Any mayor of a city renowned for its park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted would be remiss to let such an amenity go to waste, and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has no intention of squandering one of his city’s best resources. Since taking office in 2006, Mayor Brown has invested more than $35 million in the city’s parks and green spaces while implementing a strategic plan that has lowered residential property taxes by almost 16 percent and commercial property taxes by almost 30 percent. As Buffalo continues to diversify its economy, Mayor Brown’s focused attention on his city’s sprawling park system and recreational assets continues his commitment to healthy lifestyles and environmental stewardship as a way to keep and attract residents to Buffalo. Of course, his city’s success in parks and recreation is attributable to many key players, including Andrew Rabb, Buffalo’s deputy commissioner of parks and recreation, the dedicated staff of Buffalo Parks and Recreation, and the enthusiastic Olmsted park advocates with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. Parks & Recreation Magazine recently caught up with Mayor Brown to learn more about recent initiatives.
Parks & Recreation Magazine: Where do parks rank on your list of budget priorities, and how do you ensure that this area gets a fair cut?
Mayor Byron Brown: Upgrading parks throughout the city to meet the needs of 21st century users continues to be among my top priorities. When I was first elected mayor of Buffalo in 2006, our beautiful city parks, which includes our renowned sprawling park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, fell under the operation and management of Erie County. In 2010, we regained control of Buffalo’s great urban parks and recreational centers and have since invested more than $35 million as part of a comprehensive parks capital improvement plan, in recognition of the intrinsic environmental, aesthetic and recreational benefits to our city. I’m proud of the results that followed. City residents have since experienced increased service and a quicker response to neighborhood parks issues. We also lowered maintenance costs and improved facilities at parks by forging new and creative partnerships with not-for-profit organizations.
P&R: How can parks improve the quality of life in Buffalo, and are there any examples you can give of this happening already?
Mayor Brown: I have long recognized that parks give people alternatives to the hustle and bustle of daily life, and when parks are cleaner and safer, they are utilized more. As part of the city’s comprehensive parks capital improvement plan, we began with major improvements to pools, splashpads and playgrounds throughout the city and then moved on to picnic shelter upgrades and repairs to play courts. The impact is highly visible. At LaSalle Park, we invested $6 million in a new state-of-the-art pool, skate plaza and picnic shelter. On any given day during the summer, this once underutilized park now draws hundreds of people. Likewise, the improved playground and community park on Massachusetts Avenue on Buffalo’s West Side has not only brought people together, particularly Buffalo’s burgeoning refugee community, but provided expanded green space in the neighborhood.
P&R: What are some of your most successful or proudest efforts to revitalize parks and recreation in Buffalo?
Mayor Brown: Buffalo is a lakefront city and fortunate to have a number of waterfront parks. I’m particularly proud of the $6 million improvements made at LaSalle Park — Buffalo’s largest waterfront park located at the junction of Lake Erie and the mouth of the Niagara River. The upgrades were part of a much larger LaSalle Park Master Plan that included upgrades and repairs to the pool, playground and park shelter, the installation of a new skate plaza — the first of its kind in Buffalo — the redevelopment of infrastructure at the park, along with the installation of a new rain garden.
Historic Broderick Park, listed as part of the National Underground Railroad Network, and the Bird Island Pier, located along the Niagara River, are two other significant examples of my strategic plan to enhance parks as a regional draw to Buffalo’s waterfront. Currently, a $2.3 million revitalization project is underway at Broderick Park that calls for new shelters and grills, roadway improvements, an amphitheater to commemorate the site’s historical significance, a new entrance plaza, utilities and lighting. An important part of the park, the Bird Island Pier, was also reopened in recent years as part of a $1.5 million repair project, providing visitors with a recreational walkway to fish, stroll or enjoy a spectacular view of the city skyline.
The new $4.5 million all-season water attraction at Martin Luther King Park opened last year as part of larger revitalization plan for the MLK Park neighborhood, setting the groundwork to attract new residents and business owners who want to live, work and invest in Buffalo. A $2.2 million Fillmore Avenue Streetscape Project is currently underway.
I am also excited about Buffalo’s Canalside — a $250 million mixed-use entertainment destination on the Inner Harbor that features the $172 million HARBORCENTER project that is currently under construction. Going forward, I support more mixed-use development along the downtown waterfront, with residential and entertainment venues, as well as public access to the water’s edge.
P&R: If you could name one thing you’d like to change or improve about Buffalo parks, disregarding financial or any other limitations, what would it be?
Mayor Brown: With so much new development activity in downtown Buffalo, including a number of major streetscape redevelopment projects that call for municipal gardens, green medians and landscape, I’d like to see the creation of a City of Buffalo Horticulture Department as a division of Public Works. As gardens and natural displays are added to downtown commercial areas and other areas, I believe this office will help us maintain vibrant, healthy and attractive residential and business districts.
Interview by Parks & Recreation Magazine Executive Editor Danielle Taylor and Program Manager Kellie May. Research provided by Marissa Bracamonte.