Buffalo’s renaissance: Top urban planner reflects on years of work in a changing city

Robert G. Shibley in a white shirt and dark tie.

Robert G. Shibley, dean of the UB School of Architecture and Planning.

Robert G. Shibley, who led the master planning process for Buffalo’s comprehensive plan and downtown plan, shares his thoughts on the Rust Belt city’s rebirth

Release Date: October 2, 2013 This content is archived.

“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 cliff-hanging rescue. 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. ”
Robert G. Shibley, dean
University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning

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 urban thinkers.

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 sprouting up.

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 now.

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 Buffalo.’

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 changing?

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 vital.

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 year.

Q: What are some of the radical ideas urban planners introduced?

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 play.

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 interest.

Q: In older Rust Belt cities, there is a tension between historic preservation and development. Can you talk about that?

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 obstruction.

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 architect.

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 Buffalo.

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 Buffalo?

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 cliff-hanging rescue.

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.

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email ub-news@buffalo.edu or visit our list of current university media contacts.