Graduate preservation studio report wins APA award

Studio wins Outstanding Student Project Award at annual conference

Professor Kerry Traynor pictured alongside students from the graduate preservation studio "Are we there yet?" receiving their Outstanding Student Project Award.

Kerry Traynor (second from left) and members of her award-winning studio accept the "Outstanding Student Project" award. Student attendees, standing to Traynor's left are Thomas Voigt, Gregory Pinto, Tera Perilli, and Marie Myers Shearing. Photo courtesy of the New York Upstate APA.

by Tyler Madell

Published November 8, 2019

An urban planning studio that explored the historic value of building typologies along Niagara Falls Boulevard that date back to its origins as a mid-century tourist strip has been recognized by the New York Upstate chapter of the American Planning Association. 

Members of the studio and their instructor, UB professor of urban planning Kerry Traynor, accepted the Outstanding Student Project Award at the APA chapter's annual conference in Rochester last month. 

The studio report, entitled "Are We There Yet?", provokes dialogue on the preservation merits of mid-century suburban architectural landscapes - buildings that are not typically considered historical - amidst an ever evolving set of aesthetic and architectural tastes. 

"When people drive down Niagara Falls Boulevard, I doubt that they think of it as significant, or as a collection of buildings that tell an important story about our past," says Traynor. "The strip malls, the motor motels, the old gas stations as an example. These buildings,  have specific typologies that embody a changing way of life in American culture."

Roadside two pole Pylon sign with neon lettering and decoration for Bit-O-Paris, along Niagara Falls Boulevard.

A neon motel sign still stands along Niagara Falls Boulevard, a remnant of mid-century car culture that shaped the development of this tourism thoroughfare between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Students examined the evolution of the Boulevard and pattens of growth from its rural origins to post-war form. The Boulevard is an iconic commercial corridor in Western New York and served as the main thoroughfare in and out of Niagara Falls for much of the first half of the 20th century, before the dawn of interstates.

After surveying major portions of the Boulevard and documenting trends, students engaged with maps, city directories, and other primary sources in order to gain a base knowledge of how the road has developed. The studio then explored extant structures and analyzed precedents that dealt with similar circumstances.

Based on this framework students developed planning and preservation proposals for future design along the entire Boulevard. These guidelines make the most out of existing structures and implement strategies which allow them to exist in a modern context through the techniques of planning and historic preservation. As the discussion of future use wages on, the students focused on locating areas of high historic value and determining ways to establish stronger connections between them.

When people drive down Niagara Falls Boulevard, I doubt that they think of it as significant, or as a collection of buildings that tell an important story about our past. The strip malls, the motor motels, the old gas stations as an example. These buildings,  have specific typologies that embody a changing way of life in American culture.

- Kerry Traynor, clinical associate professor of urban planning

Among the central recommendations is the creation of a thematic district, "Car Culture on Niagara Falls Boulevard: A Mid-Century Retro District", that preserves key structures that evoke the automobile culture of the 1950s and 1960s from which the corridor arose.

Prioritization should be given to preserving buildings with significance in more than one area, such as buildings that are local landmarks while also being significant as a remnant of local car culture. Additional design guidelines include preserving structures of specific unique typologies (such as neon signs), encouraging adaptive reuse while maintaining original historic exteriors, and preserving older structures prior to the automobile age along the corridor that speak to the change over time seen along the Boulevard.

Looking to the future, the studio report emphasizes maintaining the historic character of the strip while also transforming it to be more walkable, bikeable and friendlier to transit users. For instance, streetfront mixed-use development with rear parking for cars, and streetfront parking for bicycles, should be encouraged. Adjacent neighborhoods should be walkable and houses should have a uniform setback to promote open green space. The report recommends implementation of complete streets practices for all transportation modes, with the encouragement of transit oriented development. The studio also urges lowering the speed limit (which currently ranges from 45-50 mph across the Boulevard) to calm traffic and support a scenic byway. 

Ultimately, the report recommends the region tap into new interest in mid-century resources as historic urban fabric. According to the report: "The preservation field’s growing interest in mid-century resources offers an opportunity for the Buffalo-Niagara region to improve one of its most iconic facets. As Niagara Falls Boulevard continues to evolve and urban planning continues to shift away from favoring the automobile, seemingly-mundane structures from the recent past must not be overlooked. These resources speak to a critical time in the region’s development, which makes them historically significant."