Published January 23, 2019
As a world-renowned landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh has designed many marvelous parks. Oftentimes, when he and his team at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates visit the city in which they’re developing a new park, the community’s request is for something “world class.”
Van Valkenburgh’s perspective on that sheds light on what the residents of Buffalo and Western New York can expect as his team begins the process of transforming the city’s LaSalle Park into Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.
“The first thing about a world-class park is that it has to be loved by the city where it is. World class doesn’t mean buying something in France and bringing it here. It means inventing something that really belongs to Buffalo,” Van Valkenburgh told the crowd inside Buffalo’s International Preparatory School on Jan. 17.
It was the first of what will be several public workshops in a very open process of gathering input and feedback from the community about what it wants the redesigned 87-year-old park along Lake Erie to look and feel like.
The park transformation is being made possible through a $50 million gift from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. The organization, named for the late Buffalo Bills owner, announced the gift in October. It comprises $40 million to redesign the park, and $10 million for an endowment for park maintenance.
“Our ultimate goal, our vision for what this park will become, is a world-class park facility that we the residents of Buffalo and the region can enjoy, but that people all over the nation and world will marvel at,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said at the Jan. 17 workshop. He called the park redesign process “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help this park evolve into something remarkable.”
“We should embrace this moment because this is our opportunity in Buffalo to do something unique and to do something special and to do it together,” Brown added. “With your input and engagement, this process will reflect your values, your dreams and your expectations, and transform the community which surrounds it.”
UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and the UB Regional Institute (UBRI), a center within the school, are leading the public engagement process. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is spearheading the conceptual design of the park.
UBRI kicked off the public engagement process last summer with the Imagine LaSalle initiative and the formation of a 22-person focus group that will guide the process and serve as ambassadors to the community.
Last week’s meeting launched the community workshop phase, during which the public and MVVA will explore design concepts together over the next several months.
“Launch doesn’t come without prep, and we’ve had a summer and fall of prep,” said Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, who moderated the community meeting. He added that the workshop “is a start and there’s lots of room to grow, enrich and improve the thinking we’ve already done.”
That initial work consisted of nearly 1,200 surveys being completed by park visitors. In addition, children from the nearby Belle Center took more than 300 photographs documenting what they loved and what they didn’t like about the park.
The advisory group visited 21 parks in Cincinnati, Chicago and New York City. Based on those visits, the group developed 14 common themes that stood out as principles that should guide LaSalle Park’s transformation. They include celebrating and maintaining its diversity; connecting people with the water; improving active recreation spaces; designing creative play opportunities for people of all ages; enriching event spaces; more public art; providing space for concession stands; and fixing the basics.
“These 14 principles are a jumping off point for a deeper dive into the nitty gritty details of what the community wants in Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park,” Shibley said.
Van Valkenburgh said neighborhood connection to the park could be vastly improved. “We’ve got to really focus on neighborhood connection. I said to the mayor in a meeting earlier today I think it’s the most important thing that we have to take on,” Van Valkenburgh said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Other improvements will include new trees, landscaping and topography, as well as programmatic elements that help stretch the seasonality of the park, making it as much a destination in winter as it is during the warmer months.
Still, Van Valkenburgh said there’s a lot to love about the park, especially its waterfront location. “The view that’s at the edge of this lake is one of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “It’s such a gift that you guys have that.”
The workshop not only served as an opportunity to recap the work that’s been done and what will come next; it also gave the public a chance to get to know Van Valkenburgh and his team a little better.
“It’s a great honor to be working on this project in your city. We do design a lot of parks that are not where we live, which is New York City, and it’s always fun to get to know a new city,” Van Valkenburgh said.
He thanked UBRI for its efforts leading up to the workshop. “They’ve given us a great platform to build on and we look forward to that partnership continuing,” he said.
After Van Valkenburgh spoke, workshop attendees were invited to visit stations set up in the hallway outside the auditorium and review design concepts, discuss ideas with project team members and share written input at each station.
MVVA will return to Buffalo regularly over the next several months as they refine their design concepts each time based on community feedback. The next meeting is set for 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Belle Center, 104 Maryland St., Buffalo. MVVA will present preliminary design concepts that build off feedback provided during the January workshop.
Shibley noted that the process will be iterative. “These will be tentative, rough, probably wrong, and we’ll make them better through a workshop to follow,” he said. “What you see first won’t be what you get. It will change and change and change again.”
Registration and other information is available on the Imagine LaSalle website.