Project partners say UBRI’s role in Imagine LaSalle cannot be overstated

Michael Van Valkenburgh, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, speaks during the design concept presentation. Photos: Douglas Levere.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, speaks during the design concept presentation. Photos: Douglas Levere

Photos: Douglas Levere

By David J. Hill

Published May 7, 2019

“Because of what was done with Imagine LaSalle and the work that UBRI did, so much incredible groundwork was done. We didn’t really start here until December, so to do this much design work in three or four months is almost impossible.”
Paul Seck, principal
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

It took nearly two years of planning before Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) could begin crafting schematic designs for the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, the first phase of which opened about nine years ago.

In stark contrast, MVVA presented its initial design concepts for the transformation of Buffalo’s LaSalle Park into Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on Friday — mere months after the world-renowned landscape architecture firm arrived in Western New York to begin working on the project.

The quick turnaround is owed to the largely behind-the-scenes work that UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and the UB Regional Institute (UBRI), a center within the school, performed over the past 18 months. Their efforts began what is known collectively as the Imagine LaSalle initiative.

“I think one of the amazing things about the team that you guys put together, the UBRI people have given us such a fast insight into understanding the complexity of Buffalo, and exposing us to it through the process that they’ve constructed,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, the firm’s president and CEO.

“We have not had a project like this before,” MVVA Principal Paul Seck said, referring to the legwork conducted by UBRI and the School of Architecture and Planning.

“Because of what was done with Imagine LaSalle and the work that UBRI did, so much incredible groundwork was done. We didn’t really start here until December, so to do this much design work in three or four months is almost impossible,” Seck said, adding that UB’s efforts helped make that happen. “It was almost like, here’s the CliffsNotes, now you can go from there. It’s unique.”

UBRI’s involvement included gathering input from 2,000 people and convening a focus group of 22 carefully selected community members representing diverse backgrounds and interests who toured other signature parks in Cincinnati, Chicago and New York City, and surveyed residents, school-aged children and park-goers.

The collaborative focus of the project was driven by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which is investing $50 million to redevelop the park. “What unites a community better than a park that is well designed, includes the community in the design, and brings the community together in that space,” said David Egner, president and CEO of the foundation.

Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and senior fellow at UBRI, said the process was intensive and mutually engaging. “We spent the summer listening and learning. It was a tremendous ride for all of our staff, faculty, students and the UBRI team.”

There were design charrettes that began in January and were attended by more than 500 community members, many of whom provided input that drove the park features that Van Valkenburgh and his team so proudly unveiled during two events late last week inside Hayes Hall on the South Campus.

All of this involved faculty, staff and students from the School of Architecture and Planning and UBRI, under the direction of Shibley, UBRI Director Laura Quebral and Bart Roberts, UBRI’s director of research and faculty engagement.

“This has been a process that included literally thousands of people,” Egner said during a sneak peek event for special guests last Thursday. “UBRI has been an amazing partner. Without Bob Shibley and the work that has happened with him and the community, we wouldn’t be at this point,” Egner added.

During his remarks Thursday, President Satish K. Tripathi referred to the UB team as an “honest broker,” or a group whose work serves the interests of the entire region and its constituents.

“We are so proud to work as an honest broker for a lot of different things in the community. I’m especially proud of UBRI as well as Bob Shibley, who really has a reputation for being an honest broker for Western New York,” Tripathi said. “This is a fascinating project and we’re so proud to host you here as we unveil this beautiful concept that changes the landscape of Buffalo.”

The community will be invited to continue providing feedback on the design vision created by the MVVA team, which included Van Valkenburgh, Seck and Associate Paloma Garcia.

A 16-foot-by-6-foot model will be on display at four locations across Buffalo this month: Buffalo Central Library (May 4-8), Canalside (May 9-14), LaSalle Park (May 16-19) and Northland Workforce Training Center (May 20-24). Visitors at each site can view and share additional thoughts about the proposed elements to the park.

“The design vision we see before us today is the result of a process that has engaged the vision and aspirations of neighborhood residents and citizens across Buffalo,” Shibley said. “As the design progresses over the next 18 months, we will continue to take inspiration from the community to ensure Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park stands as a landmark to quality design in service to the public.”

And that’s exactly what the late Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. would have wanted, his widow, Mary, a life trustee of the foundation that bears his name, said. “To see him bring something so great to a community that he loved, it’s just overwhelming, really,” she said.

In October 2018, the foundation announced a $200 million parks and trails initiative for Detroit and Buffalo, the two cities Ralph Wilson dearly loved. The funds were split evenly between the two cities. In Buffalo, the foundation has provided $50 million for the transformation of LaSalle Park and another $50 million to advance the vision of completed regional trail systems.

Since the announcement, the community has embraced the opportunity to re-imagine LaSalle Park and transform it into a signature space that will be enjoyed by people across Western New York and marveled at by visitors from around the world.

“It's the beginning of a moment of great change in the city,” Van Valkenburgh said. “This city is ready and excited for this park to happen and we’re just really happy and fortunate, we feel, to be a part of it.”

The process will be fluid, but the project team anticipates a potential groundbreaking in spring 2022, with an estimated completion date of spring 2024.


Photos: Douglas Levere

Once the transformation is complete, LaSalle Park will look vastly different in its new iteration as Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park.

Key features of the initial design vision created include:

  • Major topographic alternations, including the addition of a “Great Lawn” that will improve the year-round flexibility of the park, allowing for a broad range of events, gatherings, festivals and performances. At 30 feet in height, the Great Lawn will also serve as a sledding hill in the winter, while affording unparalleled views of the city and water.
  • Repairing athletic fields, quadrupling the number of walking paths and increasing the variety of sports that can be played in the park. There’s also a 5K running loop, more than 3 miles of cycling paths and an enhanced dog run.
  • The creation of an outcrop land feature that will enable visitors to safely launch kayaks and canoes.
  • A lagoon complete with native wetland plants that will attract migratory birds.
  • A redesigned approach to parking that minimizes parking lots. Instead, park visitors arriving by vehicle will be able to park curbside near the athletic field their child is playing on.
  • Planting 2,500 trees of varying species.

More information on the plan is available at