This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Tracing the path of UB’s North Campus

Published: July 24, 2008

Reporter Staff Writer

It all started with a golf course. Or at least UB’s ownership of a golf course in Amherst was one of the many factors that led to the current location of the university’s North Campus.

William R. Greiner, president emeritus and professor in the UB Law School, yesterday unraveled the maze of plans, political machinations and land purchases that brought about UB’s transformation from a small private medical college to a major three-campus public institution in “UB: Why We Are Where We Are, Why We Are the Way We Are,” the latest lecture in the UBThisSummer lecture series.

“Anyone who reads the newspapers in Western New York knows that the location of the University at Buffalo is very much a topic of discussion in our community,” said Greiner, who along with his colleague, Thomas Headrick, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the UB Law School, recently co-authored “Location, Location, Location: A Special History of the University of/at Buffalo.”

The book, which sheds light on some of the greatest mysteries of UB’s location and design, served as the basis of Greiner’s lecture.

After being founded in 1847 as a private medical school in downtown Buffalo—and then acquiring land at Main Street and Bailey Avenue in the early 1900s—Greiner said it wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that UB began to consider growing its borders beyond Main Street under the chancellorship of Clifford C. Furnas, who also oversaw the merger of the private UB with the state university system. The university’s purchase of the golf course in the Town of Amherst was linked to an early plan to expand by acquiring the Grover Cleveland Golf Course across the street from the Main Street campus, he added.

“We had our foot in Amherst even before we were part of the SUNY system,” Greiner said, explaining that officials had hoped to trade one tract of land for the other in order to grow the university.

This plan fell apart, however, and UB sold the course. But the region north of the city remained closely connected to future plans for expansion, he said, noting that the Town of Amherst played a prominent role in two of the three plans that later were presented to SUNY trustees by Gordon Bunshaft, the architect commissioned by the board to oversee the design of a larger university. Bunshaft’s plans proposed relocating the campus to the Town of Amherst, remaining in place to establish a dense urban campus or splitting the campus between both locations.

Unbeknownst to the trustees, Greiner said another planner commissioned by the state, Vincent Moore, also was creating a design for the new campus, including a plan to locate UB on the downtown waterfront. The co-called “Moore Report” garnered enough public interest to slow progress on land acquisition and construction on the new site in Amherst—but it never grew strong enough to derail the trustees’ eventual decision to split the campus in two, he added.

Nor, in Greiner’s opinion, was the plan to build a downtown campus ever truly a viable option.

“I don’t think it was ever a choice,” Greiner said, claiming that construction of a downtown campus would have required displacing 16,000 residents and filling in portions of the Black Rock Channel and Erie Basin Marina. “I don’t see how you could ever have done it responsibly.”

Greiner also took a moment to explain the origins of some of the North Campus’ more unusual architectural features. The unique linear design of the academic “Spine,” he said, is the remnants of a radical plan by Bunshaft to build the new campus as a mile-long “megastructure”—a single, enormous building containing all academic departments, facilities and student housing units. He also noted that the isolated location of the Ellicott Complex came about because plans for the site were approved before the completion of the final plans for the North Campus. Planners originally envisioned several additional clusters of student housing linking Ellicott, which was to have been the furthest outpost of these housing units, to the main part of the campus, he said.

In conclusion, Greiner said he believes the decisions that were made about the location and design of the North Campus were the right ones at the time, regardless of the controversy and second-guessing that has continued for decades.

“We have been beating ourselves up over this for far too long,” he said. “I think it’s time to move on. Had we tried to go with [the downtown] approach, I don’t think we would have ever had a new campus for the University at Buffalo.”