Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Architect Paul Rudolph had an ambitious plan for Buffalo's waterfront, but it was only ever partly realized. Today, proof of it is beginning to disappear.
John Schmidt likes his apartment. The 57-year-old moved into Shoreline, an affordable housing complex in downtown Buffalo, New York, seven years ago after suffering a severe heart attack.
“I can look out over the Niagara River and see Canada and Lake Erie,” Schmidt says over the phone from his 6th floor unit. “The trees in this part of the complex are still standing and they’re lovely. And there’s a spot right down there that some of the families use for big outdoor picnics and birthday parties and where the kids can go and play.”
“For me,” Schmidt adds, “it’s perfect.”
Shoreline debuted in 1974, a barely realized vision for Buffalo’s waterfront dreamt up by the architect Paul Rudolph. Today, age and poor management are catching up to a complex that was arguably doomed from the start.
Demolition crews began work on five buildings containing 137 apartments at Shoreline last month. (There were 426 at Shoreline prior to demolition, 89 of which had been offline for a decade.) Norstar Development, owners of the complex since 2005, have a $14 million plan to construct eight new buildings with 48 apartments in its place. Once additional funds are secured, they hope to demolish more along Niagara street, building new units in phases.
The removal of these brutalist apartments looks to some as a chance to correct an old mistake—one many local preservationists argue scarred the neighborhood irreparably. But to some who actually live there, including Schmidt, it’s the landlord that keeps failing them.
“It’s a constantly deteriorating situation and a lose-lose situation for us,” says Schmidt. “Even if we manage to stop the demolition we’ll still have to deal with Norstar constantly causing things to go to hell.”
On the grounds of where Shoreline stands today was once a dense, mixed-use neighborhood. Hundreds of acres in the city’s lower west side, just blocks from City Hall, were wiped out as part of a massive slum-clearance initiative in the 1950s. Nearly 300 acres and 1,000 buildings in the neighborhood were designated by the city for demolition. By 1970, it was all gone. Given a blank slate by the newly formed New York State Urban Development Corporation, Rudolph took on the challenge of rebuilding much of it from scratch.
It was the UDC’s largest project outside of New York City. Awarded to Rudolph in 1969, his plan included mixed market-rate and affordable housing, a school, a sprawling community center, and public space. It was an ambitious plan to be built out in four phases. By the the end of the ‘70s, Buffalo was to have a shockingly modern neighborhood in place of the old one it had erased.
The plan was exciting enough to be featured in a 1970 MoMA exhibit, Work In Progress. “In his current plan for high-rise housing on the Buffalo Waterfront,” wrote Arthur Drexler, then-MoMA Director of Architecture and Design, in a press release, “variety is achieved not by the arrangement of mass produced units but rather by the development of large building forms in a total configuration related to the natural landscape.” Drexler concludes, “the result is not 'organic' in the sense of imitating natural forms, and yet the buildings seem to combine into a mountain range."
Only the affordable housing and a school were built. The UDC, which first came into existence to build publicly funded housing, quickly fell into financial trouble. By the mid-’70s, the UDC had turned away from its housing mission, leaving the Buffalo waterfront unfinished.
Not building the final two phases left Rudolph’s vision severely compromised. Yet, to this day, Shoreline still demonstrates something that the architect wanted to achieve. “It is not a masterpiece like his Yale School of Architecture,” preservation architect Barbara Campagna tells CityLab, “but it is a very good example of using high design with low cost to create a neighborhood public housing complex. It is an innovative approach of using European villages as the precedent, taking low-income housing beyond the Corbusian block.”
“Rudolph had a very romantic vision of what these apartments would be like,” Campagna adds. “The idea was that they would reflect Italian and European mountain towns that you might see around the Mediterranean. The landscape would be weaving through everything, but what has happened with almost all of these low-income housing developments from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, is that nothing ever happened with the landscape.”
More importantly, with no market-rate apartments to help fund the low-income units, Shoreline residents have been damned to a fate of cash-strapped management.
“If we have significant water damage because of the leaks and the construction and the fact that the water channels right down the corrugated concrete, we just can’t say ‘our costs just went up to fix all of this stuff and we’re gonna raise everybody’s rent,’” says Norstar Vice President Linda Goodman. “We don’t do that. We can’t do that. The state doesn’t allow us to.”
There are two sections of residential units at Shoreline, separated by 7th Street. Both (Shoreline I and Shoreline II) are required by state law to remain as affordable housing. In 2011, Norstar renovated Shoreline I, the block of apartments closer to the waterfront.
Norstar demolished two buildings in the process, reducing the apartment total from 142 to 88. “Supposedly it was in order to open up the landscape,” says Campagna. “But it really did nothing. It basically put a hole through the complex.”
The company has spent over $19 million since 2005 to improve the site. “It’s not that they won’t fix things,” Schmidt notes, “it’s that they bring people in to fix things and then they just start malfunctioning again.”
“The inspectors are no help because they just rubber stamp everything ‘satisfactory,’” Schmidt adds. “No matter what you tell them, they ignore it.”
Campagna says Norstar simply spends their money poorly. “They’ve done roof replacements that were really bad, window replacements that were equally bad,” the architect tells us. “It’s your classic case of ‘demolition by neglect.’ With these five buildings they’re demolishing, they’ve said, ‘Oh, well the elevator doesn’t work.’ Well why don’t you repair the elevator? ‘Oh, look at all the graffiti.’ Well why don’t you remove the graffiti? I’ve walked through the buildings and they’re in really sound structural shape—nothing that a good forensic architect couldn’t help them with.”
According to Goodman, the problem is the architecture. “There are dark blind spots and corners. [Rudolph’s] breezeways didn’t work because criminals were running away from the police. The whole area is too dense and we’ve had a lot of problems with management of other properties next to us. The cops said, ‘Look, we really, architecturally and from a security standpoint, we need to break up this long serpentine chain.’”
When viewed from above, the buildings at Shoreline curve as they travel along the site plan. The smaller buildings flow in and out from three taller, wider ones (one on the south end, one in the middle and one on the north end) varying the complex’s scale enough to avoid some of the cliches of a midcentury housing project. One of those tall buildings, 260 Niagara, faced an especially humiliating decline before contractors started taking it down in May.
Previous management at Shoreline II shut down 260 Niagara in 2004 after deciding they didn’t have enough money to fix the six-story building’s elevator. Closed off to potential residents since, squatters and scrappers put it to use, coming in and out of the 89 shuttered apartments in spite of Norstar’s efforts to seal it off.
Schmidt, who is also the tenant association’s secretary, thinks the owners failed to do enough in the case of 260. “The wiring was ripped out, the cabinets were ripped out, there were holes in the walls, the plumbing was gone, the copper was gone—and then after this had been accomplished, [Norstar] took a bunch of city officials around on a tour and said, ‘Look at this place, it’s a disaster and there’s no way we can possibly fix it up.’ I mean, if a homeowner neglects their property like that, they’d be fined.”
As for the crime Goodman speaks of, Campagna puts the blame squarely on Norstar as well. “Making design decisions because of police recommendations without talented architects, landscape architects, and urban designers, not to mention security specialists,” she says, “is like performing heart surgery without a heart surgeon.” Campagna notes that a landmarks commissioner at City Hall who previously voted in favor of preserving the buildings is a former cop who used to patrol that very neighborhood.
Campagna is fighting a surprisingly lonely battle. In her efforts to help save a piece of Buffalo brutalism, the city that takes pride in its collection of concrete grain elevators has remained mostly silent in the case of Paul Rudolph. “I don’t really consider myself an activist but nobody else was stepping forward,” says Campagna. “Somebody needed to speak for these buildings.”
One local preservationist tells CityLab, “I see the significance, I understand the history. Even given all of that I don’t feel any attachment to these buildings.” He went on to suggest (only slightly in jest) that “We should save a portion of it as a warning [about midcentury urban planning] and maybe have an interpretive center to talk about that era.”
“There are a whole lot of people in Buffalo who call themselves preservationists,” says Campagna, “and anything past Frank Lloyd Wright, 1915, they have no interest in.”
Campagna recalls a frustrating attempt to get the apartments designated by the city’s Preservation Board last year. “It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever presented at,” she says. At one point, a Norstar paid consultant said, “They blew up Pruitt-Igoe, they should blow this up too,” she recalls.
To be a landmarked building in Buffalo, a structure has to meet at least one of six criteria. Shoreline met four. But it also has to get six out of seven votes from the landmark commissioners. The apartments received only four votes in its favor. “I talked to a few people after and suggested maybe we could sue the landmarks board,” says Campagna. “But who’s gonna pay for that? Who’s gonna have the energy for that?”
Since then, she’s been getting help from Docomomo, a non-profit with the mission of documenting and conserving modernist architecture around the world. But after her failed attempt to landmark the buildings, updates from Norstar were hard to come by. “Everyone was being pretty quiet and not responding to requests until we suddenly saw the excavators show up at the site,” Campagna tells us.
Residents at Shoreline were just as surprised. “They started tearing down the buildings and they did not let us know the exact date,” says Henrietta Colvin, who has lived in the housing complex for 15 years. “Since last year they’ve told us a date, and another date and another date, and they never followed through. All of a sudden a couple of weeks ago they start tearing down the buildings. They didn’t tell us in a letter, they didn’t meet with us, they told us nothing.”
Although it appears accidental, Campagna informs us that a building not approved for demolition has been partially compromised in the process. “SHPO (The State Historic Preservation Office) is looking into it and we just put in a FOIA request with the City permits department,” she notes.
With a $400,000 grant from the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency approved two weeks ago, Norstar now has all the funding it needs to complete its first phase of redevelopment. Soon enough, New Urbanist-style housing will replace Rudolph’s signature corrugated concrete on the northern corner of the site. Goodman says the new buildings will be “easier to manage and a more enjoyable scale for the residents to live in.”
Future phases, however, remain up in the air.
Norstar finances their projects through public funding and tax credits before finding an investor. The planning process for phase two has only begun. “The state just closed on the financing for phase one and they really don’t like to fund another phase until the first phase is completed,” says Goodman. “It took us about three years to get in line for the funding for just phase one. So, it’s probably a 5-year process [for phase two]. We’re going to start thinking about the rest of it but we had to get the initial phase done first.”
The delay gives time for tenants and preservationists to see if there’s a different solution to making Shoreline better. Schmidt says the tenant’s association is lining up allies “to see what kind of support we can get to stop the demolition and to get new management in here.”
Campagna now has allies in Docomomo as well as ICOMOS and the World Monuments Fund. “There are a lot of people scurrying right now but it’s about a year too late,” she says. “The intent now is to try and stop any future demolitions.”
In the meantime, residents like Colvin, who live in apartments scheduled for the next phase of redevelopment, remain anxious. Goodman insists that there will be no displacement. “I know that’s a concern,” she says, “but that’s something that we’re building into the planning as we move down the street with future development. We have a regulator’s agreement, we don’t kick our residents out. We are building replacement housing.”
But after enough years of frustration with management, long-term residents still aren’t sure what awaits.
“A lot of people have put their trust in [Norstar],” says Colvin. “We’re sitting here jammed together thinking there’s a future for us. They have not given us any information and they have talked to us like we’re idiots. I want them to sit down with us, tell us what our future is and be honest.”