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.
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.
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.
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