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The Webster Block: Tielman’s Critique of the Sabres’ Plan

In yesterday’s print edition, we briefly noted the alternative plan for the Webster block created by Tim Tielman’s design group, Neigborhood Works, as a counter to the plan submitted by the Buffalo Sabres. Tielman presented the plan this week to the city’s planning board.

Here’s the presentation.

And below is the full text of the letter from John and Shelley McKendry, owners of Hi-Temp Fabrication at the corner of Perry and Illinois in the Cobblestone District, who commissioned Tielman’s group to come up with an alternate plan. The McKendrys sent the letter to Mayor Byron Brown and Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula.

Our family has owned property in the Lower Main Street area of Buffalo for over a century. We own 79 Perry Street in the Cobblestone Historic District, where we operate Hi-Temp Fabrication. We have for decades been enthusiastic supporters of arts, culture, and amateur sports in the Buffalo area. We are writing to express concern over the process and plans related to the City of Buffalo’s Request for Proposals for the so-called Webster Block last year. The RFP, focused as it was on providing a very large parking ramp, produced just two proposals. Both suffered from trying to accommodate the ramp. The process itself suffers from lack of meaningful public review and environmental assessment.

The Sabres’ plan, which the City endorsed last summer, requires the public abandonment of parts of Scott, Perry, and Washington streets. Half the width of Washington Street will be lost; the Cobblestone Historic District, the Old First Ward, and points east will be cut off from the Canal District and Erie Basin waterfront by a windowless wall eight stories high, comprising the parking ramp surmounted by two hockey rinks. Perry Street will be reduced to an access tunnel for the parking ramp.

The central planning frustration of Buffalo over the last 40 years has been how the Thruway, Skyway and HSBC Center form barriers between the city and the water.  Do we really want to create a new barrier? That would further isolate the Canal District and jeopardize current and future investments in the Cobblestone District and Old First Ward. It would  undermine public transportation with an almost-1000-car ramp on top of a Metrorail Station. This is confounding when one considers that the 1100-car ramp a block away on Perry and Illinois St., across from our offices, is virtually empty 24/7 all year round, except during First Niagara Center events.

We believe the City RFP was actually too narrow. It limited itself geographically and functionally. We could do so much better. We must do better.

Toward that end, we have hired a consultant to develop a concept that we feel meets and exceeds all the goals of the RFP, avoids negative impacts to public transportation, and enhances the connections between city and water. We call the concept LoMa, for LOwer MAin.

The LoMa concept includes a single enclosed ice rink on top of a smaller two-level parking ramp on Washington St. Three spectacular open-air rinks are added—two on top of a new deck built above the existing First Niagara Center parking ramp, and one on a rebuilt platform extending from the DL&W train shed westward to Main Street. All would be connected by a series of bridges (gold, blue, and white—colors of the Sabres and First Niagara Bank). In addition, there would be a pedestrian flyover directly into the Canal District. A hotel with a corner spire sits at Main and Perry. A row of gable-roofed rowhouses with ground floor retail would extend north of the hotel to Scott St. A similar row would line Scott Street.

Finally, a tall glass-and-steel stair and elevator tower surmounted by a playful “Hockey Man” weathervane would serve as a marker for the abundant parking that is already available but somewhat hidden. Hockey Man would be visible from the Central Wharf and from the inbound Thruway on the east. A true “Hockeyland” during the colder months, and a spectacular series of platforms for summer events.

LoMa would be a distinctive area that binds together and strengthens all of the waterfront and downtown, and be a wise use of public and private resources. It would save the construction and maintenance costs of 700 parking stalls while increasing the utilization and revenue from existing ramps. It would open up development of the historic DL&W train shed and encourage growth in the Cobblestone District and Old First Ward. We are enclosing a copy of the LoMa concept. We urge you to consider it, and are eager to discuss it with you.

Here’s why folks should cease to resort to the word “obstructionist” whenever a critique is offered of an existing development plan, and why folks should separate themselves from any historical animosity toward Tielman and the role he’s played in the city’s public debates in the past 20 years, and consider seriously the content of the critique:

  • A proposal that asks the city to abandon parts of public streets deserves a harder look than the Sabres’ plan has received.
  • A proposal that asks the city to narrow a street that accesses the project area while forecasting increased automobile traffic deserves a harder look than the Sabres’ plan has received.
  • A proposal that includes a structure built over a city street also deserves a harder look than the Sabres’ plan has received.

I’m all for what the Sabres are proposing. (I don’t know about the parking ramp, given the oceans of surface parking lots that serve the area already. But fine—more parking. Everyone always wants more parking.) However, I don’t think the McKendrys and Tielman should be dismissed out of hand for criticizing the particulars of how the Sabres intend to achieve their idea. Someone has to take a hard look, because we only get to do this once. There is little evidence that anyone else has done so.

 

 


Surface Parking Protectionism

The image shown above is a rendering of the HARBORcenter – the Sabres’ proposed hotel, restaurant, retail, and indoor hockey destination planned for construction on the long-abandoned Webster Block.  It’s no Fallingwater, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s not ugly and it’s wholly functional, and will bring people and their money to a fledgling entertainment district that’s growing in fits and starts of its own accord. 

Buffalo antideveloper Tim Tielman has started a company named after the “neighborhood workshops” that have been part and parcel of the formulation and implementation of Buffalo’s soon-to-be “Green Code” zoning law. On Tuesday, Tielman, on behalf of his “Neighborhood Workshop, LLC” appeared before the Planning Board to complain about how the Pegula-led “HARBORCenter” project for the Webster Block isn’t pretty enough for him and his clientHi-Temp Fabrications, which occupies an eyesore across the street from an HSBC Atrium surface lot. 

Four speakers, including the owner of a neighboring business, spoke against the project during a City Hall public hearing today.

Speakers said the development would contribute to congestion and that it did not resemble historic architecture styles.

“The central planning issue that we’re facing in Buffalo today … is how to connect downtown to the waterfront,” said Tim Tielman, whose Neighborhood Workshop consultancy developed an alternative concept on behalf of John and Shelley McKendry, who own Hi-Temp Fabrication, at 79 Perry St. Tielman said the project adds to the separation of downtown and the water, as the Skyway does.

Yes, it’s time to hold our horses and literally obstruct something being planned imminently to replace a surface parking lot.  Perhaps we can make it more historically interpretive by adding hay bales and hitching posts? A museum of downtown surface parking might be good for the cultural tourists? Or maybe we can just re-pave and re-stripe the lot? Perhaps we can retain Fred Kent and his extortionate traveling “placemaking” salon to discuss “flexible lawns” and colorful benches? Where are the solar-powered carousels?

Better yet, maybe we can tell the Sabres to go to hell and construct some ugly hodgepodge of buildings with outdoor rinks as an afterthought up on the roof. 

Mr. Tielman and his uncharacteristically disclosed patrons are coming to protect downtown’s connection to the waterfront – that is, if you ignore the fact that the railyard and the really big hockey arena both do that very thing already. 

Who are we in Buffalo to expect or want a nice hotel and hockey facility to help build on a solid entertainment district foundation now anchored by CanalSide, First Niagara Center, and Helium Comedy Club? 

If Hi-Temp Fabrications wants to weigh in on a development’s design, it should invest in the development or buy the parcel. The 11th hour unwanted micromanagement of a $170 million hockey destination and for what? For this eyesore, which looks like a Crayola marker box come to life; Curaçao by the Arena.

 

 This isn’t a case for historic preservation or even one where a better design is being proposed in place of an existing one. This is about ego, power, and subjective design prejudices. That hotel would look great in coastal Florida. In 1977. Those little phony colorful row houses look as stupid as they do out of place. The idea of outdoor rinks completely flies in the face of the Sabres’ intent – to design a destination Division 1 AAA hockey facility to attract tournaments of all ages from all over. Just leave the Sabres alone. When it comes to attracting people and money, they’ve already got things figured out pretty well. 


Pegulaville

Yesterday, the city selected Terry Pegula and the Buffalo Sabres to develop the Webster Block. The proposed structure will include skating rinks, restaurants, shops, parking, and a hotel. 

Brad Riter and I discussed Pegulaville in this Trending Buffalo podcast. What happens when Paladino is snubbed? Will Terry Pegula and Byron Brown be next up on Carl’s insult billboardatorium? 

TBOneThing08-29-12.mp3


Battlezone: Webster Block

Late last week, two proposals to redevelop the Webster Block – across from the First Niagara Center and Canal Side – were put before the public. Physically similar, the major differences between the two plans is that one includes publicly accessible indoor ice rinks, costs more money, will take longer to build, and relies more heavily on public money. 

Submitting the two proposals for public vetting and comment, for the use of land the City currently holds, is laudable. However, I will be not at all surprised to see it devolve right into bitter litigation, because of the ease with which that can happen, and stymie the whole project. It’s cost of doing business in our so-called “lighter, cheaper, faster” placemaking/crowdsourcing development culture in contemporary Buffalo. It’s also why our skyline has not changed significantly since the 1960s. 

First, the Sabres’ proposal. Costing over $123 million, with a promise of 450 permanent jobs, “HarborCenter” is projected to open in mid-2015, include two ice rinks, and rely somewhat heavily on public incentives and subsidies, although the exact figure hasn’t been determined.  It features a sports bar, hotel space, retail space, and a 965-space parking garage. 

Next, here’s a proposal put forth by “Webster Block, LLC”, a joint venture led by Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development. It features retail space, residential condos, a hotel, office space, and 1,089-space parking garage. 

 

Recognizing that design is largely subjective, I somewhat prefer the Paladino proposal. I don’t like the overuse of brick in every new development save the Avant, and these two proposals incorporate that. The archways over the street-level retail in the Paladino plan, along with the awnings and other features one typically sees in big-city urban developments appeal to me. I have seen some criticism about the visibility of the parking ramp in the Paladino proposal, but the Sabres’ renderings seem to conveniently omit that, so Webster Block, LLC gets points for transparency on that point. 

But the brick-and-windows designs are, to me, so late-80s post-modern. The clean simplicity of the Avant should be a model for contemporary high-rise design in Buffalo. This all looks like an NYU or BU dorm, ca. 1986. 

Aside from money and the need for subsidies, the major difference here is the Sabres’ inclusion of two rinks. I think it’s a pretty neat idea, especially if there’s non-hockey related just general skate time available to local and visiting families. Adding amateur hockey space to downtown is clearly a positive, and would be a great asset to have to attract league play and tournaments to downtown. 

But either way, Buffalo wins. This isn’t currently a site, but a blight; another surface parking lot in a city jam-packed with them. It’s the site where the Adelphia Tower was supposed to go – first 40 stories, then 15, then zero as Adelphia went out of business, in disgrace during the last decade.  Anticipating complaints about parking – of course you need parking. It’s not the existence of parking that’s bad, but its visibility and use – a surface lot is an utter waste of space, but a parking garage nestled within a larger project and hidden from view is an absolute necessity. Anticipating complaints about the historic nature of the site of some sort, any such complaints would be disingenuous nonsense. No one moaned about historical significance during the decades during which it was a parking lot. Is someone going to complain that it should be a replica of the original Webster Block? A low grouping of brownstone warehouses

Either proposal would enhance the area around the Arena and Canal Side. Either proposal would be a net plus for the inner harbor area of downtown Buffalo. Either proposal would be a welcome change from the status quo. We have to get past the mentality where one person can halt civic progress for the public benefit with one lawsuit. I wonder if we’ll get there with this project. 

Looking up Main Street 1905 (Shorpy.com)

If you want to add your two cents, you can email the city at websterblockrfp@city-buffalo.com.


Correction on Land Transfer Vote

When I wrote this post (or just scroll down a few posts), I fundamentally misunderstood the resolution South District Councilman Mickey Kearns put forward during yesterday’s special session of the Common Council. The Kearns resolution, which passed 5-4, instructs the city’s law department to draw up a contract whereby just the Webster block — the portion of the 7.8 acres of city land which was in dispute yesterday, and in which HSBC has expressed interest — be conveyed to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. If ECHDC fails to develop the Webster block within one year of the transfer, ownership reverts to the city.

Though the mayor and his allies rebuffed that proposal to give HSBC what it apparently wants. (I say apparently because HSBC is not making a lot of public comment on this fireworks show. And why should they be? At this rate every developer and municipal government in Western New York will be tripping over each other to offer the bank land and incentives.) Russell, Smith, Fontana, and Golombek voted against it.

So what was unsatisfactory to the mayor and ECHDC about the Kearns resolution? Why must ECHDC get the entire 7.8-acre parcel if HSBC only wants the Webster block? I understand Gerald Buchheit and his partners have made a pitch to HSBC for a new-build on the old Freezer Queen site in the Outer Harbor. Is the land transfer urgent because the city might lose HSBC—or because Benderson Development, which is pitching HSBC on the Webster block, can’t compete against the various other local proposals being made to HSBC unless ECHDC gets a hold of the Webster block?