Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is slated to transform Buffalo, New York’s old yet beloved waterfront park into a sweeping linear landscape and cultural destination along Lake Erie’s edge. The design team will reimagine the city’s 77-acre LaSalle Park as the new Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park, named after the late owner of the Buffalo Bills.
The redesign is part of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation’s big push to improve parks and trails in Western New York and Detroit. In October, the Foundation announced a $200 million investment it would split between the two locales, which includes the build-out of a new 22-acre waterfront park in Detroit also designed by MVVA. Though the New York–based landscape architecture firm had already unveiled renderings of the Motor City’s proposed park earlier this year, no firm had been chosen for the Buffalo project.
To Bob Shibley, dean of the University of Buffalo (UB) Regional Institute in the School of Architecture and Planning, who’s helping to spearhead the project, MVVA was a natural fit. The university helped form the Imagine LaSalle Focus Group, a team of 22 community stakeholders who toured successful park projects in Cincinnati, New York, and Chicago to gain inspiration for their hometown’s goals.
“People were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about those projects,” said Shibley. “When the announcement was made that Micahel Van Valkenburgh would do Detroit and that both of our parks would be named after Wilson, it was obvious the parallel between the two cities was important.”
This “paired park” idea isn’t an explicit design decision, said Shibley, but a nice nod to the Wilson Foundation and its commitment to improving the well-being of people living in both Buffalo and Detroit. MVVA will now take on the challenge of bringing those two separate community visions to life. Even though the parks will be sharing the same name and touch the same body of water, both are inherently different landscapes to Michael Van Valkenburgh.
“The two assignments have quite different challenges about them, more contextual differences,” he said. “In some fundamental ways, they mirror each other, but topographically, they’re totally different. LaSalle is twice the size and literally grades right into Lake Erie, while the Detroit side is perched up with a sea wall. The aspirations are similar, but we’ll have to input quite different interventions on each site.”
The UB Regional Institute released a comprehensive report detailing the community’s expectations for the project, which MVVA will use as a guide during the initial design phase. MVVA will have to consider how to integrate the history of the near-90-year-old parkland, its connection to the Olmsted & Vaux–designed Front Park, as well as its role as a sports and recreational space.
One of the biggest challenges, according to Shibley, will be buffering noise from the adjacent I-90 highway that runs north toward Canada, as well as creating better access, points of transition, and more localized design details for the five diverse districts that surround LaSalle. While the end result will likely resemble a signature MVVA-designed parkland complete with terrain changes, innovative playscapes, and stunning vistas, Van Valkenburgh said it will retain its most important charm.
“The flatness of LaSalle is very defining,” he said, “and it’s also a little relentless to me. I think we don’t want to lose that flatness because there’s a kind of wonderful, almost magical concept of playing at the edge of a lake. At the same time, we’ll likely want to add some topography the landscape to allow people to get to a higher level over the water to see Buffalo’s famous sunsets.”
Renderings for the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park in Buffalo have not yet been released, but a conceptual design and physical model will be presented to the public in May 2019.