They wore suits and ties and, the women, Ann Taylor-ish skirts and jackets. But in a sense the eight of them should have dressed in construction boots and overalls. Their tools are pencils and keyboards, but they are just the white-collar equivalent of backhoes and bulldozers.
There is a science to fixing a city. There is a recipe for remaking a downtown. It is as precise as any mathematical equation or chemical formula. There is a reason why walking along, say, the blank back wall of Main Place Mall feels like a forced march, while strolling past the shops on Elmwood or Hertel constitutes a pleasant afternoon.
To put it bluntly, the “urban renewal” of the '60s was a felonious assault on cities. Few were victimized more than Niagara Falls. In the name of “progress,” massive structures were built that obliterated welcoming streets of small shops and restaurants. The Stalinist monoliths – the Rainbow Mall, the now-demolished Wintergarden – repelled visitors and walled off a natural wonder. A downtown stroll became a painful slog. If the aim was to discourage tourism and sabotage the lure of the falls, “urban renewal” was wildly successful. Its remnants still smother Niagara Falls.
Undoing the damage will take some doing. Mayor Paul Dyster and USA Niagara's Chris Schoepflin wisely called in the cavalry. An eight-person platoon from the Urban Land Institute – architects, planners, realtors – recently spent a week. They look at damaged downtowns the way a doctor examines a disease.
“I don't see this as a problem,” Dallas architect John Orfield told me. “I see an opportunity.”
The Mission: Attack the tourism-killing blight of Rainbow Mall. The blank-wall monolith obliterates a square block in the heart of downtown. Cutting it down to size and reclaiming “lost” landscape will be more than its own reward. It will be a model for what can, and should, be done on other streets. Mistakes can be erased. Damaged downtowns can be reclaimed. Mammoth buildings can be tamed. Sensibility-assaulting streets can be remade.
In Niagara Falls, there is an especially compelling reason for revival.
“The water is not ever going away,” said Orfield. “It's a regenerative force.”
The hard part is regenerating the city. Last week, the Urban Land Institute folks unveiled their Rainbow Mall remedies:
• Slice the building in half with a road or pedestrian street. It cuts the monolith down to size and reconnects downtown with the water.
• Turn now-vacant mall retail outward, facing the street. Slice doors and windows into exterior walls to re-create rows of small shops. Add leafy plazas with fountains and benches instead of the current concrete canyon.
• Fill the place – where a culinary school just opened – with anything from a neon-lit bowling alley to a movie theater, to capture tourists.
There is a science to this stuff, a formula for revival. All we need to do is follow it.