New Urbanism conference to bring leading planners to Buffalo - The Buffalo News
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New Urbanism conference to bring leading planners to Buffalo

A lot of impressive visitors – leaders in the return-to-cities movement – are coming to Buffalo this week.

Like the national conference on preservation three years ago, the Congress for the New Urbanism will herald landmark structures like the Guaranty Building, the Richardson Olmsted Complex and the Darwin Martin House. But those coming to the gathering will also look at other ways Buffalo and surrounding communities have improved the quality of life through enlightened urban planning.

Think Frederick Law Olmsted’s parks and parkways system in Buffalo, Main Street in East Aurora and the roundabouts that calm traffic in Hamburg.

The organization chose Buffalo as host city partly because of the progress here.

“People like going to Buffalo. It might surprise people in Buffalo to know that,” said John Norquist, the organization’s outgoing president. “It’s an urban city that’s on the mend.”

Those coming to Buffalo will also see what many consider urban disappointments.

Think Skyway. The Congress for the New Urbanism earlier this year called for tearing down the mile-long span on the waterfront, placing it on its list of 10 “freeways without futures.”

And the subway to nowhere?

Norquist said he hopes the conference will spark discussion on extending Buffalo’s Metro Rail.

“When Buffalo first built its six-mile rail system, there were only nine rail systems left,” he said. “Now, there are 60 some cities that have rail in one form or another.

“Buffalo is still stuck because suburbanites think it’s a waste of money,” Norquist said. “What’s a waste of money is the city not capturing the kind of growth you get with a good transit system.”

The Congress for the New Urbanism – an organization on the forefront of revitalizing cities – Wednesday opens its four-day national conference featuring national and international experts on city living.

Buffalo’s good and bad will be on display for the conference’s target audience of urban planners, architects, urban designers, transportation officials and real estate developers.

A source of hope will also be on display, said Andres Duany, a co-founder of the organization and a towering figure in the new urbanism movement.

Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities are at the forefront of involving people under the age of 30, Duany said. The younger people, he said, offer the promise of turning things around.“We should have done this conference in Buffalo or Detroit five years ago,” Duany said.

People-friendly plans

New urbanism stresses walkable neighborhoods over suburban sprawl. Cars should share the road with those on bicycles and buses and rail. And neighborhood streets should have homes with a mix of incomes, housing styles and uses.

Conference-goers will hear about Buffalo’s proposed, urbanism-influenced zoning code that city officials say will emphasize neighborhood character. The code could soon be a national model, they said.

Also, the city’s “complete streets policy” calls for adding 10 miles of bike lanes a year.

Visitors will view improvements in the Allentown, Elmwood, Larkin and Hertel areas, as well as the emerging waterfront and neighboring Cobblestone District. They will hear about plans for Buffalo’s collection of grain elevators. And they’ll see Joseph Ellicott’s radial street grid, Frederick Law Olmsted’s parks and parkway system and the influence of the old Belt Line railroad.

“The Buffalo revitalization story is increasingly a national story, worthy of national conferences, particularly this one, which relates to our past but more importantly hits the nail on the head with respect to our strategies for the future,” said Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the state’s Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

“In cities, towns and villages throughout the region, we are focused on creating vibrant, mixed-use, people-friendly environments that make Western New York a better place to live and work, which is exactly what CNU is about. We’re getting our mojo back in a big way in Western New York, and we’re proud to show it off.”

The spotlight won’t shine just on Buffalo.

A preconference tour today will highlight compact, walkable shopping districts, in some cases designed with traffic-calming roundabouts, in the villages of Williamsville, Hamburg and East Aurora.

For those without professional or student affiliations, the registration fee is $810. While that is cost-prohibitive for most, there are free events and tours available that do not require conference registration. For a complete listing of events, go to

One of the most anticipated is a Saturday panel of planners, architects and retail experts, along with Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who will gather in Niagara Falls to discuss transforming downtown into a more vibrant retail area. It will be among dozens of talks, panel discussions and workshops, most of them in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

There will also be “pop-up park” and “pop-up traffic intervention” events – participatory actions intended to highlight and alter, if only briefly, the way places are looked at to encourage long-term change.

Chris Hawley, a local urban planner, said the conference presents Buffalo planners, leaders and others a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cross paths with leading urban thinkers.

Olmsted vs. Moses

Attendees are expected to celebrate Frederick Law Olmsted’s parks and parkways system, while disparaging the works of builder Robert Moses, whose highways cut through neighborhoods and obscured Lake Erie and other natural attractions.

Norquist, who has visited Buffalo numerous times, said he hopes the conference will address the highway system championed by Moses, and the placement of the Kensington Expressway that came at the expense of Olmsted’s grand Humboldt Parkway.

“Moses, in the latter part of his career, abandoned the parkway ideal for the expressway, and promoted the idea of high-speed expressways running through urban neighborhoods, virtually destroying them,” said architectural historian Francis R. Kowsky, “We’re still trying to re-establish our neighborhoods that were seriously damaged because of it.”

Kowsky, author of “The Best Planned City: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Park System,” will speak on “Moses vs. Olmsted” with University of Michigan Professor Robert Fishman.

Chance to learn

The conference is a dream come true for George Grasser, a retired real estate development attorney.

Grasser sits on the board of directors for the organization’s New York state chapter. He formed Partners for a Livable Western New York, the conference’s local sponsor, in 1999.

More than 1,200 people have registered for the conference. Grasser, the conference’s co-chairman with planner Bill Tuyn, expressed disappointment that more political leaders have not signed up to attend, although many planners across Western New York have done so.

“We’re not getting decision makers and elected officials. You have to get the elected officials who make the decisions, because they don’t always listen to the planners, and they have constituents who aren’t always informed about better ways of doing things,” Grasser said.

Grasser said the conference provides an opportunity for those in the city and region to learn about what works best for land-use policies from world-renowned experts.

Buffalo, with its past successes and mistakes, has been a laboratory for both the good and the bad, but it now appears to be learning from past mistakes, Zemsky said.

“Buffalo’s a great place to host CNU22. Our best and worst urban planning decisions are on full display,” he said. “The Olmsted parks and parkways on the one hand, the paved-over Humboldt Parkway on the other. Wright’s Martin House, and then the parking lot where his Larkin Administration Building stood before being demolished. The vistas of our Great Lakes, and the Skyway above,” Zemsky said. “Or stand in Niagara Square and witness Joseph Ellicott’s radial street design, while simultaneously looking at our bunker of a convention center which cuts it off.”

Brendan R. Mehaffy, who heads Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, said the conference is an opportunity for the city to learn more from some of the foremost experts in urban planning.

“This is a great opportunity for both professionals and citizens locally to learn about best practices across the country in terms of what’s working and what’s not,” Mehaffy said. “The conference, in my mind, speaks to the momentum that Buffalo generally has right now. The timing of it is great.”

Public events for Congress of the New Urbanism conference


4:30 p.m., Hotel @ the Lafayette: Presentation by Joseph Minicozzi on the financial impact to municipalities of different types of development.

5 to 9 p.m., Canalside: Ray Oldenberg, urban sociologist, author of “The Great Good Place.”|


Noon, Buffalo Niagara Convention Center: Amy Levner of AARP on “Great Places for All Ages.”

5:15 p.m., Convention Center: Opening of conference with Ken Greenberg, planner for Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn; Fan Pier, Boston.

7 p.m., Hotel @ the Lafayette: Peatonito, Mexico City’s “masked champion of the pedestrian.”

8 p.m., First Niagara Center Arena’s Nexus Club: Talk with foremost urbanist Andres Duany, co-author of “Suburban Nation” and “The Smart Growth Manual,” and Emily Talen, professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.


Noon, Convention Center: Jeff Speck, author of “The Walkable City” and co-author of “Suburban Nation,” on “Towards a More Walkable Buffalo.”

5:30 p.m., Convention Center: Charter Awards ceremony recognizing leading urbanist projects.

7 to 11 p.m., Silo City: “Silos, Brews & Bonfires, exploring grain elevator ruins with local activists. Sponsored by CNU NextGen.


Noon, Convention Center: Presentation by William Fulton, former Buffalo resident, San Diego planning director and co-author of “The Regional City,” and James Howard Kunstler, pundit and author of “The Geography of Nowhere.”

5 to 11 p.m., Convention Center: Films from Los Angeles New Urbanism Film Festival, including “Olmsted’s Enduring Legacy” about Buffalo’s parks and parkway system.

6 to 10 p.m., Convention Center, Dialogue with young designers.


11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Rhode Island and West Utica streets: Traffic calming project, including street party, art, chalk and appearance by Peatonito, Mexico City’s “masked champion of the pedestrian.”

12:30 to 2:15 p.m., meet at Hotel @ the Lafayette: Bicycle tour of the East Side, “Tour de Neglect.”

6:30 p.m., Larkinville: Closing ceremony and party.

Tours (fee required; for a complete listing and more information, go to

Thursday: “Sunset Boat Cruise on Buffalo River,” “Retail on Main Street in Williamsville” with retail expert Bob Gibbs.

Friday: “HarborCenter and Canalside.”

Saturday: “Allentown and Elmwood District Neighborhoods,” “Buffalo’s West Side Story,” “Olmsted Parks and Parkways,” “Industrial Strength Tour: Adventures Along the Belt Line.”

Sunday: “Niagara-on-the-Lake” with Andres Duany; “Chautauqua Institution,” “Niagara Falls & Lewiston (The Gardens at Oxbow),” “Buffalo on Bike.”


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