Imagine LaSalle Partners Unveil Initial Design Vision for Future Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park

The Imagine LaSalle Initiative, a partnership between the City of Buffalo, the University at Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI) and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation (RCWJRF), has unveiled the initial design vision for a significantly re-imagined LaSalle Park. Included in these is a 16- by 6-foot, physical model, which will be on display at various locations for public viewing across the city until May 24.

Imagine LaSalle has followed a community-driven visioning process, incorporating nearly 2,000 voices to date and the guidance of 22 carefully chosen community ambassadors, each of whom offers a unique perspective.

Facilitated by UBRI, an urban planning and design research center of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, the first phase of engagement involved a survey, focus groups and research on the distinctive features of the over 90-acre park. Last summer, community ambassadors travelled to such cities as Chicago, Cincinnati and New York to draw inspiration and ideas, yet still create something that genuinely represents Buffalo. Findings were detailed in last October’s Community Vision Report, released after the RCWJRF announced a $100 million commitment to support Western New York’s Parks & Trails, including $50 million to transform LaSalle Park into the future Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.

“From day one, thanks to the Wilson Foundation, this has been and will continue to be a community-driven effort to create a world-class waterfront park for the daily enjoyment of Buffalo residents, while also attracting visitors from across the region, the nation and around the globe,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “This model reflects and embraces the thousands of ideas voiced during last summer’s Imagine LaSalle community outreach initiative, as well as this winter’s public design workshops, and is a giant step toward the realization of what Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park will be.”

The core design principles of the Community Vision Report included:

· Celebrate the park’s culture of inclusivity/diversity
· Embrace nature with inspiring landscape
· Support exciting and diverse active recreation opportunities
· Strengthen neighborhood connections
· Design creative play areas for all ages
· Sustain the park with creative financing
· Connect people with water
· Enrich the park’s event space
· Provide a space for concessions
· Create quiet, peaceful places by separating disparate uses
· Enhance the park’s unique identity with public art
· Enable movement throughout the park
· Get smart about parking
· Fix the basics

In December, the world-renowned landscape architectural firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) was invited to design the park with the support of continued community engagement led by UBRI. Since then, community workshops have been held throughout the city, allowing for direct interaction, feedback and idea exchanges between hundreds of residents, the design team and planning partners.

“One of the primary things we tried to do with this vision is to take advantage of the generosity of the space available to us, to make LaSalle much more interesting and diverse,” said MVVA President & CEO Michael Van Valkenburgh. “It’s currently very flat – a little too flat. We’ve focused on adding topography – hills, valleys, improved waterfront access, a lagoon with native Western New York vegetation, more dramatic views and a new children’s playground – all of which will enhance the kinds of spaces available to visitors.”

An equally essential goal is to improve upon the many popular elements already available by repairing the athletics fields, quadrupling the number walking paths, and increasing the variety of sports that can be played throughout the park. Also included is a new 5K athletic loop, more than 3 miles of cycling paths, an enhanced dog run, and a redesigned approach to vehicles, to allow users to park closer to their desired activities.

UBRI and MVVA also met with various community organizations with strong park interests. Ongoing dialogue and meetings have been held as well with technical stakeholders such as the Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, Buffalo Dept. of Public Works, Parks & Streets, and others.

“The design vision we see before us today is the result of a process that has engaged the vision and aspirations of neighborhood residents and citizens across Buffalo,” said Robert G. Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “As the design progresses over the next 18 months, we will continue to take inspiration from the community to ensure Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park stands as a landmark to quality design in service to the public.”

The park’s design will evolve over the next 18 months to reflect additional community input as well as technical studies, site limitations and funding. The model will now begin a three-week city tour, with stops at the Buffalo Central Library (May 4-8), Canalside (May 9-14), LaSalle Park (May 16-19) and Northland Workforce Training Center (May 20-24), where visitors can view and share additional thoughts about the proposed park elements. Location addresses and viewing hours are available at www.ImagineLaSalle.org.

“There has been incredible collaboration across multiple entities and organizations to make the most of this remarkable opportunity,” said RCWJRF President and CEO David Egner. “It has been inspiring for all partners to see and will, in the end, make this park realize its full potential as a neighborhood and regional destination.”

MVVA’s proposed vision builds on the park’s strengths by creating a more varied experience. From overlooks to sheltered valleys and constructed wetlands to formal allées (tree- or shrub-lined paths), the design differentiates a number of separate but connected park zones. It also uses elements of landscape – earthwork, paths, roads, lighting, comfort stations, concessions, and more – to make the park accessible and welcoming to all. The vision calls for a new, iconic pedestrian bridge over “The 190,” to serve as both a gateway into the park for residents and a metaphoric “front door” to Buffalo, New York State, and the United States.

Furthermore, the design allows for the continuation of several projects which were already underway on different timelines and led by different entities, before this initiative began. These include the:
· Army Corps of Engineers seawall project;
· Buffalo Blueway Priority project site, led by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, to create a public access point along the waterway;
· Empire State Trail connection, including improvements from Erie Street to and through LaSalle Park;
· City of Buffalo’s annual capital improvements planned for the park;
· Niagara River Greenway Commission/Buffalo & Erie County Greenway Standing Committee grants for LaSalle Park improvements;
· Pedestrian Bridge Replacement over I-190; and
· The next phase of its skate park, supported by the Tony Hawk Foundation/Built to Play initiative

MVVA was asked to incorporate all of the above into one cohesive vision for the future Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park. It is a very complex challenge that will need further exploration through technical, engineering and financial constraints on an individual project basis. During planning, engineering, and construction, as well as operations and programming, these projects must be coordinated.

Not to be limited, the MVVA team went beyond its LaSalle Park scope and added a future vision for a potential 4th Street Park, Virginia-Carolina Street Interchange and Waterfront Park, as well as a reimagined Front Park.

“These concepts demonstrate other opportunities for the city to consider as a way to build added connections and extend the reach and access of this iconic waterfront park into its neighborhoods,” added Van Valkenburgh. “The potential that exists within this majestic space is tremendous, and our entire team has found this process to be incredibly rewarding and inspiring.”

The total cost for this conceptual vision will not be available until later in the design development process. However, approximately $65-70 million in funding has been identified for capital projects within the park, including the RCWJRF’s $50 million commitment, together with several of the projects noted above. In terms of timing, while this process will remain somewhat fluid, the team anticipates a potential groundbreaking in Spring 2022, with an estimated completion date of Spring 2024.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, the evolving design will be refined by MVVA during the community-driven schematic and detailed design phases, which incorporate numerous studies, new models and drawings, and many opportunities for the community to continue to shape and refine the emerging design through additional meetings and community workshops.

Image Cutlines: Six of MVVA’s landscape architectural conceptual design renderings are available at: https://mvvainc.sharefile.com/share/view/s0e32e9b761a41348/fo8331a6-2891-47e1-be28-8fd6859d3c01

1. Design Vision: The improved park proposes to enhance user experiences by quadrupling the extent of paths and introducing topographic variety, adding a 5K athletic loop and more than 2.5 miles of cycling paths, and redesigning its approach to vehicles to allow users to park closer to their desired activities.
2. Contextual Master Plan: The design team’s vision includes a long-term scope, which includes a proposed vision for a potential 4th Street Park, Virginia-Carolina Street Interchange, and Waterfront/Emerson Young Park, in addition to revisions to the existing Front Park along Porter Avenue.
3. Trio of Great Lawn images: The Great Lawn is an important new design feature that will improve the year-round flexibility of the space, allowing for a broad range of events, gatherings, festivals and performances, as well as a variety of informal activities such as picnics, yoga, snow shoeing and sledding.
4. The Lagoon: The design team has worked to ensure that the water’s edge provides the greatest possible environmental and experiential value. An “outcrop” land feature will be built and allow visitors to safely launch kayaks, while a new “lagoon” will feature native wetland plants and attract migratory birds.

About the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning and UB Regional Institute
The University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning and one of its research centers, the UB Regional Institute (UBRI), are key partners in the effort to transform LaSalle Park into Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park. Starting with the Summer 2018 visioning process, and continuing through the design work commencing in early 2019, faculty, students, and staff from the UB School of Architecture and Planning have been working to ensure broad and meaningful community engagement in shaping the park’s future. This unique role draws on the professional expertise and project management experience at UBRI, the faculty’s deep knowledge of design and placemaking, and the energy and ideas from students aspiring to become architects and planners. Leveraging these capacities supports the School of Architecture and Planning principle of looking at the City of Buffalo and the surrounding region as a living laboratory, where students learn through working on real-world projects and challenges.

About Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates:
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA) is a landscape architecture firm based in Cambridge, MA and Brooklyn, NY. Our staff of 100 is committed to the sustainability and longevity of our work. We are comfortable designing landscapes of all sizes, types, and complexities, from the small, secluded Teardrop Park in lower Manhattan to our current work for Waterfront Toronto, which involves changing the course of the Don River. Our educational backgrounds are unusually diverse—our staff members hold degrees in landscape architecture, architecture, studio art, urban design and civil engineering. We think this diversity of circumstances and perspectives makes our work particularly strong. We at MVVA believe the most meaningful landscapes anticipate what they will mean to their many audiences, and emerge from straightforward, elegant problem-solving techniques. Our work is unfussy and original, sustainable and enjoyable, democratic and direct. MVVA believes that landscape plays a critical role in shaping a positive experience of place — both found and designed—and that a strong sense of place helps enhance the everyday experiences, healthy communities, and quality of life that are at the heart of a livable city. We are researchers, strategists, planners, designers, and makers, but above all we are people who believe in the power of landscapes—especially public landscapes—to be agents of social impact.

About the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation:
The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation is a grantmaking organization dedicated primarily to sustained investment in the quality of life of the people of Southeast Michigan and Western New York. The two areas reflect Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.’s devotion to his hometown of Detroit and greater Buffalo, home of his Buffalo Bills franchise. Prior to his passing in 2014, Mr. Wilson requested that a significant share of his estate be used to continue a life-long generosity of spirit by funding the Foundation that bears his name. The Foundation has a grant making capacity of $1.2 billion over a 20-year period, which expires January 8, 2035. This structure is consistent with Mr. Wilson’s desire for the Foundation’s impact to be immediate, substantial, measurable and overseen by those who knew him best. For more information visit www.rcwjrf.org.