Change is possible, especially when it starts in the imaginations of those who will benefit.
That was the message demonstrated repeatedly by urban change agents who joined residents and community leaders over the last six weeks in open meetings titled “Imagining a More Livable NF.”
At the six weekly sessions, which concluded on Thursday at the Niagara Falls Amtrak station, experts from throughout the region and national experts in “new urbanism” engaged in conversation to imagine what might create a better city and how to take steps towards making such imaginings a reality.
“I congratulate you on the conversation you’ve been able to put together,” the Rev. James M. Maher, the closing speaker, told the 35 or so people gathered at the sixth and last session, which closed with attendees gathering in small groups to discuss action plans.
“You have heard in this program and this series about some of the exciting and tangible works underway in Niagara Falls,” Maher noted, citing, “the beautiful train station where we stand on the edge of the development of the Niagara Scenic Parkway and the movement to restore the gorge.”
Maher named other efforts that are adding to improving the city, including the free Discover Niagara Shuttle and the work being done by Niagara University students and staff “with a slew of partners” to create improved and affordable housing in the South End of the city. He pledged the support of the university to continue moving Niagara Falls forward.
“Niagara University commits itself to an abiding and deep partnership, recognizing that none of us can do this alone,” Maher said. “We have an opportunity to deeply impact not only the City of Niagara Falls but the citizens who live here.”
In the first of the six meetings of Imagining a More Livable Niagara Falls, the main speaker, Jeff Belt, a factory owner from Olean, detailed for the near 100 attendees how he helped to inspire Olean’s downtown improvements by hiring his own urban planner, an idea he got from Corning Glassware in Corning.
Olean has since built a series of roundabouts through its main street with gardens in the center islands that make the huge boulevard more pleasing to the eye and much more inviting and safer to stroll.
Belt said Olean saw an increase of 800 percent in building permits after the downtown street’s upgrades and that figure is growing.
The trend towards livable city spaces is called New Urbanism, and other speakers spoke of ways that other cities were becoming more livable, using a term called “place making,” which involves creating places people enjoy.
“My favorite speaker was Mike Lydon from New York City,” said Tom Lowe, director of Impact/ReNU at Niagara University and one of the organizers of the series, along with community activists Georgia Robinson Bradberry, president of the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society; Marge Gillies, community activist and organizer of a similar event in 2011; George Grasser, founder of Partners for a Livable Western New York; and and Zach Casale of Hunt Real Estate Capital.
Lydon is known for his theories on “tactical urbanism” where quick, often low-cost, and creative projects offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in permanent projects, inspiring residents and leaders to create urban spaces in a new way. He gave a talk called “Better Mobility for Everyone by Everyone: Ten Lessons to Get it Done.”
The small projects, Lyndon said, “help uncover what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t.” Lowe compared it to similar projects currently being undertaken in the city, such as colorfully painting crosswalks to make the downtown streets safer and more inviting, an inexpensive action to test out ways to make streets more walkable.
Lydon was set to give a tour at Niagara and Third streets prior to his talk, but the walk was cut short due to rain. A similar walk open to the public is being rescheduled with a site visit to 616 Niagara St., which is being renovated by TM Montante Development.
Lowe said that Lydon was in Niagara Falls in 2013 for a similar event called The Main Street Symposium. “This time, one of the things he noticed was that a lot has changed. He said the next time he comes to Niagara Falls it will be to work with us. That’s encouraging,” Lowe said.
Christian Campos, president of TM Montante Development, which is renovating 616 Niagara Street by combining two buildings into market rate apartments and a business incubator, joined the panel discussion at the fifth session, which was centered on government and developers working together.
“I really enjoyed the discussion,” Campos said, adding, “I see a lot to be excited about in Niagara Falls so I was bringing that perspective.” The developer said he enjoyed the robust discussion between the audience and experts and he stayed after the meeting ended because “there were a bunch of people excited to talk to me about their excitement and that was pretty cool.”
Campos, whose project at 616 Niagara St. will provide space for a business incubator being created by Niagara University’s Niagara Global Tourism Institute, said that over the course of two years working in Niagara Falls as a developer, he has been impressed by city leaders.
“By the time we were awarded the project we’d had a lot of conversations with the folks in the city. Development projects in Western New York can be very difficult from a financial perspective ... those same projects in Niagara Falls are even more difficult,” he explained.
“In my view, the city of Niagara Falls addressed this issue in a very intelligent way,” he said, noting that his project received funds from Empire State grants which made the project more financially feasible.
His company, TM Montante, which recently constructed 22 residential unites at the Planing Mill Lofts from a former restaurant building on Elm Street in Buffalo, is currently developing the Lancaster Square project at Gates Circle in Buffalo, the site of the former Millard Fillmore Hospital.
One of organizer Marge Gillies’ favorite ideas from the six sessions was a presentation by a group looking to create a weather center in downtown Niagara Falls, with the participation of local TV weatherman Don Paul. “What you want to do is have things for people to do here,” she said, “and you want to accentuate the fact that, yes, it’s cold here and yes, we do have blizzards on occasion and we have been able to handle them.”
“That sounds like a very cool idea,” she said of the proposed weather center, smiling as she added, “ ... not to make a pun.”
Other expert speakers at Imagining a More Livable NF included Rocco Termini, a Buffalo developer who has renovated 10 buildings in downtown Buffalo for housing and restaurants including the Lafayette Hotel and who has now turned his attention to Black Rock; Robert Steuteville, author of “New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide” and communications advisor to the Congress for the New Urbanism; and Lynn Richards, an internationally recognized speaker and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
After the series concluded on Thursday, Lowe said the next step was looking at the attendee-contributed ideas on what actions to take next.
“Now we need to take a lot of concepts that we’ve heard and learned about over the last six weeks and see what we can turn into action,” Lowe said. “This might require some additional learning —and we’re willing to facilitate that.”
However, there is only so much the group can do without the energy and assistance from more citizens. “We seem to get stuck talking about potential and we need to turn those conversations about potential into conversations about progress and action,” Lowe said.
His fellow organizer, Georgia Robinson Bradberry said after the sixth session, “We can effect change.”
“Let’s work together. There’s going to be things that don’t work. Ok, let’s regroup and let’s go again. But, we don’t stop. Otherwise, we’ll never get there,” she said.
Editor’s Note: Takeaways shown on this page were taken from a lengthy list created by organizers of Imagining a More Livable NF. Where no credit is given in takeaways, the ideas came from the general discussion. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Tom Lowe at IMPACT/ReNU at 286-8751.
Takeaways, Session 1 — Setting the Goals
“Any place worth visiting is at first, a great place to live.” Jeff Belt
“Even if you fail, you wind up with a better place.” Jeff Belt
“Envision, Plan, Present, Repeat.” Jeff Belt
"Always be rendering and show the renderings on easels for public to see." Jeff Belt
Suggestions: Finish Third Street, make all of Pine Avenue walkable
Takeaways, Session 2 Better Mobility for Everyone
"Don’t plan projects, write stories. From cones to concrete, street transformations are more than singular projects, they are stories written by us in the cityscape." Tactical Urbanism Planner Mike Lydon
Work on experimental engagement in neighborhoods; helps uncover what works and what doesn’t; delivers public benefit faster. Mike Lydon
Takeaways, Session 3: Housing for Everyone
"Commit yourself to a place you love that needs you." Rob Steuteville, "New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide"
Incremental Development is a generative real estate model, where local people can invest in their own neighborhoods and in that process, create new life and value that benefits their community.
There needs to be a balance between new investment and affordable housing.
Adapt to a radically changing world. i.e. small houses and "granny flats.
Takeaways, Session 4: Making Better Places
If you build for cars, all you will get is cars. If you design and build for people - magic happens." Lynn Richards, CEO, Congress for the New Urbanism.
Making Niagara Falls a more business-friendly place can be helped by updating antiquated zoning codes.
Demand drives demand. Empower residents to build better places that inspire neighbors to do more.
Support incremental projects.
Takeaways, Session 5: Government/Developers Working Together
There is positive encouragement from developers and so "the time is now!"
Do an historical study to secure tax credits and incentives.
Stop tearing down historic buildings
Prepare building interior for business: add hoods and refrigerators to prepare for a restaurant incubator or craft brewery.
"Taking down the Robert Moses Parkway transforms residential properties into waterfront property." Chris Compos, president, T.M. Montante