Buffalo takes on Detroit: 36 Hours In The Motor City by Bernice Radle

You have stolen my heart, Detroit.

Bernice Radle at the Michigan Central Station
The Michigan Central Station

Here is what happens when you put four people who love planning, cities, buildings and the rust belt together in a car. We drive 5 hours to Detroit, rent out a kick ass industrial loft space, wander around town checking out bars, shops and historic sites, tour a once forgotten Kresge Mansion now being renovated by a 30 year old and meet with Mark Nickita (architect, owner of Pure Detroit and Mayor of Birmingham MI), inside the Guardian building – an art deco masterpiece! It was a trip for the memory books. You can see photos from our trip here.

Here are my top three take aways from our 36 hours in Detroit.

Buffalo is Detroit’s sister city. Hands down. Our radial street grid, friendly mid western attitude and blue collar approach to life is nearly identical. We both can see Canada from our windows, we share Lake Erie and we share similar boom / bust  / rebirth stories. Detroit is definitely Buffalo’s older, bigger Brother – the industrial strength attitude is very masculine, IMO. Sure, Detroit is bigger in size and in population but we can learn a lot from one another and we are only a 5 hour drive away!

TRUE GRIT. With slogans like “Detroit Hustles Harder” and “Detroit Vs. Everybody”, it is clear that Detroit has embraced their true grit and entrepreneurial spirit and that nothing, including their steep decline, will stop them. A rising tide raises all the boats, was the mentality from many of the local folks we spoke with. Sure, there is a long way to go and a lot to accomplish but we left feeling a great deal of confidence in the future of the Motor City. Detroit is tough and resilient!

Detroit is ALIVE. All the articles you’ve read about the vacancy and decline is true however, many fail to notice or mention the incredible amount of life that Detroit has. We saw signs of it everywhere – from a 30 year old buying a Kresge Mansion to the emerging Michigan Avenue retail corridor… the entrepreneur spirit is alive and well in the Motor City.  The downtown is beautiful – the storefronts are lit up with lights, the ice skating rink was packed at midnight and even their top millionaires are working together to privately pay for a light rail system along Woodward Avenue. Heck, even billionaires own community gardens in Detroit.

In case you want to travel to Detroit and don’t know what to do, here is a list of all the places we went to in 36 hours. It was a true sprint!!

  • Industrial Loft Space – Check In (Air B&B)
  • Corktown Tavern
  • Gaelic Irish Center
  • Slows BBQ
  • Michigan Central Station
  • Mercury Bar
  • Motor City Wine Bar
  • UFO Bar
  • Downtown Detroit – Ice Rink / Fox Theatre / Woodward Avenue
  • Detroit Institute of Bagels
  • Brush Park
  • Kresge Mansion Tour – Arden Park
  • Eastern Market
  • Guardian Building / Talk with Mark Nikida
  • Mid Town – City Bird / Nest / Shinola
  • Traffic Jam Restaurant
  • Greektown – “Detroit Vs. Everybody” Store

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The Story of My Ted X Buffalo Experience: Before, During & After.

I wanted to give you all a little insight to my personal experiences surrounding the Ted X Buffalo event. Sometimes I may seem like a happy robot online – I always try to maintain an image that is positive, kick ass and ambitious. While 99% of the time that is true, the other 1% usually stays quiet. However, since TED was such an emotional roller coaster for me, I figured I would write about it on my personal blog. Here is my personal take of the before, during and after of the whole event.

First of all, Ted X Buffalo is a really inspiring event for anyone and everyone. If you haven’t been to Ted X Buffalo, you have to go!!

Leading up to Ted X Buffalo, I was going INSANE. Ted X Buffalo is a BIG DEAL. Stressed to the max, super anxious and cranky would have best described the week leading up to the talk…  Poor Jason,  he was so supportive despite my craziness. I will never forget when I  exploded in tears because he couldn’t help me and I was running out of time to cut out heart bombs.  I felt the pressure to be GREAT, not just good, which really added to the stress. And of course, most people finalize their TED talk about 3 months before the event and… my talk finally came together about 3 weeks prior. Cramming in all the info in 12 minutes was a serious hurdle. Every suggestion from my friends literally made my head explode just thinking about where to put it into the talk. The hardest challenge in preparing for the talk was doing the talk over and over again because each talk literally took all my energy for at least an hour, making the amount of practicing times very limited. Practicing was literally exhausting.

The day of Ted X Buffalo, I unintentionally had to rely on my brain only. I didn’t bring notes to review backstage! (It was probably for the best…lol)  Even two minutes before I went on, I was standing backstage holding a giant heart with the words “Preservation is Sexy” on it…. with no real plan as to when or how I was going to use it. “Whatever happens, happens….there is no turning back now”, I said to myself.  But when I got up there,  it all flowed out the way I wanted it. The lights weren’t too bright and the giant flashing  red timer didn’t even phase me. I didn’t forget a slide, mumble my words or blank out. At the end of the day, my heart bombs & vacancy vortex TED X talk went off way better than I could have ever imagined it.  Having 400 people put hearts over their heads while I held up a “Preservation is Sexy” heart was super fun! Of course there will always be things to add, changes you wish you made but I am happy that it was clear, concise and inspiring. The best part came afterwards; the influx of texts, calls, tweets, message and emails of support that came from my friends from across the globe- all who had taken the time to watch my talk via live stream online… it was easily one of the best feelings ever.

I found myself in awe of my surroundings the entire day. The audience was super responsive and the speakers nailed it. The Ted X planning crew ROCKED – everything went off perfectly.  I had the best conversations with people who inspire me to learn more and live harder. I bonded with the other TED speakers and found myself appreciative and honored to be included in the small group of Ted X Buffalo speakers. I didn’t even want to fall asleep later that night because I didn’t want the day to be over… a feeling which I haven’t felt in a long time.

The TED event made me realize a few things to add to my talk – a great friend mentioned that comparing rehab versus demolition costs would be helpful in my case for preservation and another suggested that I add a few more photos. Also, I realized the need to actually record my power points presentations on preservation so they can be used in the future. If I want more people to know about the vacancy vortex, I have to get the information ready and out to the world, right?

Lastly, as I write this, I am sitting in Nantucket – a magical island of historic preservation, boats and dreaminess. All that stress from TED made my 6 day get away even better. After days of hanging with family, playing in sand and exploring the island via moped, I am recharged and excited to get back to Buffalo to work on preservation projects, building rehabs and energy efficiency projects!

That basically wraps up my entire Ted X Buffalo experience. Sometimes I feel like a happy robot when I am online and hopefully this gives you a little insight to my thinking, my emotions and my approach to life. 🙂

My personal Ted X Buffalo video has yet to come out but here is a photo from Tuesday’s TED X Buffalo Event. You can watch the long version of the video which includes several presenters, including my presentation here.  I start at about 35 min in!

Please check out http://www.tedxbuffalo.com for all the presentations, they were all very fun and inspiring.



Buffalo: The Best Designed City !

I was one of the many folks who teared up last night while watching the premier of this film. The video highlights the some of the best parts of our city and provides aerial shots that are breathtaking.  The film covers our continued struggles with vacancies and declining neighborhoods but ends on a positive tone about how we are springing back and becoming great once again. Buffalo is a GREAT city to live, work and play and I am thankful to be a part of all of this amazing Buffalo madness. What an incredible video!!
Here’s the direct link to the video if you’d like to mention it in an email / tweet / facebook post.
You can also send people to the website, where the film is prominent and easy to view:


Photos By: Nate Peracciny

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Buffalove Development Progress at 351 Massachusetts Ave.


20130303-090929.jpgI have spent sometime blogging about our progress at 351 Massachusetts Ave, a single family house located on the West Side of Buffalo. When we bought it, we honestly thought it could be a goner! However, given that we are preservation focused, we saw through the deterioration, the water leaks, the crumbling foundation and that giant blocks of cascading ice on the interior of the house. Today, we now know that buildings can rise from near death with a lot of love, time and energy… and with a very good “preservation friendly” contractor to guide you.

Here is our story. Stay tuned for more! 


Uptown Theatre Clean Up Recap!

Today the Buffalo’s Young Preservationists (BYP), the Bailey Business Association and the University Heights Tool Lending Library teamed up to do a clean up of the historic Uptown Theatre at 3163 Bailey Ave.

We had people of all ages come to help! Puma, Derek, Mark and I focused on scrapping the marquee so it could be painted. Darren, Aaron, Laluce and others worked on cleaning out the basement. Also, a lot of children and neighbors worked on landscaping the exterior planters!

The future of the Uptown Theater is a hopeful one. It is in great hands and the plan is to use it for flexible event spaces such as weddings, presentations and neighborhood meetings.

Here are some photos. What a productive day!!


City Heart Art Installation for City of Night – Help Fund This Piece!

I don’t usually suggest things like this but Casey Milbrand’s City Heart art piece is going to be an important piece at this weekends event –  City of Night.  Casey wants to create an interactive giant heart out of bicycle wheels. Giant art installations like this remind me of festivals and big cities… and Buffalo deserves to have one. On top of that, who doesn’t like giant hearts!??!!!??

Please consider donating to his indiegogo campaign – http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cityheart

You can watch this video for the details! http://igg.me/at/BuffaloNY-CityHEART

See you at City of Night on Saturday, August 17th!

city heart casey city of night

Vacant Lots in Philadelphia: Using Philly to Generate Ideas and Inspiration For Buffalo.

I have been reading a lot on the vacant land crisis in Philly and I feel that Buffalo could and should learn a few things about how other cities address vacancy issues . This blog post is concentrated on a few policy ideas Philly has implemented that we can learn from or use as inspiration.  (Note: Thank you to Jesse Kerns at Grid Mag who sent me a lot of Philly based information randomly because he knew I would love it!)

Vacant Lots in Philadelphia: Using Philly to Generate Ideas and Inspiration For Buffalo.

A little bit about Philadelphia. Philadelphia has approx.  40,000 vacant lots and about 75% of them are concentrated in one area – the north & south west of Philly. The City spends $20 million dollars on maintenance fees and have 2 million in uncollected property taxes.  Sounds a little like Buffalo, huh? (A smaller version, of course!)

You can read all the details on Philly’s vacant lot issue here: http://www.gridphilly.com/grid-magazine/2013/1/14/blights-out.html

While some may not think vacant land is important in preservation – it really is. Weedy, garbage filled vacant lots are a sign of neglect which can easily devalue an area. This leads towards more demolitions, increases in vacant lots and a decline in neighborhood stability. Instead of being a weedy lot, these spaces can be reused and transformed into powerful community spaces which helps to increase investment in existing structures, excite the neighborhood and stop demolitions.

Vacant lots can become simple community spaces. Providence, RI has turned this lot into a Bocce Ball Court!
Vacant lots can become simple community spaces. Providence, RI has turned this lot into a Bocce Ball Court!

Like Buffalo, Philadelphia has a high number of vacant lots and a system that struggles to keep up, making purchasing and reusing vacant lots very difficult. According to the Grid article above, In 2012, Philly passed the land bank bill as well as instituted a “front door” policy which gives vacant lots for $1.00 to adjacent home owners. Buffalo has both of these programs however, in my experience, the “front door” policy is not officially named or broadly marketed… and the land bank passed in 2011 doesn’t appear to be off the ground yet.

To bring it down to a personal experience, Jason and I have had an application into the City to purchase a lot next door to our house since November of 2012. We are told it is approved and going through the approval process. I am not even sure if the lot will be sold to us for $1.00 or $3,000 dollars… The process is a clunky one – acquisition of a city owned parcel requires several stops in city committees and many signatures to get the approval. Over the past year or so, the process has become a bit more cleaner and easier. It is important to remember that this is a  much needed process however, I am sure it could be refined to save time, money and energy.

Lastly, here is a link to an article showing the latest progress in Philly – an app that identifies vacant lots and a new coalition that has been formed to turn the vacant lots into green space. It is pretty neat! BYP is working on something sorta similar – www.preservationready.org is a website that identifies buildings at risk with a goal for people interested in the building to find information on it… however an app would be a great next step in identifying buildings, vacant lots.. etc. If we want these buildings and lots to be purchased and reinvested in – we have to find a way to make it easier to do so.


Graphic located in – http://www.gridphilly.com/grid-magazine/2013/1/14/blights-out.html

Donn Esmonde: New Blood is Saving Old Buildings

Thanks for the great coverage, Donn!!

New blood is saving old buildings

By Donn Esmonde | News Senior Metro Columnist

on June 13, 2013 – 11:49 PM, updated June 14, 2013 at 1:55 AM


They stood in protest last month in front of the old Bethlehem Steel administration building, trying in vain to stop the bulldozers.

They are battling to save the iconic Trico complex.

But a recent afternoon found Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson in front of a different sort of building: a vacant, gutted 1860s cottage on a tattered West Side street. Months ago, it was primed for demolition. Months from now, the two will call it home.

Welcome to the new face of preservation in Buffalo. It is not just about saving and resurrecting iconic structures. It is also about restoring – one house at a time – the older building fabric that weaves together neighborhoods.

Leading the charge are Radle and Wilson. Self-described “building nerds,” the WNY natives are a near-matching pair of bright, urban-enamored, hip-eyeweared 26-year-olds who mash the eagerness of a puppy with the commitment of a bloodhound. The young preservationist power couple – the generational descendants of Tim Tielman and Sue McCartney – are joined, philosophically and domestically, by a shared love of old buildings and Buffalo.

It was connection at first sight.

“When I met Jason,” Radle told me, “I was like, ‘Sweet, finally someone I can do this with all the time.’ ”

Here is what I think is sweet: Radle and Wilson are part of a loose network of local 20-somethings with a pro-urban, preservationist sensibility. From Trico to Bethlehem Steel, they are welcome reinforcements on the front lines. Beyond that, they are primed to pick up the baton for the next generation of battles.

The battles, as they see it, will be fought as much house-to-house in recovering neighborhoods, as in front of at-risk iconic buildings.

“The Martin House, the Guaranty Building, they’ve already been saved,” said Wilson. “Our generation is also looking at rebuilding neighborhoods.”

Radle has an urban planning degree and is a project manager for Buffalo Energy. Wilson, the director of operations for Preservation Buffalo Niagara, apparently has a genetic predilection. His parents’ first date was at the old DL&W Railroad Terminal.

“People my age are looking for culture, and Buffalo is the epicenter,” Wilson told me. “The amount of history here is what really drew me.”

The two helped to start Buffalo’s Young Preservationists, a loose, social media-knitted assemblage of about two dozen activists. Radle gauges BYP’s blossoming power not just by battles won, but in Facebook “likes.”

They are as much urban pioneers as preservationists. Group methods range from buying and fixing battered houses, to sealing endangered icons like the Broadway Theater, to – I’m not kidding – “heart bombs.” Volunteers cover vacant-but-salvageable buildings with paper hearts, to highlight their plight. To date, a handful have been saved.

“You have one success,” said Radle, “and realize you can get things done.”

They found their 1860s brick cottage on the city’s demolition list. They bought four other West Side houses last fall at the city’s foreclosure auction. All will be resurrected.

“Instead of a vacant lot,” said Wilson, standing outside his future front door, “we will save a bit of Buffalo history.”

And in so doing, find a home. Long may they stay.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com

This is what the dollar houses look like in Buffalo, NY.

I walk through buildings every day for Buffalo Energy, Buffalove Development and just sometimes for fun.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to walk through a West Side house on the City demolition list that is homestead eligible. This is a four unit apartment building that is available for purchase for one dollar. I am not spilling the beans on location/details yet… but I wanted to share the photos with you in hopes that you can see the reality of what dollar houses come with. This one is in good shape and even had some historic elements still in place!

More to come… This is just a teaser! 🙂

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What Happened To Smart Growth in Buffalo? ECC & Poloncarz Support North Campus Expansion.

With the most recent ECC Amherst Expansion decisions, it is pretty clear that our County Government continues to support sprawl despite having the “Anti Sprawl” Smart Growth law titled the State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy.

§ 6-0105. State smart growth public infrastructure policy. It is the purpose of this article to augment the state’s environmental policy by declaring a fiscally prudent state policy of maximizing the social, economic and environmental benefits from public infrastructure development through minimizing unnecessary costs of sprawl development including environmental degradation, disinvestment in urban and suburban communities and loss of open space induced by sprawl facilitated by the funding or development of new or expanded transportation, sewer and waste water treatment, water, education, housing and other publicly supported infrastructure inconsistent with smart growth public infrastructure criteria.

For more information on the law, click here.  If you want to check out the Buffalo regions SPRAWL BOMB, check this article out. You can read the law documents  here:  NY Smartgrowth Checklist &  Anti Sprawl Smart Growth Policy Act ENV Section 6 edited

I don’t have time to comment about this issue in full just yet… I have yet to read the ECC Study which I will be reviewing tomorrow. If you want to know more about the ECC Expansion situation, you can go to http://www.youngcitizensforecc.blogspot.com for the last two years of key information and details. Until I have the ability to really comment, I leave you with a song called SPRAWL II by the Arcade Fire. Easily one of the best records ever for any urban planner/city lover. The video/song and lyrics are below.


“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
These days my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface

‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the World’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

We rode our bikes to the nearest park
Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark
We shield our eyes from the police lights
We run away, but we don’t know why
Black river, your city lights shine
They’re screaming at us, we don’t need your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small
Can we ever get away from the sprawl?
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights