The Greening of Buffalo

Sept. 23, 2014

Buffalo, NY, became an industrial city early because of a major advantage: its proximity to water. Specifically, that water is from the Buffalo and Niagara rivers, Lake Erie, and the Erie Canal.

Midwest grain traveled across Lake Erie to be milled in Buffalo, to feed residents of the eastern US. In fact, the large industrial grain elevators were developed in Buffalo. Republic Steel helped build surrounding Buffalo and countless buildings in other cities across the US.

As Buffalo became more industrialized, its rivers and waters were neglected. They became fouled with chemicals and toxic waste. Eventually, along with other manufacturing facilities, Republic Steel closed, its former site a brownfield.

Buffalo’s image was tarnished. It became associated with the Rust Belt–one of the easternmost points–along with other cities that had once been thriving industrial areas.

“We were a “˜Rust City,’ left for dead,” says Jill Jedlicka, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit organization instrumental in revitalizing Buffalo’s waterways.

Gradually Buffalo residents began to realize that their biggest asset was what had been neglected–the surrounding bodies of water. Working to achieve this public perception, along with a commitment to clean up and protect Buffalo’s waterways, is the mission of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

The organization’s website describes Buffalo and the surrounding western New York region as “an ideal community to advance a “˜Blue Economy.’ Our water resources support recreation, eco-tourism, fish and wildlife, manufacturing, waste processing, power generation, trans-shipment, and drinking water.”

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper strives to connect the region’s residents to its rivers and other waterways. When people realize what assets these surrounding waterways are, they begin to see how the restoring and enhancing the entire fresh water system is a logical route to economic revitalization. This model is what Riverkeeper refers to as Buffalo’s “Blue Economy.”

The cleanup of the Buffalo River has taken a good 20 years. There is still much work to be done for impaired waterways such as Hoyt Lake and Scajaquada Creek. Jedlicka takes hope from such things as Buffalo Sewer Authority’s commitment to using green infrastructure for a third of the projects in its long-term control plan to combat combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and innovative projects such as Mutual Riverfront Park located beside the Buffalo River.

Designed by landscape architect Dean Gowen, this waterfront park has beautiful rain gardens to manage stormwater runoff. There’s a brick boathouse, built in the style of historical ones. Best of all is the access to the river that the park provides for Buffalo residents, including kayakers who are handicapped. In a few minutes kayakers can be on the river, moving past Buffalo’s historic grain elevators and connecting with the city’s past.

Jedlicka notes that green infrastructure has spread beyond urban Buffalo. “Now even suburban communities are looking at green infrastructure for its multiple benefits. We’re all looking at water on a regional basis. Water is a shared resource.”

David Comerford serves as executive director of the Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA), which serves a 440-square-mile watershed. Of BSA’s 800 miles of sewer lines, about 750 miles form a combined sewer system.

Of the good working relationship BSA has with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Comerford says, “I cultivated that when I came here. There’s mutual benefit. We realized we needed each other, so why be adversaries? Julie Barrett O’Neill had worked as the head of Riverkeeper, and then I hired her. That’s how good the relationship is.”

One reason the relationship between the nonprofit and the municipal agency works so well is that “we try to share with each other any news that happens,” he adds.

“We have realized that the best way to achieve our long-term goals is to work collaboratively,” says Jedlicka. When she became Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper’s executive director, “Both groups had people willing to sit down and talk, and we took field trips together.”

Comerford advises other municipal stormwater officials whose relationships with environmental groups aren’t as good to “sit down and talk with them. We have a lot of common areas. We’re not as far apart as you think, and it’s beneficial to both sides.”

He says that one way his agency has been helped by the nonprofit is that “Riverkeeper asked us to at least consider green infrastructure on all of our projects. So some larger projects are gray and green as opposed to being all gray, such as offline storage.”

Buffalo’s response to an administrative order from EPA to lower the number of CSOs is its long-term control plan (LTCP). Comerford says it took eight years to devise this plan and secure its approval. His commitment to the LTCP “is to take a certain amount for each CSO [area]–10 to 20%–out, a reduction in all 52 CSOs.” He adds, “We treat 91% of runoff now. We’ll be treating 97% at the end of the long-term control plan, doing gray infrastructure and green.”

Achieving the LTCP’s goals within the designated 20-year period means that Buffalo will be adding a lot of green infrastructure to its stormwater management projects.

“We’ll have 1,620 acres in green infrastructure, double what we have now, at the end of 20 years,” says Comerford.

Buffalo does not have a stormwater utility. Comerford feels it is not needed. Offering incentive to property owners “would reduce our revenues, and [it is] a hassle to administer,” he says.

He adds, “I don’t anticipate a rate hike for six years, with what we’re doing with green infrastructure and gray. We’ve got a good long-term control plan.”

Jedlicka says that Riverkeeper was very much included as BSA worked on developing its LTCP. “We could dive into the plan and come up with possible solutions. They realized we weren’t there to point fingers.”

One way Buffalo adds green infrastructure now is in the form of lots kept vacant as abandoned homes and other buildings are demolished. If possible, a rain garden is added. In those cases, 6 inches of structured soil and seeds for low-growing grass are added so no maintenance is required.

“We’ve lost population,” notes Comerford. “If people do want to move back and build on a vacant lot, they can put a cistern or rain garden in the backyard.” That way, the same amount of rainwater is kept out of the sewer system as the vacant land was able to infiltrate.

Buffalo has another way of capitalizing on diminished population to benefit stormwater management. “There is room in our existing sewer system. We put in a gate structure to hold water during storm events. We have addressed water quality by storage. It’s real-time control,” explains Comerford.

The city has recently produced a draft of its new Green Code, which will generally ask developers to make sure that the first 1.1 inches of rain from a storm of several years’ frequency is infiltrated onsite.

Comerford was not in favor of mandatory requirements. “I strongly suggested that for green infrastructure, don’t make it prohibitive because sometimes you can’t do green. I said “˜Make it voluntary, and we’ll try to control things through the permit process.'”

The CSO 60 neighborhood is serving as the location for a number of pilot green infrastructure projects to manage stormwater and lessen CSOs.

“We’re very interested in it for the tone it sets for western New York and Buffalo, moving forward,” says Riverkeeper’s Jedlicka. “We’re working partners with several agencies, getting funding from the state. It’s the first time such a varied suite of technology has been implemented for stormwater management.”

“It’s doing pretty well,” says Comerford. “On four streets of the 13, two are completely pervious, curb to curb, two we cut the curbs to use rain gardens, and we have a large rain garden in a commercial strip.”

He says that the pervious pavement is popular with the public. “People love it. There have been demonstrations with someone [in at least one case, Buffalo’s Mayor Byron Brown] spraying a hose on it, and the water soaks right in.”

Just as Buffalo is reconnecting with its water resources and acknowledging that it can make the city’s future as it made its past, BSA is tapping into the city’s history to manage stormwater.

“The whole city had brick streets at one time, then the streets were paved over,” explains Comerford. “Now Public Works will mill down the pavement and leave it as a brick street, if it’s in good shape.”

He sees the biggest challenge to using green infrastructure as “establishing the metrics for the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation]. There’s not a heck of a lot of information into real measurement in terms of efficacy. It’s sometimes somewhat problematic that the green is working as well as expected.”

“Quantifying results for demolitions is going to be tough,” he says. To be on the safe side, “We have used the DEC’s own manual for capturing stormwater. It presupposes the worst of soil conditions.”

The lots left vacant after the houses or other abandoned buildings are demolished are about one-eighth of an acre in size, so eight would equal 1 acre of vacant land. Following the conservative guidelines, 2 acres of vacant land equate to 1 acre of stormwater credit.

Designing Green Roofs
Even before she became a landscape architect who has designed successful green roofs in Buffalo, Joy Kuebler was interested in green roofs. She first saw them in Norway when she was only 17 “and didn’t know the field of landscape architecture existed,” she says.

Some years later Kuebler became a landscape architect. A devoted fan of This Old House, she notes that the TV show sometimes features green roof projects for porches, sheds, and other small areas.

Some years ago, Kuebler’s practice had outgrown the former den in her house, but she still wanted to work from home, near her young children. The solution was tearing down the property’s 1940s garage and building a new office. She and her then-husband, an architect, decided to make her new office as environmentally friendly as possible, even though LEED criteria for residences had not yet been established. And while they were at it, why not a green roof atop the structure?

“I had 65 people–architects, landscape architects–in my backyard watching the contractor building in real time,” recalls Kuebler. “I arranged for them to get continuing education credits from the AIA [American Institute of Architects] and only charged them $5 each. It was the first time anyone was talking about green roofs here.”

This 200-square-foot green roof installed in 2007 “is completely filled in. In hot, dry summers the plants that do well then thrive. If we have a cool, rainy summer, plants that prefer that thrive. It’s been a fantastic way to test what plants we want to use in this climate,” says Kuebler.

Her office’s green roof has a slope of 7 on 12. It isn’t irrigated because she wants to know which plants she can recommend to local clients as those that don’t need to be watered. She sees green roofs as much more than basic sedums.

“A green roof should be dynamic and diverse. We have some ornamental grasses that get three feet tall.” Kuebler leaves these grasses tall in the winter so they hold in the snow.

An interesting note about Kuebler’s green roof: “Spring is always two weeks earlier on the roof than it is on the ground, but so is fall,” she says.

“It’s so well insulated that the snow base stays all winter and doesn’t melt,” she adds.

“The Buffalo market had been apprehensive about green roofs. People said, “˜It’s too cold here. We can’t do them,'” she recalls. “Having come from green roofs in Norway, I knew they would do well here.”

Stormwater management was a critical component in Kuebler’s design for the renovation of and addition to McKinley High School, also known as Public School 305. A green roof is a functional and aesthetic part of Kuebler’s design for the school.

The high school had plenty of open green space, but it was needed for athletic fields–no room for rain gardens there. Keeping the pavement the size desired meant making the underground detention vault so large that its cost was prohibitive.

Kuebler was able to sell her clients on using green infrastructure when they realized that it would meet their stormwater onsite management requirements and also be much less expensive. It also offered extra benefits.

“They had not considered a green roof for stormwater management. They thought of them only as an aesthetic feature,” says Kuebler. “This was in 2008, before New York state had requirements for using green infrastructure. It was only suggested then.”

The canopy over McKinley High School’s primary walkway showcases rainwater as it flows off in a sheet, landing in a series of catchment channels. Runoff flows through these channels to rain gardens on the opposite side of the walk.

The school’s addition created a new interior courtyard. This courtyard space is divided into permanent planting areas and four temporary planting sections for students in the school’s horticulture program, freshmen through seniors, to use. Each class may perform site analysis, design, plant installation, and maintenance of a dedicated space just for its student members. At the end of the year’s program, the installation is removed as the class moves up a grade level to work on a more challenging horticultural project.

The stormwater management in this area was a prime factor in the design of the courtyard as well. A 2,000-square-foot green roof covers the one-story addition adjacent to the courtyard.

Because of the existing site’s compacted soil plus site damage caused by the new addition, rain gardens could not be installed to handle stormwater inside the courtyard. Instead, a 3,000-gallon underground rain harvesting system collects any overflow from three areas. Runoff from the green roof, the courtyard itself, and more remote areas of the courtyard–the latter via underdrain collections–is then saved and used for watering the courtyard planting areas, as well as to furnish some of the non-potable water needed for the school’s greenhouse irrigation system.

Kuebler thinks that awareness and use of green infrastructure will increase in Buffalo. “Riverkeeper is making an incredible outreach to just ordinary people, making them aware of it.”

As for more green roofs in Buffalo, the New York state legislature passed an incentives bill, “but a city had to be more than a million people to qualify.” She hopes this legislation will be changed to include smaller cities.

Another green roof in Buffalo sits atop a storage building at Fox Tire. This family-owned business has long been pro-environment, starting with recycling of used tires.

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Complex (BNMC) is a group of institutions involved in clinical care, medical education, and medical research. Its campus takes up 120 acres in downtown Buffalo. One piece of green infrastructure at the BNMC is part of an almost-3-acre surface parking lot on Ellicott Street. The 20-foot by 30-foot bioretention swale located at the south end of this parking lot is one of the largest bioretention facilities in the region. The facility was constructed to lessen the migration of contaminants from runoff on the lot and lower volume of stormwater flowing into the city of Buffalo’s sewer system.

The bioretention swale is designed to infiltrate the first 1.25 inches of rain on site. During a 36-hour, 3-inch rain event that happened soon after its construction, the system infiltrated all rainfall onsite with zero release into the combined sewer system. On an annual basis, it keeps 4 million gallons of stormwater out of Buffalo’s sewer system.

Additionally, the placement of an Imbrium Jellyfish filter for pretreatment removes a large percentage of stormwater pollutants, including 89% of total suspended solids and 99% of suspended sediment concentration.

The bioretention cell prevents potential contamination from entering the Lake Erie via the Buffalo River. It also adds some natural beauty for BNMC employees and visitors who use the parking lot.

Another green infrastructure project within BNMC is on Carlton Street. Regular pavement on 5 blocks of the street is being replaced with pervious pavement.

Opened in 1929, Buffalo’s Art Deco-style Central Terminal was similar to railroad stations serving large cities at the height of passenger rail travel in America. Every day it handled 200 trains and 10,000 passengers in a bustling, sophisticated urban setting. It was run by the New York Central Railroad. As the number of rail passengers declined, New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Passenger rail service in Buffalo ended in 1979. After years of neglect, the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation was formed to save the historic property and develop it for new uses.

Local landscaper Dave Majewski, owner of Premescape, has worked with this organization to create a project that contributes much to Buffalo’s green infrastructure. Located on 3 acres at the front of Central Terminal in east Buffalo, Urban Habitat is a model for sustainable, regenerative urban design.

It is a combination of outdoor classroom, wildlife habitat, remediation of a former brownfield site, and a green stormwater management project. Two groves of trees–one sumac and hawthorne, the other pine and serviceberry–provide food and shelter for wildlife.

Urban Habitat’s bioretention cells take runoff from the site and from adjacent streets. They keep 320,000 gallons of stormwater out of the city’s sewer system each year.

And the brownfield that was the site of the former Republic Steel mill on the Buffalo River? It is being turned into RiverBend Commerce Park. The state of New York purchased the property from the city of Buffalo. The multimillion-dollar clean energy and technology complex it will build on the site will bring new jobs to Buffalo and spur economic development as a similar project did for Albany, NY.

RiverBend will have open areas for stormwater infiltration. Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is in charge of restoring the shoreline and riparian habitat, once again connecting Buffalo to its waterways’ heritage.

About the Author

Margaret Buranen

Margaret Buranen writes on the environment and business.

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