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Richardson site South Lawn is focal point of presentation

For young Buffalo-born landscape architect Christopher T. Mendel, Wednesday evening's public meeting hosted by the Richardson Center Corp. in the Performing Arts Center in Rockwell Hall at Buffalo State College was like a final exam. A very high-stakes final exam.

Mendel is a project manager for Adropogon Associates of Philadelphia, and the test was on his design for one of Buffalo's most illustrious architectural settings -- the eight-acre South Lawn of the Richardson Olmsted Complex -- which, as he acknowledged during his slide presentation, is "sacred space."

Grading him on the $4 million rehabilitation project was a group of 100 or so that included prominent preservationists like Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, and people passionate about the site like artist Michael McLean, a former Buffalo Psychiatric Center patient who said he represented the hundreds of patients residing there. His mother was watching, too.

He explained how two magnificent old trees -- an oak and an ash dating back to Olmsted's original 1881 design -- would be preserved. He said other trees would be removed to provide the kind of "flirtation" views of the buildings that Olmsted favored and how others -- 125 of them -- would be planted to enhance those "viewsheds."

He outlined how the parking lots that currently dominate the space would be removed and parking would be relocated north and east of the Strozzi Building, the modern hospital structure on the site.

He showed how the roads would be slightly rerouted, preserving a main entrance at Forest and Richmond avenues, providing an Entry Plaza in front of the H.H. Richardson tower and allowing curbside parking.

He detailed how the open spaces would be divided into a small area he called the Stage, a medium-sized Dell and the larger Backdrop, all suitable for public events.

And he explained how the drainage would be altered to direct rainwater away from Forest Avenue and into flowery ornamental rain gardens.

Then came the moment of truth. Robert Shibley, director of the Urban Design Project of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, directed the audience how to use electronic clickers, then each element of the design was put up for a vote to rate them as excellent, good, fair, poor, "needs fundamental rethinking" and "I don't know."

The majority scored good or excellent. Comments included doubts about using asphalt for the roads instead of gravel or a porous material and desires to see the original Olmsted path through the site restored.

When it concluded with a overall assessment vote, 48 percent clicked "excellent" and another 40 percent rated it "good."

"I can't get an A to save my life," Mendel grinned afterward, "but I think the community pretty solidly endorsed this."

e-mail: danderson@buffnews.com

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