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In Focus: Thomas Herrera-Mishler

Buffalo’s historic system of parks and parkways, designed by world-renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, is considered a regional jewel.

In recent years, the city has hired the nonprofit Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy to maintain the system. The conservancy’s board of trustees announced in late March that Thomas Herrera-Mishler was given a seven-year contract extension and will remain as president and CEO through 2020.

Herrera-Mishler sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to talk about plans and challenges. Here is a summary of an interview that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series.

Herrera-Mishler: It looks like I’ll be staying in my adopted hometown for a while longer. I’m very excited to be a part of what’s happening in Buffalo right now, this tremendous renaissance. And the parks, I think, are at the heart of it.

Meyer: Where do you think the conservancy has taken the system during this period when the conservancy has been running it?

Herrera-Mishler: Back in 2008, we adopted our plan for the 21st century. It’s a master plan for restoring the parks. That was the result of many community meetings. We met with 50 other organizations. ... I believe we had over a hundred meetings.And we were really out listening carefully to what people wanted from their park system. That was turned into our [master plan]. ... for how we’re going to invest in [and manage] the parks going forward ... I’m delighted that we’ve been able to attract over $30 million in investment towards the plan ... with important partners like the City of Buffalo, the State of New York. Some important examples include the restoration of Porter Avenue ... repaving Ring Road in Delaware Park, repaving Ring Road in South Park ... a tremendous amount of investment in the nuts and bolts of our gardens and parks.

Meyer: There has been a tremendous number of new trees planted, largely because of the horrible October Surprise Storm of 2006.

Herrera-Mishler: Ninety percent of the trees in the region were damaged, and 10 percent were taken out that night. It was just devastating. I visited Buffalo the first time exactly a year later. I’m looking around at the trees, and I’m a tree guy. I was struck by how every tree I looked at was damaged, significantly damaged. What we’ve done over the last five years in the parks is planted as many trees as we possibly could every single year in every single landscape. Now you know that the parks stretch throughout the entire City of Buffalo and they’re connected by these wonderful parkways and avenues ... By beginning to reforest the parks, we are helping to really enhance the visual character of our community, improve property values, improve our environment. Just a lot of benefits to this.

Meyer: There have been some studies that have tied parks to an increase in property values, correct?

Herrera-Mishler: There’s a caveat to that: well-maintained parks. If you’re lucky enough to have Olmsted well-maintained parks, then you’ve really got something special ... [Property] values have gone up around all of our Olmsted landscapes throughout the city, and you know what property values have been doing around the rest of the country.

Meyer: What about all this talk about calming the Scajaquada Expressway – taking that expressway, slowing the vehicles, and making it more of a parkway for pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.?

Herrera-Mishler: The conservancy has been involved in that dialogue for over a decade now. It started as plan that was undertaken by the city of Buffalo to fix the Scajaquada and turn it into a parkway – some call it [an] upgrade ... It was a stunning park road when it was destroyed to create the Scajaquada Expressway ... It creates a Berlin Wall through the middle of Delaware Park. You can’t get from one side to the other very easily. What we’ve been advocating is slow the traffic down, do at-grade crossings. It may add a couple minutes to people’s commutes. But we think that the value of re-connecting the city ... is huge.