In decline since 1950, the city is finally reversing its downward trend, and architects and engineers are taking part in the recovery.
By Richard Massey Managing Editor
When architect Michael Tunkey graduated from his hometown college, the University of Buffalo, in 1998, he really had no choice. He had to leave town. There just wasn’t any work in the Rust Belt city, still in the midst of a catastrophic, multi-decade economic implosion.
So he did as many did back in those days. He packed his bags and left. And for Tunkey, it was certainly for the best. He worked in Boston – where he earned is M.A. in architecture from Harvard – New York, and for eight years in one of the most dynamic cities in the world, Shanghai, before returning to Buffalo with his family two years ago.
Like many ex-pats from Buffalo – and there are plenty of them – Tunkey never quite got over the love for his hometown, and during summer vacations, would return to his roots to visit friends and family. And as time unfolded, he started noticing something.
“A lot of cool stuff was going on in Buffalo,” he says. “The economy was growing enough to give me opportunity.”
Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the turnaround was the location of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus downtown. The consortium of healthcare institutions, clustered in a 120-acre area, kicked off a building boom and reinvigorated a blighted part of town, two things Buffalo desperately needed. The city also began to reclaim its Inner Harbor, a key initiative for quality of life.
Also of significance is that both Delaware North, a global hospitality company, and Pegula Sports and Entertainment, owner of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, opened headquarters downtown.
The foundation of the renaissance, of course, is that at one point Buffalo was a big city with an established culture, broad parkways, and an impressive inventory of prized architecture. For people like Tunkey – citing landmarks like the Richardson Olmstead Complex, and institutions like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery – there was a lot to return to.
“It’s a beautiful city,” he says.
A principal with CannonDesign, a global multidiscipline firm founded in Buffalo about 100 years ago, Tunkey finds himself in a good position. With so much going on there, the firm has been able to capture local work, as it recently did with the $112-million, eight-acre QueensLight redevelopment of the former site of the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo – a team proposal that beat out three others. The firm augments its Buffalo portfolio with work out of Toronto, Montreal, and Boston.
With development ongoing across the full range of projects – industrial, commercial, institutional, and residential – Cannon isn’t the only firm beefing up its backlog. Small, medium, and large firms are busy, and when the really big jobs come up for bid, the degree of difficulty only increases.
“For larger projects, we see all the big East Coast competitors,” Tunkey says.
New York-based HOK, for example, recently won the design contract for a 105,000-square-foot field house and event facility for the University of Buffalo.
You win some and you lose some, but if recent developments are any indication, there’s plenty more in the offing for Buffalo. Douglas Development Corp., based in Washington D.C., recently purchased the city’s tallest building, One Seneca Tower, for around $12 million. According to Buffalo Business First, the building could cost anywhere from $100 million to $200 million to renovate, plenty to support an assortment of A/E/P contracts.
Douglass Development’s founder and president, Doug Jemal, told the Buffalo press that he is likely interested in a mixed-use project, and that he will explore the possibility of using incentives from the public sector to help finance any improvements to the building.
When and if an RFP/RFQ is issued, Cannon figures to be an interested party.
“We would be in the running for it,” Tunkey says.
As the One Seneca project is just beginning, another is well underway. A massive factory for Elon Musk-backed SolarCity, a maker of solar panels and solar roofs, is expected to be finished next year. Even as SolarCity has experienced a downturn – lethargic sales, a flagging stock price, and subsequent layoffs – a recent listing of SolarCity job openings at the Buffalo location included at least 26 engineering positions, reflecting Buffalo’s pivot toward a modern economy.
The redevelopment of Buffalo has been helped in large part by the public sector. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged his “Buffalo Billion” for revitalization, and though, according to multiple news sources, that program is facing allegations of corruption, it’s still credited with jumpstarting investment in Buffalo, and, in particular, of luring tech titan Musk and his SolarCity factory to town.
At the local level, city government is rewriting the city’s archaic zoning code, and renaming it the Buffalo Green Code. Addressing land use, development, waterfront revitalization, urban renewal, and brownfields, the new code is expected to guide Buffalo for the next couple of decades.
Even if Buffalo has seen a welcome uptick in progress during the last decade, it’s still true that there’s a long way to go. Buffalo, still mired in population decline, is half the size it was during the ‘40s and ‘50s Golden Era. For Tunkey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity for growth,” he says. “Buffalo has great bones.”