretch. (County is seeking to install artwork here as part of current project) Glazed north wall of main hall would offer views of YMCA facade.


CC Franklin facade
Nightmare on Franklin Street: Mostly bereft of activity, the Brutalist building was a hated imposition from birth.


GEM from N. Sq. jpg
1999 concept attempts to soften Franklin Street facade by replacing the rough concrete wall panels with tall window bays
Gem City Hall View
Opening up the main hall with windows to City Hall and the YMCA building creates a sense of place and wonder.

Gem site plan 2
Site plan as conceptualized in 1999 mitigation proposal


The author offered alternative to a new convention center in 1999 in an influential article in the Buffalo Preservation Report