UB students develop plans to re-energize Buffalo’s Shelton Square

Student presenting her group's project.

Second-year master of architecture student Cansu Donmez describes her group's plans for Shelton Square in Buffalo during a critics' review as part of Hiroaki Hata's fall 2015 studio course. Photo: Mahan Mehrvarz

Release Date: December 14, 2015

“Our goal was to create alternative visions to transform Shelton Square from the current traffic conduit and no-man’s land to a walkable and livable greenspace in the heart of downtown.”
Hiroaki Hata, associate professor of architecture and urban planning
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – It was once known as the Times Square of Buffalo, a bustling place downtown bounded by landmarks such as St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building. The nexus of four major arteries — Main, Erie, Church and Niagara streets — it long served as a hub of pedestrian, street and mass transit traffic and commercial activity.

But as urban renewal took hold in the 1960s, Shelton Square became choked off and is now a shadow of its former self. The site now includes Erie Community College’s City Campus, but the throngs of people that once gathered there are long gone.

Now, students in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning are hoping to breathe new life into this section of downtown and have spent the past few months developing plans to revitalize Shelton Square as part of a fall studio overseen by Hiroaki Hata, associate professor of architecture and urban planning.

Four teams of four students each will present their final plans during a public presentation from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 in the Minnie Gillette Auditorium at ECC City Campus, 121 Ellicott St.

“Our goal was to create alternative visions to transform Shelton Square from the current traffic conduit and no-man’s land to a walkable and livable greenspace in the heart of downtown,” Hata says. “This is particularly important to the more than 3,500 ECC students who use it every day.”

Configured by the eight-lane North and South Division streets, Shelton Square presently comprises Five Flag Park and Firemen’s Park, and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority parking lot directly in front of ECC. It’s situated between the Oak-Elm Corridor and I-190. “In short, it is a semi-highway,” Hata says, highlighting some of the many challenges that exist with Shelton Square.

The student teams’ proposals include plans for new housing, as well as retail stores and a supermarket, to attract people to the square while offering ideas to connect this part of the city to other booming downtown destinations, such as Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “There is no common vision here and there’s a disconnect of different zones. Our goal was to create a mixed-use hub that reconnects the square with these different zones,” says Cansu Donmez, a second-year master’s in architecture student.

Students also developed design guidelines to steer new development, ensuring that future projects account for the historic urban fabric of Shelton Square, which figured prominently in Joseph Ellicott’s original plans when he laid out the city of Buffalo in the early 1800s.

“We started by reflecting on the past and how Shelton Square originally existed within Joseph Ellicott’s radial scheme. A lot of the identity of it then doesn’t exist now because it’s been so fragmented. It’s an urban island,” adds architecture student John Lynch.

Hata’s students worked with several community stakeholders, including the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC), ECC and the New York State Department of Transportation. “I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a large group of community stakeholders who have demonstrated a significant interest in our studio’s work, not just as a classroom exercise but as a visioning process that has the potential to produce some real-world results,” says Will Becker, who is in his fourth year of the master’s in architecture and master of urban planning dual-degree program.

As an example of what the public will see as part of Tuesday’s presentation, Becker’s group sought to redefine the eastern portion of Shelton Square as ECC’s urban campus by relocating the NFTA bus terminal to a new intermodal transportation hub at the One Seneca Tower complex and constructing three new mixed-use campus buildings that enclose a newly created campus quad at the former Ellicott bus depot.

Hata’s fall studio was unique in that it brought together master’s students in both architecture and urban planning to create new plans that would transform Shelton Square into a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly civic space. The Queen City Hub, Buffalo’s 2004 master plan — and BUDC’s Downtown Buffalo Infrastructure and Public Realm Master Plan of 2015 — recommended that the site reclaim its status as a great urban space.

“Following these public initiatives, this studio was conceived to push the idea of undoing the damage caused by the highway plan that created the eight-lane highway that is present-day Shelton Square,” Hata says. The studio, which integrated transportation planning with land use planning, urban design and architecture, reflects the unique mission of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning to use the city as its lab.

Before they embarked upon their plans for Shelton Square, students examined several case studies, among them Washington Square in New York City, Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, Union Square in San Francisco and Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto.

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