PROJECT 1: Eva+Jessica+Julie

PROJECT 1 TEAM: Jessica Fain, Julie Stein, Eva Strobel


Winding from east to west through southern Buffalo, the Buffalo River was once one of the great centers of industrial activity in the Great Lakes region. Since the decline of the city’s grain-based economy with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the river has become a marginal and forgotten part of the city. Today, it is difficult to access, highly contaminated and symbolically represents the economic decline of the city overall. However, all is not lost. Dotting the river, writes Reyhnam Banham, “in lonely but not yet totally ruinous abandonment” are grain elevators that silently stand at the city’s edge in a reemerging wilderness of natural succession and ecological resilience. The haunting and poetic nature of this location calls for an urban design strategy that emphasizes these unique qualities and builds upon the dramatic juxtapositions of existing typologies of landscape. The lack of adequate housing and the dissolution of urban fabric in Buffalo requires a rethinking of traditional housing models in exchange for new typologies that reinvigorate and reinvent such marginal habitats.

This urban design project addresses two major issues in Buffalo—river contamination and inadequate housing—in tandem, with the goal of understanding what new qualities and possibilities come about by combining these redevelopment processes. When thinking about re-use of the river, the ecological problems are unavoidably part of any development decisions. The Buffalo River suffers from urban storm water runoff, active and inactive industrial runoff, upstream combined sewer overflows, high levels of heavy metals and other pollutants. To restore ecological functions to the river, we propose to create a series of constructed wetland basins. Through a system of natural filtration processes, the constructed wetlands will reduce the amount of contaminants, bacteria and turbidity of the water and improve the natural habitat. It also provides new recreational opportunities along the waterfront as well as creates new locations for human habitat.

At the city scale, points of intervention for new developments were selected based on their proximity to existing established neighborhood fabric and accessibility, but also for the liminal spaces that they occupy within the city. Together, however, the seven settlements form a network in and around an active ecological restorative system of constructed wetlands, providing new waterfront housing opportunities. By bringing affordable housing in to these developments, the intervention makes a powerful environmental justice statement about the importance of access to waterfront across all socioeconomic levels.

Our housing aims to meet the needs of household on three levels: house, block and neighborhood. To varying degrees of severity, multiple areas throughout Buffalo suffer from a very old housing stock (pre-1940), high vacancy at the block level (10-50% of parcels vacant), and lack of access to neighborhood amenities (i.e. commercial and community services). Our housing policy addresses these house-, block- and neighborhood-level deficiencies across a range of household income levels (very low- to moderate-income households), while also creating opportunity to reconnect with the city’s river, waterfront and new water filtration systems in a variety of ways. Our housing policy targets young couples (60-120% AMI), families with children (40-120% AMI), empty nesters (60-80% Area Median Income), and the elderly (40-80% AMI).

The housing will receive local, state and federal housing subsidies (HOME, AHP, AHC, NYS Housing Trust Fund, and others). The units will be distributed in population-appropriate building typologies (i.e. single level units in elevator apartments for seniors; first-floor bedrooms for empty nesters; larger units with private outdoor space for families with children), and meet the renter and ownership needs of each group (i.e. rentals for the elderly, and a mix for couples, empty nesters and families with children). The building typologies will respond to both the existing residential fabric and the surrounding industrial landscape. With our mix of building types, we will be creating a number of different context-specific fabrics, ranging from low-density single-family homes integrated into the “wild” to medium-density, low-rise apartments in the more urban parts of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood plan of the Old First Ward imagines one of these settlements. This idiosyncratic historic working class neighborhood—emblematic of the city’s industrial past—is rich with “monuments to a different civilization” (Banham). In addition to 200 housing units, the neighborhood includes a designated “wild” area, which consists of a no-build zone to allow for succession vegetation, bike paths, bird watching towers, public access points to the river, an amphitheater, ball fields, boat launches and fishing docks. Additionally, we propose commercial revitalization along South Park Avenue for local convenience shopping and suggest creating a city-wide vacant lot program, which would be a staffed organization that assists in the land acquisition and community-based development of clusters of vacant lots. We envision them as small scale, semi-public projects, such as ice skating rinks, community gardens, etc. We also propose to incorporate the grain elevators into the wild/recreation zone as a cultural heritage site that will attract visitors from beyond the neighborhood; a visitor center will be located inside one of the grain elevators.

The proposed housing cluster continues the themes established at a city and neighborhood scale. The housing directly engages with the river, as bio swales integrate with the open spaces around the housing and deposit runoff into the wetlands. The grid of the cluster is oriented to maximizes views to the grain elevators and the housing is designed to provide maximum access, both physical and visual, to the waterfront.  As such, it offers a unique opportunity to literally live amongst the grain elevators and on the water. The housing celebrates the cleansing of the ecosystem after decades of misuse and disinvestment. Furthermore, it provides waterfront living—an ostensibly luxury activity—for people with lower incomes typically excluded from such living arrangements.

Architecturally, the housing employs typologies that are distinct for the area, such as row houses and low-rise apartment buildings, but that are inspired by the surrounding vernacular and industrial context: porches, yards, garages, concrete and wood. For the elderly, elevator apartment buildings provide much needed housing alternatives for the neighborhood’s aging population. Particular attention is given to ensure that there is a diverse streetscape and not monotonous structures. The cluster goes beyond providing shelter for its inhabitants. Also included are a range of designed and casual public spaces, bike paths, playground, an amphitheater, and a plaza with “little Niagara”, a water feature at the outfall of the wetland filtration system. Additionally, new neighborhood amenities include a lending library, a health center, a convenient store, bus stop and other small commercial establishments.

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