PROJECT 2: Theo+Elizabeth+Sarah

PROJECT 2 TEAM: Theo Issaias, Sarah Nusser, Elizabeth Ramaccia

Our project and our work over the semester focused on intervention in Buffalo’s East Side – an area with a great history of human habitation, the first part of the city to become industrialized, an immigrant gateway, the home of the city’s African American population since the 1950s, and also the place that has been the hardest hit by Buffalo’s decline.

This project also came to be about suggesting solutions for the conditions that plague the residential fabric of shrinking cities as a particular phenomenon. We think the parallels with other cities (such as Detroit and St. Louis) are important in documenting the relevance of this project beyond Buffalo, and we analyzed common conditions, including city composition, street grid, building footprints, commercial facilities, amenities, and common block and parcel composition.  These conditions reveal the physical implications of sustained shrinking as found in three cities, and our design and policy work addresses these conditions in Buffalo.

Shrinking cities also share common housing conditions, including an oversupply of old, poor quality housing; an undersupply of good quality housing and desirable neighborhoods; and housing products that are less competitive than their suburban counterparts.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, shrinking cities present the opportunity for a high quality of life for some households (those who can invest in housing improvements and have mobility) compared with high cost cities in the region, like Boston or New York City.

Housing policy responses in shrinking cities have alternated between two extremes: a desire to bring back the urban grid as it was, and the push to re-suburbanize – meaning de-densify the city by allowing residents to consolidate their parcels with vacant lots.  Buffalo has followed similar strategies.  It has identified incentive zones in the city to guide funds distribution, which has resulted in the building of small scale, infill housing interventions that rely on non-profits with capacity to carry out the work.  Secondly, it has created a demolition plan in an attempt to increase housing demand, but without a concentrated spatial strategy.  This means that blocks are neither redeveloped nor emptied out and the city owns a large quantity of parcels that aren’t easily consolidated for redevelopment.

To accomplish our design ideas, we proposed a new policy approach for Buffalo that coordinates the city’s annual federal HOME and CDBG funding.  The policy supports holistic interventions that re-imagine the city’s core deteriorating fabric, particularly through new housing types to meet the needs of Buffalo’s residents, expanded hierarchies of open space for a hybridity of public and and private uses, and enhanced connections between existing and new amenities that are important culturally and to everyday life.

To implement this policy, we support a five-year intervention on the East Side that utilizes a large portion of the city’s annual $22 M in federal housing and community development funds.  The five-year focus will demonstrate results quickly, encourage non-profit developers to participate as partners, and concentrate substantially on enhancing public amenities in addition to new housing types.  Also, the intervention scale will leave funding available (especially CDBG) for the nonprofit service providers and block groups that regularly receive public service dollars from the city.

This policy targets households currently on the East Side in addition to households that might leave for the suburbs.   Particular households that will be targeted are those at 80% or below the region’s area median and income (and thus are eligible for HOME funds).  More specifically, these are single parent households with children, recent graduates of Buffalo’s universities, elderly singles and couples, and young married couples who might be interested in starting a family.  Because housing location and work location are so important to most households, we looked at where Buffalonians and suburbanites live and work in the region.  The city remains the most common place of employment for both city dwellers and suburbanites, and Cheektowaga is the second most common place of employment for both sets of dwellers.  Our intervention is located in the middle of downtown Buffalo and Cheektowaga, and so our goal was to create unique housing options for households that work in both places.

Moving onto our design, we spent much time investigating the urban fabric of the radials, unique to Buffalo’s east side, and developing options for how the fabric could be altered to achieve social goals.  Also in an effort to limit the impact of the intervention, we developed pathways and re-oriented space in the area mostly through the utilization of vacant land.  We limited demolitions in this intervention to 42 homes.  In the most devastated part of our intervention area, we developed a new node with activities including a cultural center and branch library, elderly housing and services, a business incubator, and a neighborhood greenway.  This new node creates a strong perpendicular connection between Genesee and Sycamore, and it also directly links to the footbridge crossing the Expressway, which with the MLK Institute on the other side, a strong public school.

The design creates a better mix of uses for families of several types, it integrates different kinds of public spaces and amenities into the center of the radials, and it allows for various housing and cluster designs.  The design also allows the area to grow incrementally in a way that is better integrated with existing conditions – something like a meshed network.

There are three types of housing clusters in this design.  Type A is a mixed-use building – 4 to 6 stories high with public/retail uses on the first floor.  72 apartment units of this type are in the design.  Apartments have some shared indoor spaces, a shared kitchen on each floor, and some units for guests.  Half of the apartment buildings will be condos and half for rent.  Potential tenants might be the elderly, young professionals, or small families.

Type B is a modernized version of the Buffalo single-family and duplex row house.  Units are clustered and are attached or detached.  They tend to have more private lawn space and many have accessory units for an elderly parent, a renter, an office, or a workshed.  They are often connected in the back with a pathway that leads to a public outdoor space.

Type C is a denser multi-family cluster, but only 2 to 4 stories.  It includes more shared indoor and outdoor space and facilities, and is typically directly connected to public space and amenities.  This type is particularly geared towards single-headed households with children, all families who can benefit from a more collective living environment, or elderly who could also benefit from these amenities.  There will be 51 units of types B and C in this design with slightly more opportunities to rent then to own.  This reflects the reality of the current neighborhood, which is predominantly rental, while carefully creating new opportunities for cooperate and fee simple homeownership.  In all, 123 new units will be added, and rehab grants will be available to the remaining 144 single-family and duplex structures.  This means that the population in the area will nearly double over five years, creating a foundation for stabilization and possible future growth.

The total cost of this intervention is around $27.2 M, and it proposes the full dedication of annual HOME funds for this new housing and neighborhood policy and just 1/3 of annual CDBG funds.

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