Published May 14, 2019
“More architects and planners should be running for government,” says Town of Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa, who holds three degrees from the School of Architecture and Planning.
In an era of deeply divided national politics, three local elected officials exemplify how the values and skills of a School of Architecture and Planning education produce sorely needed consensus builders.
Austin Tylec (MArch '17), who was elected Alderman-at-Large for the City of North Tonawanda only months after he graduated, says of himself and other graduates, “We sort of help move a lot of things forward. We don’t run away from problems, we find ways to fix them.”
The most recently elected of the three, Joseph Quinn, is a Western New York Prosperity Fellow and current student in the school's Masters of Real Estate Development program. He was elected to the Lancaster Board of Trustees in March of this year.
According to Daniel B. Hess, PhD, professor and chair of urban planning at UB, “Students are drawn to study our professions in the School of Architecture and Planning by their passions for serving the public good. It is no surprise that our alumni and students have found success in leadership positions in local government, and this reflects their preparation at UB for professional life.”
Amherst Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa has relied on his background in architecture and urban planning in multiple leadership roles for the largest and most populous suburb of Buffalo.
Getting his start in politics as a trustee for the Village of Williamsville, Kulpa was initially motivated to get involved to address anomalies in the village’s zoning regulations. He was frustrated that elected officials at the time did not seem to understand the problems.
As he moved up through different positions in government, becoming Mayor of Williamsville and now Supervisor of the Town of Amherst, he realized that the skills he cultivated as an architect and urban planner at UB directly applied to his work in elected office.
He points to critical decision making skills with a creative bent as the essence of what makes his professional background unique in the realm of politics.
“Being able to solve problems creatively - it's a skillset most people don’t discover in other professions; business classes don't give you this," he says.
His graduate studies in urban planning fostered his facility with community engagement.
“Bob Shibley taught me how to build community consensus," says Kulpa of his mentor and professor in urban planning. Shibley is now dean of the school.
For those interested in public office, Kulpa recommends getting involved in a small way initially - for instance, by joining a local committee or serving on a zoning or planning board. “Get yourself into a place where you can make a difference,” he says. “Consensus-builders and creative design capacities are always going to be immensely important.”
Joseph Quinn, who is in the final stretch of his Master of Science in Real Estate Development at UB, says his path into local elected has been somewhat organic.
His interest was piqued as a senior year in UB's environmental design program, when he took a course in local government and politics taught by Carl Calabrese, former deputy executive for Erie County and a longtime adjunct professor in UB's urban planning program.
The summer after graduation, he reached out to officials in his hometown of Lancaster to inquire about openings on the town's Planning Board. With that board full, the town offered Quinn a seat on the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Quinn continued his studies at UB, entering the real estate development program.
It was only months later when Quinn was presented with another opportunity: a seat had opened up on the town's Board of Trustees. He decided to go for it.
As he campaigned door to door, Quinn heard residents express frustration with national and state politics. He says he was able to turn the conversation to local policy, and areas where the community could effect change, by drawing on his background in environmental design and real estate development.
Quinn started his four-year term in April and has already hit the ground running. Among his first orders of business is reviewing RFPs for redevelopment of the town's central business district. He'll balance elected office with graduate school until next January, when he earns his MSRED.
In terms of his vision for the town, Quinn says he's applying one of the most important skills he learned during his studies at UB: listening to the community. “The people that you’re trying to help, you have to listen to them first. I came here with no personal agenda, no pet projects, no personal goals.”
“I didn’t care for the direction our community was heading,” explains Austin Tylec of his decision to pursue elected office in his hometown of North Tonawanda. He didn’t think there were enough people with a background in architecture and urban planning at the decision-making level of government.
Only 26 years old - and a year out of grad school - when he was elected to the seat of alderman for the City of North Tonawanda in 2018, Tylec is by far the youngest on the city's Common Council.
Top on his agenda is making government more accessible and more open to citizens. His goal is to enhance communication between local government and the people it serves. He points out that well-designed municipal websites can have great benefits including promoting transparency, paying bills, and generally communicating what is happening locally.
“Being of the younger generation, we definitely have a better grasp on the benefits of technology,” he says.
When he discusses his interests in green infrastructure and other sustainable design opportunities, he says that successfully promoting these priorities takes talking to people and educating them on the benefits. For instance, Tyler helped inform community members of the value of rain gardens for stormwater runoff after several expressed their frustration with what they thought were just weed-ridden eyesores.
When speaking of architects and the benefits they can bring to public service, Tylec says: "We’re natural collaborators and problem solvers. Having a creative background really helps - architects, planners, and designers have a better idea of how to collaborate around ideas and make them a reality."
Looking back on how his UB education has served his career, Tylec credits his architectural reviews and weekly oral presentations on his ideas for building public speaking skills. Additionally, he used his graphic design skills to develop campaign collateral, which helped visualize his ideas for the city.
Tylec hopes to continue his political career and is already considering a run for mayor of North Tonawanda in the future.