Buffalo vs Calgary / Boom vs Bust Cities

Every city has its heyday! Both Buffalo and Calgary have seen their fair share of good times and bad times. Everyday Tourist dissects these two very different cities. 

Strange looks appeared when I told people “we are going to Buffalo!” Even the USA border guard gave us a second look when we said we were spending three days and two nights in the Queen City. 

While many still have the impression of Buffalo as a city in decline, I had read lots of great things about the NEW Buffalo and wanted to check it out. 

Buffalo City planner Chris Hawley’s blog on “Beer-Oriented Development” first caught my attention, but the tipping point for my decision to go was learning their Canalside outdoor skating rink will attract over one million skaters this winter.

This I had to see!

Ice skating at Canalsie (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Buffalo 101

Buffalo, founded in 1801, quickly grew to become the dominant city of the eastern Great Lakes.  It became a major headquarters city for the grain, steel and automobile industries because of its strategic location on the Erie Canal and railway between the Midwest and the Atlantic coast. It became one of the wealthiest cities in North America. 

Three major factors resulted in the decline of the City’s economy by 1950s.  One was the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a new and the second was the emergence of trucking transportation as an alternative to rail. Thirdly, suburban living became popular, which meant many people and businesses moved to the suburbs and with them, significant tax dollars. But today after 60 years of decline, Buffalo is definitely on the upswing. I thought it might be interesting to do a Calgary/Buffalo comparison.

Urban Design 

Every city has its heyday - Buffalo’s was from 1880 to 1950.  As a result, it has a wonderful legacy of late 19th and early 20th century architecture and urban design matched only by New York City and Chicago. 

Buffalo’s strong economy resulted in several iconic early 20th century architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson and Fredrick Law Olmstead designing signature buildings and parks.  

Buffalo’s city hall designed by John J. Wade is a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture that is still used today, with the 28th floor’s observatory offering a spectacular view of the city’s radial street pattern.

Buffalo City Hall (photo credit: Nancy Vargo) 

Buffalo The Beautiful 

Calgary’s early 20th century booms didn’t produce anything on the scale of Buffalo’s great architecture and parks. And, Calgary’s heyday started in the mid 20th century, only recently resulting in signature buildings by internationally renowned architects like Sir Norman Foster (Bow office tower), Santiago Calatrava (Peace Bridge), Bjarke Ingles (TELUS Sky) and acclaimed artist, Jaume Plensa (Wonderland).  St. Patrick’s Island Park has the potential to become a classic example of early 21st century thinking on urban park design.

The “City Beautiful” movement was popular in North America in the early 20th century with its principles of creating new urban communities that were more park-like with lots of trees, green spaces, non-grid streets and beautiful roundabouts. And while, Mount Royal is the best example of a “City Beautiful” community in Calgary, Buffalo has an entire “City Beautiful” District.

Richardson Olmsted complex, Buffalo (photo credit: Ed Healy) 

  Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Aerial photo of downtown Buffalo, with Canalside and First Niagara Arena in the background

Downtown Calgary Skyline looking over Stampede Park and Scotiabank Saddledome arena

WOW Factor 

We were fortunate to stay at the Inn Buffalo on Lafayette Street, the home of industrialist H.H. Hewitt in the middle of this district.  The Inn Buffalo includes a library, music room, dining room, drawing room and lower level “Admiral Room” in addition to 9 suites on the second and third floors. 

It is a “preservation in progress” which allows guests to see the layers of history of the 115-year old home - from the gold leaf Persian-inspired ceiling to the silk damask wall coverings.

Walk for blocks in any direction and it is one “WOW” after another.  You could easily spend a day exploring the boulevard streets called “parkways” designed by Olmstead (designer of New York City’s Central Park) and an extension of his iconic Delaware Park.

We must go back in the summer! 

The front porch of Inn Buffalo was inviting even in early January.  The entire mansion was a walk back in time. 

Unicity vs. Fragmented City 

Today, the City of Buffalo has a population of 260,000 but its metro population of 1,135,000. The metro area comprises 6 cities, 37 towns and 21 villages, each independently governed with a separate tax base.

The current City of Buffalo is roughly equivalent in size and population to Calgary in 1961 when Fairview, Westgate and Wildwood were new communities, Bowness was an independent town and Forest Lawn and Midapore where newly annexed.

Unlike most North American cities, Calgary’s urban growth was through a series of annexations resulting in contiguous growth into one mega central city (with 90% of metro population) with only a few small edge cities and towns (i.e. Airdrie, Cochrane, Okatoks and Strathmore).

One of Calgary’s biggest economic advantages over almost every other major city in North America is its unicity government, meaning one major police, fire and emergency, transit, parks and recreation departments. Imagine having 60+ City/Town Councils each competing with each other for developments and each having their own City departments, which is Buffalo’s reality.

The Arts

Buffalo’s downtown theatre district boasts 10 theatre spaces including the iconic 4,000-seat Shea’s Performing Arts Centre, built in 1926 and 20 professional companies. Buffalo has a rich jazz history with the “Coloured Musicians Club” being the equivalent of Calgary’s King Eddy Hotel and its connection to the blues.

When it comes to the visual arts, Buffalo’s Albright Knox Museum (AKM) houses not only one of the best collections of abstract expressionism and pop art in North America, but also a representative collection of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Constructivism art.  AKM’s galleries are a “who’s who” of modern artists – Monet to Motherwell.

Albright Knox Art Gallery is a gem both for its architecture and collection. 

They arguably have the world’s best museum/art gallery front desk receptionist. Gretchen, clearly very proud of the museum and its collection, was friendly and full of insights, like how Seymour Knox was an early adopter of modern 20th century art, noting many of the iconic artworks were added to the collection within a year of being created. She also pointed out AKM has a great bistro.

In addition, Buffalo has the shiny zinc and cast stone clad Burchfield Penny Art Centre (across the street from the AKM) on the campus of Buffalo State College which is devoted to local artists while down the road is the Buffalo History Museum. An Architecture Museum is slated to open later this year at the renovated Richardson Olmstead complex (a magnificent 140-year old Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane) just a few blocks away.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Art Commons, Contemporary Calgary, Fort Calgary and new National Music Centre don’t quite match up to Buffalo’s Museum district’s art, artifacts and architecture.

Buffalo's Theatre District becomes very vibrant when Shea Theatre is hosting a major event.

Shopping

Buffalo's Market Arcade Building, 1892

Buffalo has little downtown shopping - all the department stores have closed and they never did build an indoor shopping mall like Calgary’s TD Square and Eaton’s Centre (now The Core).  But they do have three vibrant pedestrian streets – Allentown, Elmwood and Hertel Street would be on par with Calgary’s Inglewood, Kensington Village and 17th Avenue.

While Calgary has Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall as its historic downtown street, Buffalo has the Market Arcade Building. Built in 1892, it is a stunning example of early 20th century architecture with its elaborate terra cotta ornamentation and Corinthian columns.  Calgary’s equivalent is the historic Hudson Bay building with its colonnade on Stephen Avenue.

Calgary's The Core shopping centre, renovated in 2010 boasts a 656 foot long point-supported glass skylight that is the longest in the world. 

Urban Renewal 

Buffalo’s Habor Centre, Canalside and Riverworks redevelopments sites are noteworthy (Calgary Flames might want to look at Buffalo as a model for its Calgary NEXT project in West Village). 

Collectively, this waterfront redevelopment includes a new NHL arena, two new hotels, waterfront parks and pathways and the huge winter ice rink (size of 3 NHL rinks and morphs into paddle boat feature in the summer) as well as four other ice rinks for everything from curling lessons to a college hockey tournaments. Plans for a Children’s Museum are currently being finalized.

The area has many similarities to Calgary’s West Village as it lies in the shadow of the elevated Peace Bridge and major highways at the entrance to downtown.

Canalside Carnival...looks a lot like Calgary's East Village and potentially West Village (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Healthy Food Trucks?

On downtown Buffalo’s east side Larkinville, once home to the Larkin Soap Company’s (the Amazon of the early 20th Century) and many other major warehouse buildings (some 600,000 square feet) has undergone a mega-makeover thanks in large part to the passion of the Zemsky family who formed the Larkin Development Group (LDG) to buy, renovate and lease historical buildings.   Today, over 2,000 people work in buildings redeveloped by LDG.

The Zemsky family also created Larkin Square, a modest public space that they actively program mostly from April to October. Their signature event “Food Truck Tuesdays,” routinely attracts over 7,000 people and 30 food trucks not only from Buffalo, but as far away as Rochester.

Opened in 2013, Larkin Square programming attracted over 130,000 people last summer.  Backstory: I was told the success of the Food Truck and other programming was free parking, liquor licence that allows people to wander the square with their drinks and the corporate sponsorship of First Niagara and Independent Health. And, as a result of Independent Health’s participation, all of the food trucks must provide a “certified healthy” menu option.

Larkin Square's Food Truck Tuesdays (photo credit: Rhea Anna) 

Tower Power 

When it comes to residential redevelopment Buffalo has nothing to match Calgary’s urban tower boom that turns five or six surface parking lots into vertical residential communities every year.  In fact I didn’t see one new condo tower. However over the past 15 years, 58 properties have been renovated to create 880 residential units the equivalent of about 4 condo towers.

And I certainly couldn’t leave before seeing for myself Buffalo’s “Beer Oriented Development” (a tongue-in-cheek analogy to the transit-oriented-development so commonly talked about by urban planners). It all began with Community Beer Works, a craft brewery which opened in 2012 in an area full of abandoned industrial spaces.

Today, the area has a name “Upper Rock” and a growing cluster of hip businesses - Resurgence Brewing Co., two galleries and this summer, an upscale restaurant.  Area homes, which could be had for a little as “one dollar” (no lie!) just a few years ago, now have value and are now being renovated and valued sold at prices over $100,000. 

Today, the City and its urban pioneers are now turning their attention to the redevelopment of their Belt Line, a 15-mile continuous rail loop circling its city centre with its 12 million square feet of largely vacant or underutilized industrial space prime for mixed-use redevelopments.

Buffalo's cement grain elevators have been turned into a unique screen for a nightly light show, that can be viewed from shore or by kayak. (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Wall of condos and apartments in the west end of Downtown Calgary. 

Last Word 

There seems to be an incredible sense of community pride in Buffalo. Everyone we met oozed a passion and excitement for their neighbourhood revitalization.

Today, Calgary struggles with some of the same challenges that faced Buffalo 60 years ago with major economic changes wrecking havoc with our prosperity.

If your travels take you anywhere near Buffalo, it is definitely worth checking out.  

If you like this blog, you will like:

Calgary vs Denver: A Tale Of Two Thriving Downtowns

Calgary vs Mexico City: Private vs Public

Calgary vs Salt Lake City: Winter Olympic Cities