Category Archives: Suburban Life

There’s plenty of Buffalo bloggers who talk about the virtues of urban living. Count me among the happy suburbanites.

Leaving the suburbs

Yes, we’re moving. No, we’re not leaving Erie County. And no, we’re not going to be the latest to move to a trendy new downtown loft. Now that those questions are out of the way, the next is, “Why are you moving?” Two main reasons. First, we purchased our home five years ago, relatively cheaply, with the understanding that it needed an interior and exterior overhaul. Since then, we’ve resided the house, repainted the entire interior, added a new stamped concrete patio, added a gas fireplace, replaced most of the carpeting, installed hardwood floors, and updated the kitchen. After all of that, we realized that our little raised ranch, as nice as it was, just didn’t have the storage space or the floorplan that we’d really like, and it didn’t make sense to try and turn it into something it wasn’t. Our house was fixed up and in it’s prime. Time to cash out and start looking for another house.

The second reason we decided to move was location. Our little corner of Hamburg, near the McKinley Mall, in the Orchard Park school district and with a Blasdell zip code, was quickly becoming a major commercial district. As much as Hamburg officials were saying they didn’t want Milestrip Road to become Niagara Falls Boulevard, they don’t control what happens east of Abbott Road. That section of 179 is precisely where Orchard Park does want to put all their commercial development – well outside the village and right off the 219. Makes perfect sense from their perspective, but from ours we no longer wanted to be sandwiched between a recently quadruple-sized Quaker Crossing (with a WalMart yet to come) and the ever expanding McKinley Mall. I’ve always preferred a more scenic, quieter country setting, and for our first home we settled for a suburban house in a fairly private setting. Now that we had more of an opportunity to be choosy, we decided to look for what we really wanted. Since we both work north of the city, naturally we decided on a house in… Holland.

Let me explain how we got there.

Continue reading Leaving the suburbs

Stopping global warming one highway at a time

One of the things that makes Buffalo great is the fact that it’s so easy to get around. While many urbanites decry Buffalo’s network of highways, being able to quickly get from the northtowns to the southtowns in half an hour is a feature not found in many population centers.

Business First has another reason our highways are a good thing – we’re not wasting gas sitting in traffic.

Congestion caused drivers to travel 4.2 billion hours more and to purchase an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of $78 billion. That is an increase of 220 million hours, 140 million gallons and $5 billion from 2004.

Put another way, the authors say that’s 105 million weeks of vacation and 58 fully-loaded supertankers.

Such tie-ups, however, are not readily found in Western New York. Buffalo drivers are delayed, on average, 11 hours per year, lowest among 25 metro areas with population between 1 million and 3 million. San Diego has the highest average delay — 57 hours annually. The average among medium-sized cities is 37 hours.

So the next time someone tells you they want to rip out a major thoroughfare and replace it with a parkway, keep in mind it’s one of the things that contributes to Buffalo’s greatness – and one of the things we’re doing to reduce our “carbon footprint”.

Back from Michigan

Amanda and I returned from a weekend trip to Michigan for my cousin’s wedding (congrats again, Jen!). The ceremony was beautiful and the reception was a great time, with some excellent, personal flourishes. My favorite was having the entire wait staff enter to “Be Our Guest” carrying their silver platters to begin serving dinner.

The trip itself went fine, but two things really got into my craw that I want to impart on the rest of you. First, suburban Detroit must be one of the most depressingly laid out communities I’ve ever been in. This image shows the area we were in:

Sterling Heights, MI

The main roads are all divided, with frequent U-turns. Strip malls with no continuity or sense of organization flank them, interspersed with the occasional automotive related industry. The housing is all buried into the center of these large, droning blocks. No character whatsoever. It’s a Sim City experiment gone bad, even though my experience playing the game reminds me this was one of the most effective layouts. Even the strip malls themselves are mazes to navigate, as to get from one side of the road to the Cold Stone Creamery on the other (which was visible from where we were) involved a U-Turn, a quick crossing of 4 lanes of traffic, a right into an access road which lead to another access road behind the building we wanted, then a cut through a break in the strip mall to the parking lot which was sandwiched between the main road and the building. Trust me, the worst sections of Transit Road and Niagara Falls Blvd. have nothing on 15 through 23 Mile Roads.

The second tidbit of happiness from this trip is the takeaway of what a complete mess traveling across our borders has become. Our trip to Michigan involved cutting across Canada and crossing the Blue Water Bridge back into the U.S. An hour and a half wait at that bridge turned what used to be an easy 4.5 hour trip into one that dragged out over 6 hours. For what? So I could have a cranky, U.S. Customs agent ask me the same list of questions twice trying to catch me in some sort of lie, even after seeing our passports? No thanks. Coming home, we took the long way around Lake Erie, adding 100 miles to our trip, yet still resulting in about a half hour less of road time.

The other bonus of going home that way was a side trip to a restaurant I’ve been dying to go to since their introduction at last year’s Buffalo Wing Festival – the Fiddle Inn, in Harborcreek, PA. We sampled the Fiddle Sweet BBQ – a light BBQ flavor, frankly not the best I’ve had, the Rancheros – a tomato and ranch based sauce, with just enough spice to liven them up, and the Somethings – a slightly different variation on their Everythings that won awards last year. The wings themselves made taking the long way around worth it. If you’re traveling down the I-90 in Western PA, skip Quaker Steak and Lube and venture a little farther off the exit to this place. They have 30 or 40 other varieties that we didn’t get to try, but are looking forward to their return trip to the Wing Festival this year.

Let’s green light New Urbanism in Buffalo

If you’re a Buffalo Rising aficionado, today’s article defining New Urbanism might be your personal mantra. The concept is repeatedly bubbled up in many articles by many of it’s writers. Not surprising, since it’s a very pro-urban publication. I’ve always aligned with the belief that we need a strong urban core in our city for Buffalo to be successful, and I agree with several of the tenets of New Urbanism. However, there are also many I don’t agree with, and frankly, rather than Buffalo being yet another follower of a solution developed elsewhere, I think Buffalo can do better. I think Buffalo has the potential of having the perfect balance of being pedestrian and vehicle friendly, and having dense and spare living. Let’s look at each one of these…

One of the pointiest thorns in the sides of many New Urbanists is the mere existence of the automobile. It’s right there in the Charter for the Congress of New Urbanism:

“The physical organization of the region should be supported by a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile.”

I would love for Buffalo to have a better subway infrastructure, and be pedestrian and bicycle friendly. However, Buffalo also has a great roadway system that’s already established, and should continue to be one of our strengths. Too many New Urbanists take the “car is bad” philosophy to the extreme and denounce the automobile as if it’s going to cause the world to end. It’s not. Cars are not going away. Personal long-range vehicles are going to keep improving over time, will become more energy efficient, and will continue to be the primary choice of transportation for individuals. The convenience simply cannot be beat, and people are willing to pay great amounts of money to have that convenience. This is compounded in Northern regions, such as the one Buffalo is in, where climatic conditions make walking and biking a secondary method of transportation for most, and point to point transportation the primary. In regards to Buffalo, I’m tired of hearing the calls for the Skyway, the 190, the 198, the 33, and basically every other major roadway to be demolished and turned into a park. Most of these roads provide key transit infrastructure to the Buffalo region, and should be considered assets, not detriments to the area. Certainly, many of them were designed for a much larger city than we are today, but rarely do I hear the call for Buffalo to continue shrinking. We are at the unique position of being already well positioned for population growth, a circumstance that many of the quickly growing cities in North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada would love to have. Sure, I would be happy to see improved roadway design, be it sinking certain roadways below grade and adding pedestrian overpasses, turning certain roads into tunnels, or the possibility of eliminating certain roads while improving others nearby, but believing that cars are going to go away and everyone is going to live within a mile of where they work isn’t likely to happen anywhere, and Buffalo is already designed to be a commuter-friendly town. Instead of undoing that, let’s figure out how to build on it and make it a key advantage to living in this area.

Another key point in New Urbanism is the concept of the neighborhood. “Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use.” The problem with this concept is that it’s only ideal for some people, not for all. Years ago, people were classified into two categories – city folk and country folk. You either loved the density of city life, or the sparsity of the country. You might have lived in one area or another due to economic circumstances, or just because of history. Out of those two extremes grew a middle ground that the majority of people now call home – the suburban lifestyle. It provides for more personal space and breathing room than dense urban housing provides, yet the convenience of not being miles away from the businesses and services that families need to access frequently. On the urban/rural scale, there are many subtle gradations of suburban – enough to fit almost every personal preference.

This is where I think many of the New Urbanist debates go awry when it comes to Buffalo. Urban, suburban, and rural can all coexist. Urbanists often want to make major changes to the existing landscape to further their preferred plans, when in fact their lifestyle preference is the easiest to implement in any built environment. You can implement mixed-use residential, commercial, and even industrial in a single building. Place several larger developments of this kind together and you could conceivably create an environment where the New Urbanist would never need to leave their own complex. It’s one step closer to creating arcologies, the extreme end of urbanism. The reality is that they want the best of both worlds, they want to live in a dense, “neighborhood” environment where others are there for them to rely on when they need them, not around to bug them when they don’t, yet still allow them to have access to every conceivable community resource and natural wonder without the need to ever drive anywhere. It’s an impossibility. No such panacea can ever exist. There’s a high degree of irony in New Urbanists looking to geographically expand their footprint, in a sense creating a type of “New Urban sprawl” when in a city like Buffalo, all the land they need to get started already exists within the existing geographic and transportation boundaries. I’d like to see the New Urbanists implement their philosophy on a micro scale and entice the masses into their perceived perfect lifestyle before trying to push it on the rest of any area’s population.

Many people talk about Buffalo’s overabundance of housing and the need to downsize our housing stock, so this is where I think the perfect solution exists. I’m sure we could find a few areas of the city where 10 adjoining blocks could be leveled to let the New Urbanists prove their concept, without needing to disrupt the surrounding transportation fabic of the area as a whole. I’m thinking something like the area east of Michigan Ave, south of the 190, bordered by the river. Close enough to be walking/biking distance of downtown, but enough space to develop as they see fit and not much in their way. If they’re successful, they’ll be hailed as geniuses and Buffalo will have a new place in history as giving birth to the future of global development. If not, they won’t have caused any major damage to the city. Just wall off that section and landbank it for the future, or use it as a major explosion site for our growing film industry. It could be Buffalo’s own Biosphere 2, and would probably even have it’s own hyper-hyper-local media outlets telling us how great life is in New East Buffalo and why everywhere should be just like it. I say, let them have at it. I have my doubts that New Urbanism is the future of the world, but I’m willing to let them have a shot at it right here in Buffalo – as long as they don’t screw up the rest of the city in the process.

If ya can’t stand the suburbs, stay in the city

I’ve said it many times before – I’m completely fine with urban development in the city. I’m even fine with urban development in suburban villages. So why is it that those that love the urban lifestyle are so vehemently against the suburban environment?

On Buffalo Rising, we find this post about an urbanist who ventured to Cheektowaga to buy a book. Surprisingly, he found… *gasp* traffic lights and roads with more than 4 lanes! This of course sparked disdain not only by him…

“The sea of concrete and asphalt supported a thicket of zombie like poles holding any assortment of signs, signals, and tangled wires in a seemingly unordered composition. What color that did exist here (mainly in blaring signage) seemed to be mocked by the overbearing gray.”

… but by a deluge of commentors as well…

“It wouldnt matter if you lines the streets with gold paint, THIS AREA IS UGLY. AND… its not condusive to walking. Cheektowaga has NO redeeming value, NONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ITS THE WORST PLACE ON THE PLANET, BAR NONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“I believe that the monetary, health, and social costs of sprawl is one of the greatest threats to our country. Perhaps a greater threat than terrorism.”

“How many people know that obesity for cul-de-sac neighborhoods are double that of gridded streets?”

Wow… responsible for obesity, worse than terrorism, the worst place on the planet. Poor Cheektowaga. Who knew the damage it had caused.

Unfortunately, no amount of Al Gore docudramas are going to change the simple fact a hell of a lot of people just don’t like living in an urban setting. A lot of people don’t want to live above a bar, or have sirens wailing past their house in the middle of the night, or feel like they’re human sardines. They like the fact that their houses aren’t lined up like dominos, that they can easily get into their car and drive to within a few hundred feet of a store, and return to their own personal green space. They like that the schools don’t suck, that the air they do suck is clean, and that there’s some buffer space between them and their neighbor.

Urbanites can bitch all they want, but the suburban lifestyle is never going away. Cars are not going away. Six and eight lane roads are not going away. Parking lots are not going away. City life is not superior to suburban or rural life, it’s just different. If the suburbs disgust you so, don’t come here. For every photo of traffic lights and parking lots that you take in the suburbs, someone can take one of a graffiti covered building and a decaying block in the city.

The real irony, though, is that the urbanites want the suburbanites to come into city for shopping, entertainment, and eating, but can’t be bothered to leave the limits themselves for the same reasons. It seems that the city dwellers have attitudes that reflect their roadways – one way. We’re a bit more two-way out here. If that doesn’t suit you – have yourself a merry little U-turn.

Update: Looks like BuffaloPundit has a similar take.