Just fix Niagara Square already

Niagara Square has 99 problems, but crowds are not one. The square is framed mostly with government buildings with monumental architecture that was intended to convey an imposing scale that projects governmental authority and stability. When they empty for business, the city’s most central square becomes almost lifeless, but even during the peak of the workday, the square remains underutilized. To make matters much worse, a wide circular roadway makes the square a forbidding and uncomfortable place for pedestrians.

We need to bring back a human scale to the heart of our city — one that feels warm, inviting, and comfortable — a place where downtown residents can take their dogs; workers can eat their lunch; students can read their books; and where tourists feel compelled to stop and take in the sense of place. Achieving that will not be easy, but it’s certainly possible.

1. Remake the traffic circle into a public square, with more narrow automobile rights of way and better pedestrian infrastructure

Changing the traffic patter from a roundabout to a square will certainly slow down traffic. But in doing so it will make the public space more inviting: more narrow roadways will allow space that is now ash fault to be repurposed for green space, wider sidewalks, more pedestrian crossings, and everything from benches to new water features.

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2. Repurpose as many governmental and institutional buildings as possible for a range of mixed uses, including residential

The lack of a 24-hour population in the downtown area is obvious detriment to any public space; though we can make much progress in repurposing vacant and underutilized buildings into mixed use residential buildings. The Statler and the old federal courthouse are obvious first-steps that could bring full time residents to the heart of downtown. There are scores of surface parking lots within a three block radius of the square that should be very aggressively developed.

The former United States Federal Courthouse, which is now vacant.
The former United States Federal Courthouse, which is now vacant.

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3. Build out attractive street signage that conveys compelling narratives with pro-Buffalo branding

Marketing and branding can have a catalytic impact on urban redevelopment, as part of a general strategy known as ‘tactical urbanism.’ The idea goes, that place specific prescriptions that lack capital intensity are often the lowest hanging fruit in terms of improving urban spaces. For Niagara Square, there is much history that can be articulated through compelling signage; there is architecture that can be heralded by summer tour guides; there is space to facilitate more events; and there is a sense of place that will make the square forever prominent in civic life. Building up the branding around all of that will yield a considerable return in terms of tourists and new commercial activity.

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4. Maintain the square as we would a flagship park, with all of the bells and whistles

Many people don’t realize that the McKinley Monument also serves as a water fountain with four large pools at the foot of the obelisk. If there is a way to add jets to those fountain pools, or build out water features elsewhere in the square, we could recreate the inviting atmosphere of DuPont Circle in DC or Washington Square in New York.

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