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Real estate and urban design students offer development recommendations for key properties in downtown Buffalo

One of several proposals offered by students in UB's capstone real estate development studio. The semester-long effort featured engagement with a client team and an actual site in downtown Buffalo.

By Stephanie Bucalo

Published April 6, 2017

“Someday, we will want to put our M&T Center parking lots to a higher and better use then their current use as surface parking lots. This project helped us to begin to think about future uses and it did so in a very practical way for the students who worked on the effort.”
Keith Belanger, Senior Vice President
M&T Bank

Teams of UB graduate students in real estate development, architecture, and urban planning recently presented recommendations for how three centrally-located parking lots in downtown Buffalo could eventually be redeveloped.

On the receiving end of these recommendations were executives of M&T Bank, the owner of three adjacent parking lots adjacent to its’ M&T Center complex that were the focus of the effort.   The students, with input and feedback from M&T Bank and UB faculty, undertook a semester-long effort to come up with ideas for how the bank might eventually develop the three lots that made up the site. The Fortune 1000 or S&P 500 company and anchor employer in Buffalo uses the lots for employee and customer parking, but the resurgence of downtown Buffalo in recent years and M&T’s continued growth might eventually lead the bank to think about whether the lots should be redeveloped, when, and for what uses. 

Student presentations were the culmination of a combined “capstone” studio led Hiro Hata, associate professor of architecture and urban planning, and Mark Foerster, UB senior fellow in real estate development.  Organized like a real development and urban design project – with a team of M&T Bank representatives serving as the client – the project provided students with invaluable real-world experience while generating ideas for one of the most significant remaining development sites in downtown Buffalo.

“Someday, we will want to put our M&T Center parking lots to a higher and better use then their current use as surface parking lots,” said Keith Belanger, senior vice president of M&T Bank. "This project helped us to begin to think about future uses and it did so in a very practical way for the students who worked on the effort.”

Foerster said the experience is unique among real estate development programs: “This challenging course, integrating three disciplines, is probably the only one of its kind in graduate schools across the U.S., giving students a truly unique ‘real world’ project.”

Added Hata: “M&T was an excellent sponsor and client, and Keith and his team participated closely with our students at various times throughout the semester.”   

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Students were tasked with preparing development proposals that would “unlock the value” of the site, key parcels in the central business district located only one block from Main Street, and in close proximity to the new Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and Buffalo’s Theater and Entertainment Districts. Proposals needed to be financially viable and enhance the vitality of the surrounding urban context while addressing M&T Bank’s expected future corporate needs. The bank employs more than 4,000 in its six downtown buildings and could, if history is any indicator of the future, add as many as 1,000 more jobs over the next five years.

Although this site has been studied in the past by numerous professional consultants, this interdisciplinary studio was the first time that development concepts fully integrated urban design and real estate investment perspectives. Hata and Foerster divided students into five interdisciplinary teams, each developing its own scenario based on detailed market and site research, financial analysis, urban design and architectural design.  Their final proposals included urban design master plans, architectural renders, pro forma financial modeling, and ideas on project phasing.  Design work included generation of both 3D and physical models of the site. 

All five student teams prepared professional quality reports, and presented their concepts and recommendations to a panel of facilities and capital investment managers from M&T, as well as to faculty and guest critics from UB’s School of Architecture and Planning. The integration of design and investment perspectives was central to each project, supporting creative solutions to some of the most important challenges facing urban development, including the high cost of parking, housing affordability, and incentives for mixed-use and transit-oriented development. Students designed public plazas in the site to create linkages with adjacent streets and corridors, as well as links to nearby cultural and entertainment nodes. Student work also anticipated how the development would fit in with Buffalo’s new form-based zoning ordinance, the “Green Code,” and how they would support a walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

One team was invited to make a special presentation to the bank’s top officials, including M&T Chairman Robert Wilmers, in the board room at M&T’s world headquarters. Students Dawn Aprile and Daniel Crowther (both MS Arch, Real Estate Development ’17), Alan Chan (MArch/MUP ’17), Anthony Garofalo (MArch ’18), and Zhida Song (MUP ’18) recommended a mixed-use development consisting of:

  • a signature building with Class A corporate and collaborative office space
  • a residential mix of apartments, condominiums and townhouses
  • ground-level retail stores, restaurants, wellness and fitness centers
  • a culinary hall, evocative of the historic Washington Market that once occupied the site
  • a “woonerf” or “living street,” a trending urban design technique that promotes pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and
  • amenitized rooftops and a plaza that could be activated year round.

Student team members said the course’s interdisciplinary approach to a real-world project created a unique learning experience.

“The framework of our entire approach was a marriage between our interpretation of the client's interests and a multi-faceted design approach,” says Alan Chan (MArch/MUP ’17). “Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this studio was the realization that the success of our design was merely a byproduct of relentless collaboration and trust.”

Daniel Crowther (MS Arch, Real Estate Development ’17) is already translating the experience as a development associate with TM Montante Development, a Buffalo real estate development company.  “Being cognizant of the objectives of the design team, the goals of the client, as well as the constraints imposed on the developer by project finance and debt service considerations, is exactly what real estate developers balance from day to day.”

Dawn Aprile (MS Arch, Real Estate Development ’17), who came to UB to advance her Rochester-based real estate development company, said the “start-to-finish” collaboration and combination of design and finance was fundamental to her team’s ability to create a “remarkable yet realistic development proposal.”

When asked what’s next, M&T Bank’s Keith Belanger responded with, “No shovels will be going into the ground tomorrow, but we have some pretty interesting ideas that someday could become the seeds of a development scheme.”  Belanger went on to say that, “I was very impressed with the students who participated in the project.  They put in front of us work product that looked like it had come from a real estate services firm that one might retain were they advancing against such a project.  I suspect we’ll be seeing some of these people again outside of academia as they put these skills to work in the community.”