The High Cost of Nothing: Part One

Recently, news broke detailing plans for renovation of the Alling and Cory Building into student housing.  This is one of Buffalo’s most architecturally significant industrial buildings, so the news of new investment in this structure was heartening.  Then came Internet rumors that an adjacent row of 19th century buildings on Michigan Avenue would be demolished for parking as part of the project.  This was saddening.  As it turns out, the rumors were only partially true.  The request for demolition was apparently only for a particularly nasty concrete block bunker of a building at the south end of the row of older buildings.  

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I have never paid much attention to this part of the city.  A quick Google tour of this section of Michigan Avenue explains why.  The city has basically been stripped away.  Anything built since urban renewal claimed this area, starting in the 1960s, has been designed in the suburban style with large stretches of empty space, sparsely decorated with small plants and acres of parking. This manner of planning has continued even in recent years with construction of Erie County Public Safety Building. Renderings of the Alling and Cory renovation suggest that large amounts of parking will be included, following the established planning pattern for this forlorn part of the city.  Though this renovation will be a win for the city, it will likely have a lower impact than it should or could have if it was occurring in a neighborhood of urban space, rather than what is currently an anti-neighborhood.  

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The continued removal of the city to create buildings in islands of nothingness is a costly endeavor.  Opportunities were lost when this old Michigan Avenue neighborhood was removed and replaced with the nothingness that exists now.  I traveled up Michigan Avenue and found a place that has lost its “place”.  Small islands of leftover history are reminders of what has been removed in the name of progress.  Progress has taken the form of weeds, chain-link fences and parking lots.  It has become a hideously ugly street, incapable of regenerating or attracting new development.  There are no people. There is nothing to do here. Unfortunately these are the kinds of environments that all too often become the image of the city.  This once dense eastern edge of Downtown has become a sprawl place as bad as anything in the suburbs.  This part of the city can not sustain vibrancy, and therefore costs everyone in WNY. Sprawl, whether inside the city or on the fringes of the metro, is costly and destructive–especially when combined with population decline. 

 

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I don’t know if there are any plans for this simple group of historic buildings; currently they appear to be either vacant or perhaps they’re being used for storage.  They are the sole intact row of historic buildings on Michigan Avenue.  They are rag-tag and not particularly distinguished architecturally.  But even in a severe state of decline, this little cluster of buildings begins to form the core of what could be a neighborhood.  One can imagine a compelling urban streetscape here, while directly across the street is nothingness.  

 

Can Buffalo afford change these buildings into nothingness?  Wouldn’t it be nice if the students who will soon move into Alling and Cory could walk around the corner to get a sandwich, perhaps passing an architect’s storefront office or artist studio on the way?  I think we need these buildings.  They are a seed that can grow a neighborhood.  Alone, they will whither.  One historic island of historic buildings does not make a neighborhood, nor do islands of new buildings rebuild the city.  

Part 2: Ada Place


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About the author  ⁄ david steele

17 comments
Buffalo Rising
Buffalo Rising

The High Cost of Nothing #2: A Tale of Two Streets

I promised a second part to this post that focused on the sad destruction of Michigan Avenue's urbanism and "uniqueness of place".  Michigan Avenue could be described as a lost cause in Buffalo's fight to save its urbanism.  Basically everything of wo...

queenie
queenie

Steel,

With you, what's the point? You talk past, around, over, and beside the comments. You never, ever get the message.

You are disingenuous to say your post isn't about you. All your posts are about you. Lecturing everybody from your point of view. Your architecture-school view of the world.

Things are a mess. We all know that. You don't have to tell us.

Chris
Chris

We have the Cobblestone District and the Electric District, etc. This is the Urban Renewal District.

biniszkiewicz
biniszkiewicz

Sorry to say I represented KFC in the build-to-suit lease when they opened. Kinda glad it's closed. There are two acres behind that corner which can be developed. Steve Karnath is correct: couldn't attract retailers. Not enough rooftops. Town Gardens at William/Jefferson is better located for the local population and Michigan is too far off the beaten path to work as retail for downtown commuters.

I'm certain Norstar would happily build something here with more urban sensibility if they could attract users. The closed KFC helps that possibility.

I disagree with some about the Elm/Oak arteriole, though. I think it had a positive impact on downtown. Those modern suburban style buildings are usually occupied, the traffic moves briskly at rush hour (making commutes less of a hassle and workers more willing to trek downtown), and parking is pretty full most work days. Overall, I think that the suburban style housing everyone hates and the Elm/Oak arteriole served their purpose of buffering downtown from the former slum. Most of the housing projects date from the 50s. Those were a mistake. But I submit Elm/Oak and new housing on the near east side helped downtown weather the last three decades better than in the alternative.

skarnath
skarnath

Jim Pitts was the councilman when the Ellicott Town Center was being planned. He insisted that 4 of the 8 towers be saved. All of the townhouses that are in the interior of the development connecting the towers are owner-occupied, but there was a significant subsidy. Mr. Pitts later became Council President, and when the position was eliminated in the Charter Revision process, he went to work for Norstar for a couple of years.

STEEL
STEEL

Thumbs up Sony

sonyactivision
sonyactivision

I do remember all those decrepit and abandoned houses in that area that burned all through the '70s. As awful as that was, their wholesale clearance in favor of empty lots and misguided public housing projects was even worse. Isolating Downtown in a sea of this stuff is one reason why Buffalo has lagged in redeveloping itself. I think the key lies in bringing new energy and preservation to all the major streets and radials with a nodal approach. Then maybe things can fill in between those nodes. What has to end is the suburban style garbage that has been built in a sad attempt at mock-upscaling. You can tell how many of our public officials are lawn guys that live in Clarence when you see their handiwork here.

STEEL
STEEL

So Queeenie,

Help me understand. The story is not about me so I am not quite clear about what you are saying. Are you saying that you are alright with this kind of crap?

When you ask to "see what?" Do you mean that streets full of active businesses are not desirable? Are you saying that a chain link enclosed parking lot is good? Please explain.

Cardiff Giant
Cardiff Giant

Really? and queenie - you two seem to have a thing for Steel. Why is that?

I'm also fascinated by the perpetual attempt to 'argue' that someone not in a specific geographic location can't or shouldn't know about that location or provide opinions about it. If you extrapolate this idiocy, none of us could have an opinion about the war in Iraq, let's say, or most federal public policy, or almost anything beyond our specific town/village of residence (or does this limitation apply to the person's zip code or area code?)

Really? and queenie - do you both reside in the city? Just wondering whether to give your opinions any validity or not.

queenie
queenie

Steel, why don't you come home and open an office there?

Imagine the experience of grabbing a KFC sandwich and walking by a real architect's storefront office. To see what?

Give us all an F'in break from your pomposity!

wnywatercooler
wnywatercooler

there really is nothing in this part of the city i'd like to see what used to be in the area that is now meadows and chain link fences..

also isn't this area the beginning of the 'michigan st preservation district' with the baptist ch museum and such?

Really?
Really?

What a PERFECT location for a Buffalo office of Chicago based Muller+Muller!

RaChaCha
RaChaCha

Since chicken is the theme-of-the-day, let me mention that I was by this KFC a month or so ago, and it appears to now be closed.

chris_hawley
chris_hawley

Great post, Steel!

These are some great examples of the "background" buildings that make a great city. Their preservation should indeed be a priority.

I, too, heard rumors from several sources that these buildings were to be demolished. I'm glad to find they are not.

skarnath
skarnath

Most of the pictures in the article are of the Ellicott Town Center - the redevelopment of the long-vacant Ellicott Mall that took place in the 1990's in 4 phases. The Ellicott Town Center Master Plan was approved by the Common Council and the NYS legislature. It included the development of commercial and retail space along the western side of the project, fronting on Michigan Avenue. Unfortunately, the only commercial spaces developed were the Kentucky Fried Chicken at Michigan and Eagle and a day care center at Michigan and S. Division. The KFC was inappropriately designed as a drive-through, and the day care center was closed by the state following a series of operational problems. The developer, Norstar Development USA, then located its offices in the day care building.

The plan for Michigan Avenue wasn't bad, but there was poor execution with regard to the KFC, and a lack of interest on the part of retail establishments to locate on that section of Michigan. But the plan is still in place, if the economics for retail in that location improve.

Lorem Ipsum
Lorem Ipsum

Michigan Street is the answer to everyone who chants "Tear the f_____r down" whenever a campaign coalesces around a threatened building.

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

I believe Michigan Ave was seen as a buffer between downtown and the East side. Racism and fear certainly influenced urban planning during the sixties and early seventies. I remember how the construction of the Elm/Oak arterial resulted in the demolition of blocks of some of the oldest structures in the city. Many were built of brick in the Greek Revival style including some rowhouse's (rare in Buffalo). This densely built neighborhood was replaced by bland suburban style buildings that bring little life or activity to this area. Preservation of these sole survivers should be a priority.

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