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Design competition winners reimagine the Central Park Plaza at UB Anderson Gallery

Buffalo's Central Park Plaza.

Strip Appeal

The subject matter of the exhibit at the Anderson Gallery called Strip Appeal may not be what you’re thinking. The exhibit is on an international design competition for ideas regarding adaptive reuse of strip malls, linear retail commercial developments of a handful to a few dozen stores that sprung up like noxious weeds in suburbs and sometimes cities in the second half of the last century. Developments with a calculated vital period of maybe 15 to 20 years before senescence and decrepitude.

And the winner of the competition—drum roll, please—was a two-person team from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Stephanie Davidson and George Rafailidis. A quick perusal of their materials, and comparison with the other entries, reveals why they blew the rest of the field away. Some interesting ideas from all entrants, but most of them, by comparison with the UB team, pretty cut and dried. The UB team proposal is radically innovative and original.

Or maybe not so innovative and original, but still radical. Based on a model that was once universal but hasn’t been in use generally since about the era of the Renaissance. You find a piece of property no one’s using or claiming at the moment, then find an old stone and brick structure or structures somewhere—maybe Roman structures, or ruins of same—liberate the stones and bricks—nobody’s claiming them, either—and build a new structure or several. Maybe a village or town. Maybe Renaissance Rome. So, a major recycling model.

The UB team refers the idea specifically to the old Central Park Plaza in Buffalo, near Main and Amherst streets, a 27-acre site that in the 1960s and 1970s was a vibrant shopping plaza but has stood abandoned and seriously derelict now for years. The site was recently acquired for redevelopment by Strickler Development, LLC. Construction management of the redevelopment is by LP Ciminelli, Inc. The plaza was built on an old stone quarry that was infilled with unknown material, and testing is now underway to determine the physical and chemical nature of the subsurface material, which will determine what can be built on it. Nor is recycling being neglected. Demolition materials are being recycled according to state-of-the-art LEED (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building code protocols.

The UB team proposal was formulated apart from and has no connection with the Strickler/Ciminelli project. The UB team reimagines the site as a new kind of second-stage quarry of demolition materials—bricks and blocks and girders—which would be salvaged and inventoried and made available, free of charge, to any future developers of the site. Which would be anyone interested, apparently, and no rules. At least no zoning restrictions. The title of the UB team project is “Free Zoning.” Any and all uses allowed.

The UB team descriptive materials include schematic illustrations of possible development over a 25-year period. After five years, the site starts to take on a small village look. Scattered constructions of various styles and functions. After 25 years, a dense, motley mix of diverse constructions, but still plenty of open space for recreational or whatever public or private uses. Even a small horse corral.

Radical in several respects, in some good ways, and some maybe not so good. Good on the recycling, not so good in the matter of reasonable assurance about what a neighbor might or might not do on his property. Zoning isn’t an unmitigated evil.

According to Davidson and Rafailidis, their idea would “trigger the creativity of local citizens. Instead of designing a new form or proposing a specific use, this proposal designs the legal and economic framework in which new form and use can emerge.” As opposed to “top-down” redevelopment by a single commercial developer, they argue, declaring the site “a zone of radical deregulation” would “kick-start a process of continual construction from the bottom up.”

Davidson and Rafailidis’ concept will have to await another project. Meanwhile—thankfully all around—at last somebody is doing something with the Central Park Plaza site eyesore. Area residents wait with bated breath. One thing the area needs desperately is a real grocery store. One that sells actual greens.

The Strip Appeal exhibit continues through February 24.

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