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Memories of Falls serve as inspiration

by chocieni
Sun, Aug 19th 2012 12:00 am

NIAGARA FALLS—When David Stebbins was growing up near 15th and Pine streets, the Falls fostered a love for cities that has carried through his decades- long career as an urban planner.

"When I was a young boy, when you walked down Falls Street, the sidewalks were wall-to-wall people. There were shops and restaurants and movie theaters and all kinds of stuff," said Stebbins, 57, vice president of Buffalo Urban Development Corp. "[Now], it's not the Niagara Falls that I knew when I grew up. I'm saddened by the decline."

He sees hope for future improvement with ideas, perspective and collaboration from peers in his field and those related to it: A multidisciplinary approach to planning is captured in a newly active branch of the professional organization Urban Land Institute. Its worldwide membership of planners, architects, real estate developers and market analysts is about 33,000, Stebbins said.

The local ULI group has been actively planning programs in the last year and a half. Membership has grown to about 75.

"It's better known in major markets: New York. San Francisco. Dallas," said Stebbins. "Honestly, it's probably not as well known in Western New York."

Next month, ULI will arrange advisory panel meetings with out-of-town members to brainstorm possible uses for leftover space that Niagara County Community College will not need for its new culinary school inside the old Rainbow Centre mall. A final, public presentation is planned for Sept. 28, with time and place yet to be announced.

Similar, past ULI advisory panels collected ideas for Buffalo: Reusing the old Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle and the H.H. Richardson Complex, which has incorporated the panel's boutique- hotel suggestion into its redevelopment plan.

Last year, the group highlighted another Niagara County success: It held an evening presentation for young ULI leaders and others in the real estate profession at Remington Lofts in North Tonawanda. The old Sweeney Street factory with apartments, a yoga studio and a new Remington Tavern restaurant is a model of "adaptive reuse," said Stebbins.

What is your job?

I work for the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation. A private nonprofit. Brownfield redevelopment. The Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park in South Buffalo. We make the land available for private businesses. We do it more through real estate development, as opposed to lending.

Can you give an example?

Ten years ago, before we got involved with Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park, it was an abandoned industrial site with no infrastructure. It was a steel-making facility, Hanna Furnace, which had been there for 100 years almost.

It's about 230 acres total. Twenty acres of park, which we call Ship Canal Commons. About 20 acres of wetlands. We've been opening it in phases since 2004. What we do is we come in, clear the land. We build new roads, new electrical, sewer. We subdivided it into commercial development parcels.

What companies are there now?

Cobey Incorporated. They make pump and compressor systems for the petrochemical industry. CertainTeed. They make plastic fencing. Then we have Sonwil distribution centers. They are a third party logistics company.

We still have, probably about 10 development parcels of 80-some acres of land.

What is your training?

I am an urban planner by profession. I got my master's in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina. That's my day job.

How did you choose it?

My college professor, his name was Michael Brill, he has since passed away; a professor in the UB School of Architecture and Planning. He taught an introductory course in environmental design. It's really about the built environment, the community you live in, the city you live in. He just basically helped me understand that people can help shape the environment we live in. We can work together to make good cities to live in.

He was a very engaging, charismatic person. I always loved cities but I never thought I would make a career of it.

Why is ULI so important to you?

The beauty of Urban Land is that it's multidisciplinary because real estate development is a multidisciplinary activity. Brokers, appraisers, and there's more. It tries to bring together all of these different professions in one place. To me, it's one of the things that I treasure most.

Do you still have connections to Niagara Falls?

Of course, I still have family and friends in Niagara Falls. I was part of Mayor Dyster's first Cabinet. We went to high school together at Bishop Duffy. He was student council president and I was student council vice president. He was a year ahead of me at school. The chief planner for Niagara Falls, Thomas DeSantis, and I have been best friends since kindergarten.

What do you like to do when you go back?

I kind of like Goat Island. I spent a lot of time growing up, just hanging out on the island. That kind of was our beach. Three Sisters Island. The area by the upper rapids. Walking up the gorge. Kind of the wild side of Niagara Falls, as opposed to the falls themselves.

An interesting experience is to go see the falls in the winter time. To try and find the less traveled part of the falls. The gorge. The back side of Goat Island. It's a spectacular side. The falls in winter, if you go down to Prospect Point on the American side it's a spectacular sight, just the way the ice forms on the trees. The way the mist looks in the winter time. It's a lovely sight. Most tourists, they don't come to the falls in the winter. They don't get a chance to see the sun shining on the ice.

Tell me about a city that inspires you.

A few years ago, I went to Rome, Italy. Rome is truly a city that's over 2,000 years old. It's still a modern city. Women in dresses and high heels riding motor scooters. People hanging out and talking and sitting at a cafe and having fun. Ancient buildings, modern buildings. It's still a living, breathing organism.

I'm half Italian, so that helps.

What do you love about cities?

That also embodies the whole thing about cities. People come and go, but it's still a place that's still a center of activity, politics, culture, that continual mix of ideas.

That's what cities are all about. It's that mixing of people and culture and ideas that makes them really exciting.

Sidewalk cafes. Good food. Life keeps on going. All around, all of these ancient sites. Coliseum. Forum. People raise families. They get married. They fall in love. We go there as if it's a museum, to see this ancient architecture and museums. It's not a museum. It's still a busy city.

So old cities reveal the importance of gathering places?

The piazzas in Siena. The Spanish steps. How do we create those kind of public spaces in our cities? That's probably one of the other big lessons I've learned.

Lafayette Square would be our closest. Niagara Square could be that. Right now, it's just kind of an island in the middle of a traffic circle.

For me, the lesson is how do we bring that back? I think Old Falls Street has the potential to be that in future.

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