Education

Urban transformation in progress

 By RP Siegel

River Bend is a dynamic example of urban transformation in progress. Two hundred acres of former heavy industrial land in South Buffalo, New York including the former Republic Steel site, is being reclaimed and converted into three mixed used neighborhoods featuring intermodal transportation and renewable energy. This large scale brownfield remediation, a “holistic approach to regenerative design and development that integrates the rich ecological legacy of the waterfront site with contemporary development, creating a sustainable landscape that complements the plan’s economic and urban dimensions.” The project, which will incorporate 10MW of solar, along with 35 MW of wind power, including the new, Solar City factory, is a partnership of the University of Buffalo, the Buffalo-Niagara partnership, National Grid (utility) and various other entities, that will seek to answer the question, “can sustainable development be economically sound?”

(Cover photo by www.centerforurbanstudies.ap.buffalo.edu)

If it takes a whole village to raise a child, then what does it take to turn a polluted industrial city into a clean, thriving community?

In the heyday of American Rust Belt cities, residents had to choose between plentiful jobs on one hand, and a clean, quiet and livable environment on the other. Given the pressing need to grow the economy and find work, that choice was clear. Industrial cities grew up along waterways that carried off toxic waste as they brought in work and dollars, leaving behind a toxic legacy of contaminated water and soil. The split gave rise to suburbs and what we now know as sprawl.

These days, people no longer want to have to make the choice. They want clean, prosperous, livable cities. How then does one go about making this transition?

First, you need a compelling proposition. The prospect of 3,000 acres at the southern edge of Buffalo NY, between Lake Erie and the Buffalo River should be enough to attract attention. It’s not often you get a clean sheet to start with. Historically, the combination of the Erie Canal, the opening of the railroads, the abundance of Lake Erie water, and the availability of power from Niagara Falls made Buffalo a prime location for industrial development, while the proximity to Detroit made this an ideal place to make steel. Today, the steel is mostly gone, the land has been remediated under brownfield development and the city is ready for something new.

Buffalo River Bend: transforming former industrial land into a green, modern, and vital urban neighborhood...

That’s when you need a dynamic and outspoken champion who knows how to get people motivated. Dennis Elsenbeck, Regional Executive at National Grid, fits that bill in Buffalo. Not only is Elsenbeck articulate and passionate, but he serves on a number of economic development councils in the area. That helps keep his finger on the pulse of the local business community. When asked where his job ends and where his personal passion begins, he’ll say, “It’s impossible to tell.”

At the same time, he’ll be the first to tell you how it takes the involvement of people from business, government and the public (“the 3-legged stool”) to make something like this happen. Elsenbeck and National Grid collaborated with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the University at Buffalo to survey 120 people across the spectrum to get a sense of what was coming. He learned that it was going to be big. The survey, based on the plans of local business owners and developers revealed 150% growth.

The next key ingredient is planning. That’s what makes Elsenbeck such an intriguing driver. Typically, utilities are not the one’s leading the charge. Given their role as regulated entities, they’ve always needed to justify all investments in terms of what’s already in place. In Elsenbeck’s words, “we’ve never been a ‘build-it-and they-will-come’ kind of business.”

But these are changing times. NY’s dynamic “Reforming the Energy Vision” program actually changes how utilities make money by aligning revenue streams with the outcomes that they would like to see, namely, a more efficient grid. National Grid is also looking forward with their Connect21 initiative, which they define as, “a framework that links customer needs and policy goals with technology and market solutions.” The company continues to invest in a number of economic development and urban revitalization programs, like the Buffalo Building Reuse Project, and a Cleantech incubator at the University at Buffalo (UB). In addition, the company will spend $80-90 million to develop service infrastructure for RiverBend and its surroundings. Elsenbeck wants to use that money synergistically.

Energy is at the heart of this project and at the heart of Buffalo’s history. The first street in America to receive electric lighting was in Buffalo, powered by the falls at Niagara, where Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla battled over whether to use AC or DC for long range transmission.

On this broad piece of land, known as the South Buffalo Brownfield Opportunity Area, which is managed by the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC), are parcels such as River East, West and Central, and Lakeside Commerce Park. The largest piece is the former Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna, where 30,000 people once worked. That site is now largely empty, offering sumptuous views of Lake Erie across open fields. Surrounded within the site is the 264 acre Tifft Nature Preserve, containing wetlands along the lakeshore and several designated important bird areas.

But the jewel in the crown of this transformational area is surely RiverBend. This mixed-use community, at the former Republic Steel site, will embody principles of green living and smart growth. “From a dramatic, new waterfront promenade that traces the steel bulkheaded river’s edge to the implementation of new contemporary wind turbines and green infrastructure throughout the site, RiverBend makes visible its industrial legacy while looking toward a new green, clean energy future.”

Governor Cuomo has invested $225 million to make the site a clean energy campus. [deletion] A new 1.2 million square ft SolarCity manufacturing facility on the former Republic Steel site. With the state investing $750 million and SolarCity, the nation’s largest solar provider kicking in $5 billion, the facility is expected to create 3,000 new jobs.

SEE MORE: Satellites find sustainable energy in cities by Benjamin Plackett

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At the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus there is a parking lot fitted with EV charging stations and combination solar and wind generators mounted on poles. Passing through downtown there are several architecturally rich buildings that had, until recently, been slated for demolition. The former Lowe’s Theater Company warehouse, which is now being converted into 13 loft apartments, is one example.

Resources, and little luck never hurt either. What some call luck, others might call good planning. Those things have come to Buffalo in several forms, including financial support that NY State has provided, both for brownfield development as well as for renewable energy.

Clean energy will play a key role in this project. Approaching Lake Erie we can see a number of windmills along the shoreline. The clean sheet nature of the project makes it easier to take “a holistic approach to regenerative design and development that integrates the rich ecological legacy of the waterfront site with contemporary development, creating a sustainable landscape that complements the plan’s economic and urban dimensions.”

The question that this partnership of UB, the Buffalo-Niagara partnership, National Grid, BUDC and various other entities will attempt to answer is, “can sustainable development be economically sound?”

With features like net-zero manufacturing, commercial development incorporating thermal storage, walkable streets, an alternative fuel vehicle plan, integrated grid energy storage, bike share infrastructure, community solar, recreational access, and integrated water regeneration plan, it certainly seems to stand a very good chance.

But, says Elsenbeck, the key is in getting out of functional silos and for all stakeholders to communicate their wishes, their needs and their challenges, so that a comprehensive plan can be developed to include those things that are most important to all.”

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.