Imagine If

‘Building UB’ plan offers a blueprint for compelling and memorable campuses


The profusion of ideas for campus growth and development has a historical antecedent: the 1968 groundbreaking for the Amherst Campus. In remarks that day, Nelson A. Rockefeller (with then-UB President Martin Meyerson and Meyerson’s son, Matthew, with shovel) termed the new campus “the greatest enterprise” in regional history. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES

FORTY YEARS AGO THIS FALL, a crowd of suit-and-tie dignitaries gathered in a weed-strewn field off of Skinnersville Road to break ground on a new Amherst campus for UB. Despite the late-October chill and muddy ground, the mood was festive among them as they dug their blue-and-white shovels into the spongy earth. After all, this was the start—symbolic, though it was—of construction on the university’s North Campus: a massive, 1,200-acre, $600 million undertaking that would transform not only UB, but the whole of Western New York’s economy. It was a day for hyperbole, and the late New York State Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, present for the ceremonies, dramatically deemed the expansion “the greatest enterprise in the history of Western New York.”

Though such superlatives are bandied about with less frequency today, it would be fair to say that UB is currently embarking on an equally bold physical expansion. That expansion will support the ambitious UB 2020 strategic plan, which calls for the university to grow by 40 percent over the next 12 to 15 years, increasing enrollment by 10,000, and swelling the ranks of faculty and staff by nearly 3,000. Under the plan, UB’s annual research expenditures will more than double, its construction spending will more than triple and its overall economic impact will grow from its current annual $1.5 billion to a projected $2.6 billion.

Guiding all of that growth will be “Building UB,” a comprehensive physical plan that reaches beyond the goal of simply growing the university. Rather, it strives for more sensitive environmental design, increasingly symbiotic town-gown relations and dynamic spaces that will support 21st-century modes of learning. In other words, the planning concept recognizes that a well-rounded, 21st-century education is influenced by all of these factors, in addition to what specifically goes on inside the classroom and lecture hall. Moreover, all these factors are important to attracting the most talented students and faculty.

Redistributed growth
UB is currently developing options for how UB 2020’s expanded academic program might be distributed on the three campuses. Above is an example of redistributed growth on the North Campus.

“In an environment like Western New York, planning is a dog that doesn’t hunt very well,” says Building UB project leader Robert Shibley, acknowledging the regional history of unimplemented studies and failed plans. Still, ample planning is essential if UB is to grow intelligently and responsibly, insists Shibley, who is UB professor of architecture and urban and regional planning. “To expend as much capital as we’re proposing without a plan would be both fiscally irresponsible and environmentally disastrous,” he says. That’s why UB has enlisted a world-class team of consultants—eight firms in all—to help develop its master plan. Led by the New York City firm Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, this team is developing a physical plan that will comprehensively improve transportation, wayfinding and security, while reducing the amount of land given over to parking and thus lessening the environmental impact. In summary, the planners’ notion is to create a positive, lasting sense of place, while developing a blueprint for a much-improved future at UB—one that includes becoming a nationally leading public research university.

Past is prologue

Activating the spine
Lockwood Memorial Library would be given a new and prominent glazed entrance, allowing easier and more visible access than is now the case. Moreover, with its position at the heart of the campus, this building could house more active uses on the ground floor, thus enlivening the spine.

ACCORDING TO Frederick Bland, a managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle who’s leading the consultant team, “You don’t envision the future properly if you don’t respect and know the past.”

Indeed, a quick look at UB’s 162-year history reveals a mix of good plans for building and construction, bad ones, and, perhaps most often, plans that were never fully implemented. Over time, as educational modes evolved and space requirements changed, new buildings were erected, parking lots were built and the master plans were amended. Certainly, several UB presidents did plan and implement enormous transformations in the physical plant of the institution, often with marked success. Yet the end result is three campuses—North, South and the newly emerging Downtown—that present the planning team with ample challenges, as well as an array of opportunities.

The South Campus, former site of the Erie County Almshouse and County Hospital, was designed by the firm of famed Buffalo architect E. B. Green (1855–1950). He came up with a traditional campus plan that centered on a framework of quadrangles, surrounded and enclosed by neoclassically designed academic and service buildings. Since then, however, Green’s pure, uncluttered vision has gradually faded in favor of expediency. Eight “temporary” buildings resembling sheds were erected in the 1960s, while some historic buildings were vacated shortly afterward. Many of these unsightly temporary structures remain today, though it bears mentioning that six of the oldest buildings on the South Campus—including Hayes, Crosby and Harriman halls—have been continuously occupied.

“Do you see the irony in empty historic buildings and temporary buildings that are 40 years old?” Bland exclaimed in a public presentation in December. “There’s something crazy!” Additionally, carelessly placed buildings impeded Green’s rigorously planned quadrangles and pathways, while 25 acres of parking lots were built across the campus. “It’s an awful first impression,” Bland says matter-of-factly.

The North Campus, on the other hand, began as 1,200 acres of open farmland, acquired for the express purpose of hosting SUNY’s flagship campus. Its first, and only existing, master plan was created in 1970 by Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay Associates of Watertown, MA. That plan called for maximal interaction among academic, residential, social and recreational activities within the relatively compact area known as “the spine,” making walking the primary means of travel. It also called for large, unplanned green spaces around the perimeter of the campus, and envisioned them as natural forests and grasslands.

“I think that the biggest detractor to Sasaki’s plan is that it was about 20 percent implemented,” says Chris Mendel, senior landscape planner at the Philadelphia firm Andropogon Associates and part of the consultant team. Mendel is referring to certain student housing developments since the original Sasaki build-out that “tend to isolate the energy of student life and living on campus” from the campus center (though the reference is not to the student apartments of recent vintage). “If the Sasaki plan were built out,” he continues, “there wouldn’t have been that huge moat of parking and windswept space that is there now.”

The walkability factor

Envisioning UB in 2020
A significant landscaped space could connect the spine  to Lake LaSalle, while an adjacent winter garden might provide a place for year-round gatherings.

Beyond isolating student energy, the separation of living and learning centers made for a campus that isn’t very walkable. As Mendel states, a “moat” of parking—comprising more than 12,000 spaces spread over nearly 90 acres—was built around the spine. On top of that, an overly complex system of concentric roads further isolated the main campus from student housing and the surrounding community. Another, more fascinating, if tragic, way the Sasaki plan fell through is obvious when one looks at the Sasaki drawings. They are marked with only three colors—gray, white and green—oceans of green made up of thousands of tiny, perfect brussels sprout–looking trees. Sadly, that kind of plant regeneration never really happened around the central campus.

“It’s kind of amazing that North Campus is as isolated as it is, but it doesn’t feel particularly natural,” adds Scott Francisco, senior consultant at the design consulting firm DEGW in New York, another consulting team member. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It seems like if you were that far out of town, you’d at least bring some natural elements into the heart of the campus.” According to Mendel, it’s because building activity inverted the soils, putting the poor quality clay on top. “That’s why North Campus looks as though it’s just been planted, but those plants are really 30 years old,” Mendel says.

The Downtown Campus is the newest and, thus, the most nebulous of the three. As such, its biggest challenges are to create and maintain a consistent identity within its dense urban fabric, and to find intelligent ways to grow within the context of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (whose members also include other top research and medical facilities). Despite all of these challenges and more, the planning team is undaunted. In fact, much to the contrary, this group of seasoned planners is eager to tackle the limitations and exploit the opportunities they present. “In architecture school, they told me that there’s no such thing as an ugly building, only an incomplete one,” Shibley says enthusiastically. “I would extrapolate that to say the same is true for a city or, in our case, a campus.”

Three complete campuses

OVER THE PAST several months, the project team has come up with countless innovative ideas for making UB’s three campuses complete. They run the gamut from parking and transportation considerations to improving environmental stewardship and capitalizing on natural assets.

An important concept that Bland has stressed repeatedly is to maintain individual campus identities, yet realize seamless integration among the three. “One university, three campuses,” he likes to say, indicating the synergy the three are expected to achieve.

On an individual basis, Bland has characterized each campus with a tagline that encapsulates its identity: North Campus, with the majority of the university’s core academic programs, is “a world of education.” South Campus, the most historic and aesthetically pleasing of the three, is “classic lines, cutting-edge.” The Downtown Campus, likely to have a health sciences focus, is “science in the city.” Each campus’ sense of individual identity, he maintains, is bolstered by the fact that the three are different in nearly every respect—architecture, functional characteristics, even landscape. Moreover, they are located in separate watersheds, sit on unique bedrock formations and have vastly differing soils.

Vehicular circulation
Thinking about a better South Campus traffic flow, the planning team is looking at how to complete the Hayes Road loop, thus providing proper access to all buildings.

Despite these differences, however, relatively straightforward principles are proposed to unite the campuses and help further integrate them conceptually and in concrete terms. One is consistent signage across the three campuses, clearly identifying each as part of the larger university. Another is regular, reliable transportation links among them, be it NFTA buses or, eventually, light rail. Indeed, Bland says physical movement between the three campuses is itself a challenge that tends to fragment the university. “I think a lot of people use that Stampede [UB bus fleet] more than they’d like to,” Bland states.

Bland and his team also see great potential in exploiting the currently underused natural assets on both North and South campuses. “To me, Lake LaSalle looks like what it is—a water management project,” he says. “It doesn’t look like it’s a lake, it doesn’t look like it’s an enjoyable place to be.” He contends that the lake is an important resource that is undervalued and underdesigned. Under the new physical plan, Bland hopes that Lake LaSalle will become a focal point for the campus to grow around—and an asset that faculty, students and the surrounding community can enjoy year-round with boating, ice-skating and the like.

Looking to the South Campus, Mendel sees a natural physical formation that was factored into the original campus design, but unfortunately has been neglected more recently. “Going back to when Hayes Hall was a hospital, they organized the buildings along the ridgeline—the Onondaga Escarpment—in a rhythm that created strong open- space quads,” he says. Because the campus was designed on that high point, one can enjoy terrific, almost iconic, views looking from the “front lawn” of the campus toward Main Street. One way Mendel hopes to reinforce this “quintessential Northeastern college design” is to ensure that any future buildings respect the system of quadrangles. “These are all traditional campus siting rules of thumb,” he says.

The environmental imperative

Greening the campus
Examining environmental concerns and also the unique needs of the Downtown Campus, planners are looking at the possibility of massing building setbacks to provide terraces for outdoor functions.

IT’S NO SECRET the kind of growth the university envisions will require energy and will put stress on the environment. New buildings require electricity and natural gas, eat up open space, and create more impervious surfaces. With three million or more additional gross square feet of buildings projected across the university by 2020, environmental stewardship is necessarily at the forefront of the Building UB plan. Indeed, members of Andropogon Associates, Mendel’s firm, are experts at ecological planning and design. In fact, their name—andropogon—comes from a genus of field grass that is one of the first to recolonize brownfields, beginning nature’s healing process.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with ways to manage all of this land in a way that’s more sustainable, more energy efficient,” says Mendel. That means constructing buildings certified with the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green standard and intelligently siting them as well. To do that, Andropogon is taking into consideration—and finding ways to capitalize on—such factors as the shallow sun angle of Buffalo in winter and the powerful westerly winds that blow across all three campuses. Properly grouped buildings, for example, allow plenty of sunshine to hit each one—improving the outdoor public spaces between them by blocking prevailing winds and providing for maximum solar access.

Beyond the environmental, there are architectural concerns that can rankle. Bland considers North Campus buildings to be the nadir of modern architecture in the 1970s. “There are too many opaque surfaces, too much brick and concrete, not enough glass,” he says. That statement represents both an aesthetic and environmental viewpoint. Constructing new buildings with plenty of glass, Bland contends, allows them to take some advantage of passive solar heating year-round, while also better connecting indoor spaces to nature and the outdoors.

Certainly, all these considerations not only make for a more livable campus, but also would help reduce UB’s considerable carbon footprint (roughly equal to that of 25,000 cars) by conserving energy. Andropogon has other ideas that look beyond simply saving energy to the very real possibility of generating it. In their analysis, strong winds suggest wind power production; the photovoltaic array atop Norton Hall is obvious inspiration. They’re also looking at a biomass energy facility, or possibly even thermal storage. In the end, the goal is to achieve complete climate neutrality and, barring that, at least to keep the university’s carbon footprint from growing in proportion to the three campuses.

Propelling the imagination

MEANWHILE, Bland and the consultant team are actively encouraging the UB community to imagine “what if?” when envisioning Building UB’s overall impact across three campuses. What physical improvements could make UB a model university that can compete on a national level? If you had a magic wand, what changes would you make?

Learning landscapes
Among the intriguing living learning concepts: arts lofts mixing inspiring architecture with multidisciplinary arts activities, in addition to “live-work” spaces for visiting faculty and graduate students.

To answer that question, Bland has come up with some exciting ideas that address the natural landscape, transportation and parking, campus identity and wayfinding. UB, in Bland’s imagining, would make better use of the academic spine, redeploy restaurants and retail shops from the Commons along its length, scatter attractive outdoor eating and gathering spaces throughout, and find ways to cut down on the amount of masonry and concrete that now lines Founders Plaza.

Furthermore, he imagines Lake LaSalle as a focal point, with a grand promenade to the lake replacing the Commons, an all-season trail system linking the lake with the surrounding woods, and turning the lake into a living ecosystem with year-round recreation. He looks at the sprawling parking lots on the North and South campuses and pictures them consolidated into attractive structures that blend in with the surrounding buildings, and include storefronts to help integrate the community with UB. Better yet, Bland can see these as underground structures allowing for more green space above.

Along these lines, he hopes to promote a bike culture and thereby dramatically improve the walkability of each campus, further relieving the university’s parking problems in the process. And, too, he imagines the landscape conserving habitat, producing energy, and being creatively adapted to foster learning and to reveal natural systems.

In addition to these somewhat generalized planning principles, Shibley has come up with a list of new facilities—beyond academic spaces and student housing—that he thinks are necessary to create vibrant, diverse campuses. “UB ought to have a great cultural destination where we can exhibit the whole range of our intellectual, artistic and scientific resources for the public,” he says. “We also should consider a hotel and conference center, an executive education center for training businesspeople, on-campus retirement housing, life science research and development labs and business incubators, improved recreation and wellness facilities, and retail and entertainment centers that will cater to both the university and its host communities. These are the kinds of facilities that can lift UB from good to great.”

The hard work begins

ALL THESE INTRIGUING concepts are products of the first phase of Building UB—the Vision. This is the easy stage, Bland admits. “We were trying to frame some of the key challenges, while articulating some of the opportunities. It was fun and kind of painless.” Now, however, they’re well into a more difficult period, which is finding ways to accommodate growth on the campuses—going beyond the more fanciful “what if” stage to actually crunch numbers and decide what, in fact, is feasible on each campus.

Creating a planning framework
Working with the concept of “redistributed growth,” the Building UB team envisions the Downtown Campus comprising health sciences schools and community outreach programs, with incubators, clinical facilities and medical offices among the complementary uses.

Based on all of the brainstorming during the “vision” phase, the planning team has come up with a number of interesting growth strategies. On the North Campus, for instance, it’s looking at connecting the spine with the island of student housing and administrative offices that is the Ellicott Complex, using such building fabric as a hotel and conference center, restaurants and retail. A 600-bed student housing project currently in development and immediately south of Ellicott, along Lee Road and the western edge of Lake LaSalle, is the first step in forming this connection.

Also, the team plans on thickening the spine along its entire length with such structures as an additional building for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Over time, these new buildings will subsume the parking lots currently surrounding the spine, offering an alternative to today’s sprawling lots. On the South Campus, planners are looking at how to build on E. B. Green’s classic design. That effort will primarily focus on reinforcing the traditional quadrangles through a number of steps: removing the temporary buildings that clog and interrupt them, enclosing them with new buildings, updating and occupying historic buildings, and, perhaps most exciting, using new construction to create new quads on the southern end of the campus.

Campus culture concepts
Concepts that could help UB become more appealing on cultural fronts emphasize health, diversity and heightened social interaction. The “U-Bistro,” for instance, would ensure “downtown” style and substance, while study boats (top)—wired for laptop and Internet use—could pleasantly integrate relaxation with academics.

Another concern while growth is under way is to maintain the continuity of the pedestrian network. Until the conversion and expansion of Squire Hall from a student union to the School of Dental Medicine, you could walk straight from Parker Hall to Kimball Tower without stopping. The hope is that by making a stronger system of quads and functional pathways, the quadrangles will once again become iconic, beloved spaces where students will gather.

Meanwhile, moving the medical school or other life sciences facilities onto the Downtown Campus would “provide a huge impetus of change and growth,” according to Bland. Not only that, but it also would bring UB’s story full circle. It was only a few blocks away—at Main and Virginia Streets—where UB got its start as a medical school in 1846. And it goes without saying that educating medical students adjacent to Kaleida Health’s Buffalo General Hospital could be mutually beneficial for both school and hospital. Shibley, Bland and their team of consultants presented many of these findings for a wide-ranging public discussion at an April 22 forum on the North Campus. (See for forum coverage.)

Despite the promise of the Building UB plan, Shibley cautions that it’s not a “silver bullet.” “It’s not designed to solve all the problems [of the city and region],” he says. “We do this not because the university is an economic engine, though that’s certainly a nice side effect. We do it because we strive for academic excellence; it’s our mission as a major public research university.”

Certainly, that academic excellence comes with growing the university’s student body in size and academic quality, which will only significantly occur if the right physical supports are put in place—additional buildings for living and learning that are both compelling and memorable. With the Building UB plan in place as a blueprint, the University at Buffalo is poised to rise in the ranks of nationally prominent research universities and, with it, will grow all of Western New York.

“We’re not connected to the community here at UB,” Shibley says, “we are the community. We are on the boards, on the staffs, in the clubs—part of the culture of all of Western New York.” And now, for the first time in decades, that could become a culture of growth. If that were to happen, then the university’s expansion would indeed be—as Governor Rockefeller called it so long ago—“the greatest enterprise in the history of Western New York.” At least in its recent history.

Schematic of new building to house two UB engineering departments. (top)
Kapoor Hall (former Acheson) will be retrofitted as the new School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. (above)


“WE ARE ALREADY implementing even as we plan,” Robert Shibley, Building UB project director and professor of architecture and urban and regional planning, says of the capital projects—estimated around $300 million—that are now under way at UB. “Our goal is to make every current project a demonstration of the master plan implementation.” The following projects are already fully funded and are in the development or implementation stages:

> The new building for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on the North Campus
> A new home for the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences on the South Campus (the former Acheson Hall)
> 600 additional beds of student housing south of the Ellicott Complex
> A new Educational Opportunity Center on the Downtown Campus
> A retrofit of the M. Wile Building—now the UB Downtown Gateway—on the Downtown Campus
> Renovation of Allen Hall to be a new community-university gateway on the South Campus
> The Founders Plaza revitalization work on the North Campus—phase one of three completed. Note: Phase two of this project began in May.
> Renovation, expansion of the North Campus Child Care Center
> Renovation of the South Campus Child Care Center
> New athletic and wellness facilities—in development

A photo dialogue
A thought-provoking image submitted by a UB student as part of Framing UB.“See that dirt trail connecting the parking lot to the sidewalk? I think the students are trying to tell you something...there should be a sidewalk there!” —Adam Blair


“A MASTER PLAN ends up being a product,” says Fred Bland, managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle and leader of the Building UB consultant team. “But the process is really an important part of it for many different reasons; primarily in that the product will be much richer, deeper, more meaningful and more widely accepted if the process to create it is more open and fluid.”

That’s why the Building UB project team has tried so hard to engage UB and its host communities in an open dialogue for more than a year. What members have come up with so far is the net result of a year of preplanning and the individual input of more than 3,000 people via nearly 140 meetings with community leaders and organizations, the first Building UB forum in December 2007, the UB 2020 Web site (, and the Framing UB project ( The latter is a “photo dialogue” in which UB students and others are invited to share their perceptions of the campus.

Peter Koch is a Buffalo-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Artvoice, Buffalo Spree and 1300 Elmwood. This is his second article for UB Today.

Read more about the intensive Building UB process.
Creating E. B. Green digital library.
Book takes on “myths” surrounding decision to build in Amherst.