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Dream big, build small; Forget about silver bullet saviors, community-based solutions are providing a new path to success across Buffalo

There's a great big hole in downtown Buffalo, and it's filled with a great big concept.

The 600-by-350-foot chasm in the dirt, once the site of the city's storied Memorial Auditorium, was meant to be the centerpiece for the redevelopment of Buffalo's waterfront.

In 2004, it was decided that the region would invest large sums of public money there to draw a new outlet for Bass Pro Shops, a national purveyor of sporting goods and fishing equipment.

Local leaders scraped together $65 million in promised tax breaks, infrastructure improvements and other public subsidies to speed its arrival and to catalyze a new era of growth and commerce on the waterfront.

It was all for nothing. Their grand hopes were slowly crushed over the course of an anguished, six-year courtship, which finally flamed out last year. "Bass Pro" has since become a regional punch-line.

But in the post-Bass Pro months, an extraordinary about-face has occurred. The search for a waterfront messiah appears to be abandoned, along with plans to invest a large number of the region's proverbial eggs in a single precarious basket.

Instead, prodded by community activists (identified both as progressive saviors and regressive obstructionists), the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. turned its attention to another philosophy.

That philosophy goes by many mantras:

"Sustainable development."

"Lighter, quicker, cheaper."

"Strategic investment."

"Shrinking to greatness."

Since the Bass Pro deal collapsed, the harbor development corporation has shifted its focus on some comparatively tiny, piecemeal projects, such as the multicolored Adirondack chairs that dot the waterfront park, a new small restaurant that dispenses ice cream and veggie burgers, Jason Mendola's fledgling kayak rental business and the relocation of the free Thursday at the Square concerts to Canalside's Central Wharf.

None of those improvements required huge investments. None were heralded as keystone projects for future growth. But together, they have begun to transform the phrase "waterfront development" from an oxymoron into a reality.

Meanwhile, that yawning hole in the ground nearby continues to gape as a testament to the failure of the Bass Pro fever dream. To many Buffalonians it remains an ugly reminder of the empty promise of the quick fix, an open grave for the silver-bullet solution that will finally set our region straight.

The idea of applying small-scale solutions to large-scale problems has long been germinating and gaining traction in communities across the city.

It's in the apartments where Buffalonians live and the spaces where they work. It's in tiny community gardens springing up in the city's blighted neighborhoods, at bus shelters in Allentown and in two-man graphic design firms. The idea of thinking small -- of living within one's means, maximizing one's resources, aiming for the achievable and eschewing one-shot fantasies -- is coursing through this shrinking city with a new force.

Its advocates promote it -- with characteristic sobriety -- not as the sole solution for the region's problems or a replacement for dreaming big and aiming high, but as an important piece of Western New York's future.

>Small project, big impact

As commutes go, Brad Wales and Beth Elkins have it easy.

They live with their two young children in a 500-square-foot apartment that is attached to Elkins' state-of-the-art Pilates studio and an architectural firm headed by Wales, a professor in the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning.

"Beth commutes from here to there," Wales said, pointing through a doorway that separates their compact living space from Elkins' business, known as the Pilates Loft. "And I commute about 18 steps down to my office."

"We're very close with our kids," Wales added, as any couple whose tub and shower are in their master bedroom would have to be.

With their compact setup, the couple has managed to gain back many of the 100 or so hours the typical American spends commuting to and from work every year. That's a tough trick for Buffalonians who don't happen to be self-employed or architecturally gifted, but clearly something Wales and Elkins made a conscious decision to incorporate into their lives.

The design of the home, made with materials from local sources, is all about verticality and smart use of space. Sitting at a table in one of the apartment's two main rooms, Wales noted that the space serves as the living room, dining room, family room, playroom and kitchen.

Wales' dedication to small-scale thinking goes beyond his unique work/home setup into areas more widely applicable to the city's development struggles.

In the mid-'90s, Wales spent some 2,000 hours leading a successful effort to overturn a plan by the Peace Bridge Authority to ban bicycles and pedestrians from the bridge. After investing so much time and effort trying to stop something, Wales said, he wanted to try the proactive approach.

"The idea was to take those thousands of hours and do small things that could get done. Exactly what Mark [Goldman] proposed" on the waterfront, he said.

So, in 2001, Wales launched the ongoing Small Built Works program, in which UB architecture students construct small, piecemeal architecture projects around the city as part of their course work. The project is rooted in the philosophy of achieving the achievable and putting small projects in spaces where they're likely to have an outsized impact.

Small Built Works' efforts have included the construction of bus shelters and the repair of blighted corners throughout Allentown in the early 2000s; Wales credits them with helping to attract renewed attention and development to the now-bustling neighborhood.

"It was strategic," he said, "to build small pieces that would have the maximum kind of pebble-in-the-pond effect."

>Ripple effect

The "pebble-in-the-pond effect" also applies to the Partnership for the Public Good, a self-described "think and do tank" that carries the flag for sustainable development in Western New York.

From the organization's 12th-floor headquarters in the local office of Cornell University's IRL School on Main Street, co-directors Sam Magavern and Lou Jean Fleron have a bird's-eye view of Buffalo's struggles. The partnership has partnered with more than 90 Buffalo nonprofits, each working in some small way to improve the city's socioeconomic stature.

Their philosophy: Add up those efforts and pair them with smart and strategic public investments, and demonstrable change will follow.

A case in point is PUSH Buffalo's Green Development Zone project, which is already revitalizing a 20-block area of the West Side with community gardens, urban farming, affordable housing development and some incipient alternative energy projects.

According to PUSH Director Aaron Bartley, the zone now boasts 20 separate landscaping projects, ranging from a 3/4 -acre community garden used by 14 neighborhood residents and a large tree farm to smaller lots where residents are growing squash and beans with the help of the Massachusetts Avenue Project.

So far, Bartley said, seven units of formerly vacant buildings have been rehabbed into "green, affordable housing" and are occupied; six other properties have been rehabbed and sold at affordable prices to new homeowners, with 15 additional housing units now undergoing construction.

Concentrating the project in a 20-block space, Bartley said, was partly an effort to demonstrate that investment in targeted, community-based development works.

"The underlying philosophy is that community control of resources and community-driven planning processes can be catalytic if they demonstrate success and demonstrate to residents, first and foremost, that change is achievable if people work together," Bartley said.

The project won an international sustainable development competition in April and has attracted public investment from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's neighborhood stabilization project (via New York State's Office of Housing and Community Renewal) and the City of Buffalo -- a sign that the sustainable development bug may be starting to catch on in the halls of government.

Magavern, a lawyer and poet who moved back to Buffalo six years ago after working in Minneapolis, stressed that working small-scale doesn't mean limiting the imagination.

"I think the PUSH green development zone is the single best example that targeted smaller-scale projects can be combined with thinking big," he said. "And the fact that they won an international competition is kind of the perfect grace note for that: OK, this is big thinking. It won an international competition. But it's targeted in a 20-block area of Buffalo."

The Partnership for the Public Good is also advocating for a citywide program to "green" many of Buffalo's 14,000 vacant lots. Its proposal, modeled after a successful greening program in Philadelphia, estimates a cost of $1,250 to clean and landscape each lot and about $150 to maintain yearly thereafter. To green and maintain 400 lots, for instance, would cost about $500,000 plus $60,000 per year for maintenance.

The program, Magavern said, could also provide jobs for the city's economically depressed communities, where unemployment rates hover far above the national average. And, he said, the benefits don't stop there.

"Greening vacant lots is one of the most cost-effective ways for Buffalo to improve its neighborhoods," the proposal reads. "At a bare minimum, Buffalo can combat blight, raise property values, raise property tax revenue, lower crime rates and improve residents' quality of life with a simple program to clean up, green up and maintain vacant lots."

>Not too big to fail

On the East and West sides, Buffalonians worry about vacant lots. But on the Chippewa Strip, they worry about vacant bars.

At quarter to 10 on a sweltering Thursday night in late July, the Chippewa entertainment district was largely devoid of people. On a stretch of sidewalk outside of PURE, a 10,000 square-foot nightclub now closed six nights a week, a young employee dragged black stanchions across the concrete sidewalk to prepare for the rush of underage patrons who would filter into the space around midnight.

But there was just one problem: PURE has lost its liquor license. Its owners, who have been relying exclusively on cover charges collected from the bar's under-21 patrons and their purchases of Red Bull and soda, are in the process of selling or leasing the place to yet another operator another bar changing hands in a district with already head-spinning turnover.

Among Chippewa bar and restaurant owners, tempers have flared over underage admission nights, which are characterized by opponents like developer and restaurant-owner Marc Croce as get-rich-quick schemes that have a downward pull on the street's economic potential and often fail to pan out for their starry-eyed young owners.

Meanwhile, a half-mile up the street in Allentown, the patio outside of Allen Street Hardware, a small bar opened in 2004 by local writer, activist and restaurateur Mark Goldman, was jammed with people.

Inside, twenty, thirty and fortysomethings knocked back craft beers and bobbed their heads to the bluegrass-infused blues of Down to the Roots. Adam Weekly, a local artist, leaned against the wall, taking in the bustling scene. "This isn't even crowded," he said, noting that all the Thursday night regulars haven't yet trickled in.

For Goldman, who kicked off the revitalization of Chippewa with his since-shuttered Calumet Cafe, the success of bars like Allen Street Hardware over those on Chippewa has less to do with the obvious differences of location or clientele than with smarts, sustainability, and, above all, size.

"Most of those rooms down there [on Chippewa Street] are enormous. They're 3,000, 4,000 square feet, which means that you have to have a lot of people in them to make it feel busy or to even make any money," Goldman said. "If you look at more successful arts districts that are mixed-use, that are high-density, you're going to find much, much smaller spaces. And a smaller space gives the operator more flexibility in a way. You can create an intimate setting. It doesn't have to be oriented toward 'I gotta get everything I can out of Friday night.' "

That get-rich-quick mentality, Goldman and others have said, has stunted development on Chippewa.

"You get a bunch of guys who think they're going to make a fortune and meet a lot of girls and open a bar, so they don't mind paying $6,000 [rent] a month. They say 'what the hell, there's six of us and we'll give it a shot.' It doesn't work out, they go out of business and the landlord, he got his few thousand dollars, a few months of high rent and he can sit and wait for the next person to come along, even if it takes eight months or a year to do it."

>Small, creative and busy

Brian Grunert, a veteran local graphic designer whose work is in increasing demand, has a more nuanced view of small versus big.

For more than a decade, he plied his trade in some of Western New York's largest advertising firms, picking up insights on the competitive ad business as he went.

In 2000, after productive stints at big agencies like Travers Collins and Crowley Webb, Grunert took a full-time gig with Righteous Babe Records, Ani DiFranco's small but successful indie music label, where he worked on record packaging for the label's artists. His work includes the packaging design for DiFranco's "Evolve," which won a Grammy in 2004.

Grunert eventually went out on his own. He now runs the boutique design firm White Bicycle, a two-man operation that occupies five small rooms on the second floor of a former Courier-Express paper depot on Main Street and Burton.

The modest White Bicycle office is something out of the dot-com boom, with walls painted to look like brown cardboard, exposed duct-work and blue-painted steel beams lined with Grunert's extensive collection of Simpsons figurines. A bubble-hockey table sits in the entryway and serves as a stress-reliever for Grunert and White Bicycle partner Kyle Morrissey between increasingly frequent jobs.

With clients like the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the University at Buffalo Art Galleries, the Olmsted Parks Conservancy and, most recently, Ted's Hot Dogs, Grunert and Morrissey focus their attention on smaller outfits often more attuned to their creative approach.

Among other benefits, that means White Bicycle's work isn't subject to the often labyrinthine channels of approval that larger companies require. And that, Grunert said, allows him and Morrissey to enjoy a more direct relationship between the creative side of the business and its clients.

"We liken it to executing field experiments as opposed to laboratory experiments," Grunert said in what sounded like a half-explanation, half-sales pitch. "Being smaller and being more directly involved in both ends of it allows you to go to the clients and create, in a sense, on the spot."

The approach is clearly visible in White Bicycle's work, which often has a hand-hewn, organic look and always seems entirely of a piece. White Bicycle's work on "Hadestown," a recent album by Anais Mitchell, released by Righteous Babe and nominated for a Grammy last year, is a good example. It features the stark woodcuts of artist Peter Nivens and type that Grunert hand-set in the Western New York Book Arts Center with the help of Richard Kegler -- another small-scale local entrepreneur whose efforts have created ripples in the design and music worlds.

For Grunert, the idea of striking out on his own was never about just thinking small (in fact, he said he wouldn't be opposed to adding a few employees to the very busy White Bicycle) but in taking control of his own destiny.

Reflecting on his big-agency days, Grunert recalled feeling stifled and wondering whether he had hit a kind of creative ceiling.

"Are the people who work here going to see unlimited potential in what they're doing every day? I didn't feel it. And I figured other people didn't, and that was sort of the premise of White Bicycle," Grunert said. "It's a sum-greater-than-the-parts mentality, that if you create a situation where everybody is contributing to the whole, then they're going to be determined to make it as cool as possible. It's sort of intuitive, I suppose, but business doesn't work that way."

Except, at White Bicycle -- and in more and more places and projects across the city, from the West Side to the waterfront -- it does.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com