This week, Buffalo’s preservationists got a big boost from a lavish New York Times spread celebrating the city’s architecture. Critic Nicolai Ouroussoff concluded that the city had a rare opportunity to use its historic neighborhoods and restored landmarks as potent tools for Buffalo’s economic recovery.
The Times’ validation is rewarding and useful, but it is also timely. Named both to our 2008 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places, and to the Preservation League of New York State’s Seven to Save list, the residential area adjacent to the Peace Bridge remains under threat of needless, large-scale demolition for a massive transportation and security project.
The Peace Bridge crosses the US-Canada border at the Niagara River, entering Buffalo in the historic Prospect Hill neighborhood situated around Frederick Law Olmsted’s Front and Columbus Parks.
Local leaders’ vision of adding a new signature bridge as a gateway to the city -- and the goals of improving transportation and border security -– could be accomplished in a range of ways, locations, and configurations. Instead, these goals hardened into the Public Bridge Authority’s plan to add a new bridge alongside the old one, and expand the border entry plaza currently at the bridge deep into this neighborhood.
In the tree-lined blocks of homes dating largely from 1850 through the mid-20th century, some houses are modest and some are grand. Most are tidy, some are vacant. Overall, the neighborhood is stable and remarkably strong in the face of uncertainty. The Public Bridge Authority itself acquired several significant houses in the area over the years. Unmaintained, they are a demoralizing, inescapable reminder of the residents’ predicament. In a Rust Belt city struggling with real vacancy problems, it would be particularly wasteful to damage this viable neighborhood.
With massive truck lots, a new Duty-Free shop, visitor’s center, and parking structures, the current plan for the plaza would cover nearly 40 acres. To clear this land, over 80 houses would be demolished, including a number of National Register-designated and –eligible properties, and scores of families would be displaced. Those parts of the neighborhood that would remain -– including a whole National Register-eligible Historic District -– would lose their livability, context, and much of their significance.
Federal preservation review and public consultation is underway (both Transportation Act 4(f) and National Historic Preservation Act Section 106), with the active participation of the National Trust, for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League, the dedicated neighborhood group, and local preservationists.
So far, the Public Bridge Authority has made small revisions that may change the image people have of the project, but would not appreciably change its impact.
The city Common Council president and members representing affected areas have been particularly strong in focusing on this threat and the inadequacy of the process to this point. For better or worse, though, the city and state administrations, as well as federal agencies, the Public Bridge Authority, and even the Canadian government all have roles in how (and whether) this project proceeds as proposed
The National Trust for Historic Preservation chose Buffalo as the site of the 2011 National Preservation Conference because we were dazzled by the same thing Nicolai Ouroussoff saw –- the richness in Buffalo’s landmarks, neighborhoods, and the great landscapes in between.
Buffalo’s citizens have embraced its astounding landmarks; the Peace Bridge project is now testing the depth of their commitment to neighborhood preservation. It can be tough to accept how easily historic neighborhoods can be broken, and to realize how much is lost when that happens. But the grace, cohesiveness, and quality of its historic neighborhoods -- including the one near the Peace Bridge -- are among Buffalo’s greatest strengths and best assets.
-- Roberta Lane
Roberta Lane is a program officer & regional attorney in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast Office.