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Editorial: Buffalo Wall can't be allowed to block Albright-Knox expansion

If the leaders of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery want to rethink their expansion plans in light of opposition from preservationists, no one need complain.

At least not yet.

What cannot be allowed to happen is for the old Buffalo Wall to take hold. That’s the long-time habit of talking and thinking and talking some more and thinking even harder and, eventually, accomplishing nothing. This project, funded by a generous donation from a billionaire former resident, is too important to the city’s future to allow that to happen.

That said, it’s not too important to re-examine. That’s what the gallery’s director, Janne Sirén, has agreed to do after hearing the objections of local preservationists and after gallery officials met with staff from the New York State Historic Preservation Office.
Instead of its original expansion plan, gallery leaders are now considering moving construction to the north and northwest side of the campus. That would better protect the most historic aspects of the site, pleasing preservationists who were especially concerned about the original plan’s impact on the 1962 addition designed by Gordon Bunshaft.

Preservationists are cautiously pleased with the idea, though the gallery has yet to share any of the proposed changes with the public. Also unknown at this point is the reaction of billionaire investor Jeffrey Gundlach, whose gift of $42.5 million allowed organizers of a fund drive to quickly surpass their goal.

Gundlach is a native of Amherst who visited the Albright-Knox as a young boy and eventually became enamored of the gallery. He quickly responded to the fund drive and helped to make what appeared to be a reality of the $100 million effort. The gallery is to be renamed the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum in honor of its benefactor’s generosity.

The question now is what direction that project will take. The gallery has already expended a lot of effort in its unique method of choosing the right architect. In June, it announced a transformative concept that featured sunken parking, a reconfiguration of Bunshaft’s addition into a grand public entry hall and creation of 23,000 square feet of new gallery space split between two new buildings.

It’s good to see the gallery and preservationists working together on this issue, instead of at daggers. But anyone who has been here for more than a few years cannot help but have a nagging fear that gridlock awaits. Too many efforts have run into the Buffalo Wall to take for granted that this issue will be resolved in a way that preserves the public’s interest in an expanded and revitalized Albright-Knox.

But perhaps this is yet another way to demonstrate that this is a new Buffalo, shed of its insecurities and devotion to inaction. Anyone watching has seen the evidence of a new spirit of achievement.

It began at Larkinville, as developer Howard Zemsky practically single-handedly remade a down-at-the-heels district into a place where thousands want to be. Since then, there had been more evidence: in the redevelopment of the Richardson Towers into a boutique hotel and eventually an architecture center; in the process that decided a location for a new Buffalo train station; in the development of Canalside and HarborCenter; in the opening last week of the Oishei Children’s Hospital on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus; in the construction of the RiverBend project, new home to the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere.

Buffalo is undoubtedly on a new and encouraging path. It’s perhaps not too much to hope that discussions about the Albright-Knox expansion plans will be pursued with a commitment to continuing that hopeful trend. This is no time to go back to the old ways.

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