BUFFALO, N.Y. — Cranes are rising in downtown Buffalo, and
with them, the mood of the city is changing.
For the first time in decades, attitudes are bullish, says
Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of
Architecture and Planning and one of the region’s preeminent
Shibley, an architect and planner, led comprehensive planning
efforts in the 1990s and 2000s to reimagine Buffalo.
The documents he helped draft, including the city’s
comprehensive plan, are now coming to life in the form of a booming
medical corridor, a downtown where developers are bringing
residential units online, and a waterfront where new businesses are
Like many Rust Belt strongholds, Buffalo lost much of its luster
and population in the second half of the 20th century as factories
closed and jobs evaporated.
In this Q&A, Shibley talks about how he kept moving forward
through decades of cynicism and negativity, how Buffalo is changing
now, and what Buffalo’s revival means in the context of
the Rust Belt as a whole.
As founding director of the Urban Design Project at UB, Shibley
helped arrange a series of summits in the 1990s where leaders and
planners asked residents what they needed from the city. About
3,600 people attended.
These conversations and other outreach efforts laid the
foundation for several plans: Buffalo’s comprehensive plan;
the Queen City Hub, which envisioned downtown Buffalo as a center
of commerce and public life in the region; a master plan for the
city’s Olmsted park and parkway system; and a plan for the
waterfront. All are still in use.
Q: Tell us how the Buffalo of
‘yesterday’ was different from the Buffalo we see
A: We see more developers in play. We see an increased
attention to good planning principles. There’s been a
transition away from a kind of hard-edge, cynical attitude of,
‘I don’t trust the city to do it right.’
I was in a meeting with about 30 people, and Howard Zemsky, a
developer, asked the simple question, ‘Let’s just get a
sense in the room about where we are in terms of the city of
And for the first time in my 30 years here, looking at the cross
section of developers, foundation executives and political people
at the table, I saw all the heads moving in the same direction, in
agreement. And the agreement was largely stated in the first
response to the question: ‘Better than I’ve ever seen
it in my time here.’
Q: What about the city itself? How is that
A: The biggest single contribution of our planning
efforts over the past two decades is an acknowledgement that you
can’t just put stuff anywhere.
We identified five strategic investment areas — the
waterfront, the medical campus, the theater district, an education
and public safety campus, and a business and government district.
Those five areas then had residential enclaves between them, which
is precisely where most of the residences are now emerging.
You build out from these strategic investment centers, and
whatever you create will always be next to something that’s
One major area of investment is the medical campus, where you
have Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the Kaleida hospital system and
UB as the three larger players. Plans for future growth include a
new medical school for UB, which has also expanded its presence in
this corridor with new facilities like the New York State Center
for Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, and the
Clinical and Translational Research Center, which opened last
Q: What are some of the radical ideas urban
A: Very early on, around 1993, I had students who were
already positing a new downtown neighborhood with lots of life: a
place with housing and shopping, where people could live, work and
This may not sound radical, but at the time, it was a very
unusual idea. The general feeling with regards to downtown real
estate was that you were never going to be able to beat the returns
from parking cars — that building a parking lot was the best
way to make money.
And now, of course, we’re seeing hotel, restaurant and
condominium developments in the area. We put cranes in the air on
the waterfront. We're seeing the conversion of Class B and C office
space into lofts. The Sidway building downtown, which houses
apartments, is one of the first products that came out of this.
There’s an extraordinary shift in attitude and commercial
Q: In older Rust Belt cities, there is a
tension between historic preservation and development. Can you talk
A: In Buffalo, there used to be this feeling that
preservationists were getting in the way of good development, and
vice versa, but what we’re seeing now is a growing sense that
preservation is a means to good economic development — not an
We have developers engaged in the process of thinking about how
to transform historic assets into modern-day amenities. The
historic architecture we have here is something that sets us apart
from many other cities. The Hotel @ the Lafayette, which was
recently renovated by Rocco Termini, is a good example. The
building was originally designed by Louise Bethune, who is
recognized as America’s first female professional
Q: You often hear people in Buffalo talking
about how things are ‘finally’ changing. The sentiment
behind this thought is that it’s taken a long time for
development to happen. Do you agree?
A: It’s taken time for our planning ideas to take
root, but this is not so unusual.
I think in this world, we often see cities transform over a
30-year period. People often talk about the City of Portland, Ore.
transforming quickly. It didn’t. It took a few decades. We
will some day look back and talk about Buffalo turning around on a
dime, and it didn’t. It took a long time.
What all of our planning efforts have done is create a table
around which everyone can sit and puzzle over ways of investing
that are better for both their bottom line and for the quality of
life in the city.
There’s a level of sophistication and clarity about
what’s really good for Buffalo, and there are so many people
who now want to be a part of this conversation.
Q: If you had to choose one current project
to call your favorite, what would it be?
A: Developing a comprehensive plan for UB’s three
campuses, two in Buffalo and one in the suburb of Amherst, is one
of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.
There’s a deliberate effort to connect the campuses to the
neighborhoods that surround them. As part of this, we’re
seeing the investment now in a new medical school downtown. The
building will be on top of the Allen Street metro station.
It’s textbook transit-oriented development, and it brings
together so much of what we’re trying to do here in
Q: As an urban planner, how did you keep a
positive, forward-looking mindset in the years when there was
(understandably) a lot of negativity/cynicism about the state of
A: I view criticism, even in the form of negativity or
cynicism, as a gift. It informs and shapes how we talk about
things and clarifies where we have challenges in public perception
or in reality. There will always be public controversy and even
whining, but this is all part of a powerful civic discourse about
who we are and what we want our city and region to be. It’s
the social, cultural and political context that focuses our
attention on strategic areas of development and ultimately makes
progress in Buffalo Niagara possible.
Q: What does Buffalo’s revival mean in
the context of the Rust Belt as a whole? Are we seeing similar
revivals in other cities, or is Buffalo’s distinct?
A: Buffalo is both similar and unique compared to other
cities on the comeback trail. In general, we see trends toward
downtown revivals and greater interest in urban living. These
locational shifts in the so-called “Rust Belt” happen
in direct response to the unique opportunities and challenges of
each place. In Buffalo’s case, there has been a clear
focus for some time around strategic investment areas in its
downtown. The residential developments rising in our urban core
have built on those strengths.
It is also important to note that today’s revival is not
the making of any superstar mayor, potent urban regime, or other
white knight. There was no turning point, no watershed moment or
Instead, there was year after year of hard work, setbacks and
incremental achievements by citizen activists, planners,
politicians, philanthropists, developers, academics, business
people and others. We are modeling this work for other cities like
us, as a sure and steady path to remaking cities and
regions. Of particular interest to me in this modeling is the
role of place-based institutions like UB and the UB School of
Architecture and Planning, which can play an important part in
leading the conversation about the future of a city and region.