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Downtown medical school tied to subway; Metro Rail stop seen as hub for UB facility

In only a few years, thousands of commuters headed to jobs and classes will arrive daily at a redesigned Metro Rail station serving as a hub for the new University at Buffalo medical school and a teeming Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

That's the vision that officials from UB and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority presented Thursday as they pledged cooperation toward integrating the current Allen/Medical Campus Metro Station into the new medical school complex.

"This is a statement that we are committed to working together to come up with the best plan that meets the interests of transportation in Western New York and serves the interests of the medical school so we can make a determination of where we go," said Dennis R. Black, UB's vice president for university life and services.

The idea, the officials said, is to implement plans long on the drawing board to move the current medical school from the South Campus into a new building of at least seven stories over the Allen/Medical Campus Station.

The move aims to provide a viable transportation alternative that will mitigate the need to park even more cars on a burgeoning medical campus, while adding a touch of the urban vitality common to subway corridors in bigger cities like New York or Toronto.

The $350 million project is "vital" to moving workers, students, patients and visitors in and out of a neighborhood expected to become one of the city's major employment centers, UB officials said.

"It's an urban setting, and it has to allow for patient and visitor access," Black said. "If everybody who came there brought their own car, we'd have to have a structure almost as tall as the HSBC building."

"That's not real, it's not environmentally friendly, and it would be incredibly costly," he added. "And we have alternatives."

Black and a contingent of UB officials, including Robert G. Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, presented their ideas to NFTA commissioners Thursday. They noted the Allen/Medical Campus Station will remain essentially unchanged below the surface and along the rail line when the project is completed in 2016.

But the surface portion will serve as the cornerstone of the new medical school building, leading to a glass atrium covering an extended Allen Street for pedestrian traffic into the rest of the medical campus. Black said planners also will study the potential for shops and restaurants as part of the atrium.

"This gives us the ability to connect with all of our partners," he said, noting the initial impetus for moving the medical school was to provide easy access to the plethora of medical facilities on the downtown campus.

At the same time, he said, Metro Rail offers a 10-minute connection to the South Campus and maybe someday a link to the North Campus via expansion.

Shibley said the noted architectural firm of Helmuth, Obata and Kassabaum already has been selected to design the new medical school. The firm is charged, he said, with creating a "great place" that already has drawn several ideas to be "tested and evaluated."

But the officials said they preliminarily like the concept of a seven-story building anchored by the subway station.

Laura E. Hubbard, UB's vice president for finance and administration, said the university expects to acquire needed property around the Allen/Medical Campus Station by August, with construction to start about one year later. Studies will help address additional parking and how to keep Metro Rail running during construction, although some disruption at the station is expected.

Shibley noted that HOK has extensive experience with the New York City subway system and that dealing with the Allen/Medical Campus Station will prove a "simple problem from their perspective."

No financing is expected of the NFTA, university officials said. Authority Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel noted that the agreement with the university involves only a pledge to work together and nothing else.

She said the Federal Transit Administration will be consulted as part of the planning process because of its investment of federal dollars in Metro Rail. But she said the time-consuming process of securing federal approval probably will be avoided because UB is paying for the project.

The only note of caution was sounded by NFTA Commissioner James J. Eagan, who said every new service or route assumed by the authority involves extra costs.

"With the financial challenges we face over the next year, adding routes without subsidies from the stakeholders is challenging," he said.

But NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky said the joint action by the university and authority enhances the NFTA's role in Buffalo while UB confirms its faith in public transit as integral to its future.

"This is a great moment in time, and we haven't always seized on those moments," he said.

Black noted that the promise of Metro Rail as envisioned decades ago may be partially realized through the new plan as thousands of new commuters use the subway while also choosing to live close by.

"We're not only supportive of that," he said, "we find it necessary."