After being burdened for decades by post-industrial blight and economic decline, Buffalo, N.Y. is shedding its downtrodden image. Thanks to a community dedicated to restoring the Queen City to its former glory, good design and collaboration are putting Buffalo back on the map with fresh takes on historic buildings, a renewed interest in downtown, and a thriving entrepreneurial and culinary scene.
Our own Mike Tunkey, Principal at CannonDesign, was born and raised in Buffalo but, like many of his peers, left after graduation. After heading up our Shanghai office for eight years, Mike returned to his hometown with an eye on designing a better Buffalo for all.
Few American cities can rival Buffalo’s outstanding design. The Queen City’s historical architecture has always set it apart and, now restoration, of these impressive buildings is fueling its renaissance.
“Buffalo has a legacy of architecture,” says Mike. “At one point, all of the world’s greatest architects were building in Buffalo, including H.H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright.”
The most prominent example of this is the Richardson Olmsted Campus, designed in 1872 by H.H. Richardson and Frederik Law Olmsted as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. The towering, Romanesque building was recently transformed into Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center. “As a kid, that building seemed really spooky and domineering and now it’s been reimagined as this super cool boutique hotel,” says Mike.
With most of the city’s historic buildings now housing hip new restaurants and small businesses, the community has important decisions to make.
“Generally, there’s a feeling that we have now reached a tipping point,” says Mike. “People are interested in the city again, younger people are staying here or returning, and we’ve had tremendous interest and success in preservation and adaptive reuse. Now it’s time to consider what’s next.”
Working with the Buffalo Futures Forum, Mike aims to answer that question by asking it of others.
“The general consensus is that we should focus on public spaces more, increase public transportation, improve city schools, add more parks and play spaces, and increase access to the waterfront,” he says. “There’s a lot of focus on keeping downtown attractive and livable, not just for new city residents but for the people who’ve been living here a long time. We have work to do in Buffalo around equity.”
The issue of equity is at the forefront of Mike’s work as Principal on CannonDesign’s contemporary 201 Ellicott project. “I try to look past the building and also think about urban opportunities,” he says. “This project is in a traditionally African-American community that was cut off from the rest of the city by poor infrastructure choices. It’s also one of the city’s biggest food deserts so we’ve been working with partners to bring food options, a park, and welcoming public art to the facade of the site. We want this building to provide amenities to the greater community while engaging and connecting us all.”
“Engaging and connecting” seems to sum up the work that Mike is doing in Buffalo, both at CannonDesign and beyond. He serves on four boards and participates in several other organizations and committees, all with the main goal of making his hometown a better place to live.
“Buffalo is a small, approachable city,” he says. “I’ve been able to engage here in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to in New York or Shanghai. The opportunities may be more limited in terms of how many buildings go up, but for me, it’s a little more real and palpable because it’s personal — this city is home.”