201 Ellicott is a true transformative project for the City of Buffalo, offering an entirely new model of urban living for a historic city in the midst of a dramatic Renaissance. Located on an important boundary between the downtown core and the city’s historic East Side and at the edge of a major food desert, the project replaces a former surface parking lot with dynamic mixed-use affordable housing, a fresh food grocery and vibrant public spaces. Purposely designed as a “mobility hub,” the space encourages people to walk, bike, take public transit or any other form of eco-friendly transportation. All these resources – fresh food, mobile transit, affordable housing – are needed assets in the City of Buffalo. The design integrates them into the community and is already driving important positive outcomes. 201 Ellicott also infuses public art in Buffalo’s downtown.
Architizer chatted with Michael Tunkey, Design Principal at
Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?
Michael Tunkey: From day one through its ribbon cutting, 201 Ellicott has always been about meeting community needs and advancing the City of Buffalo. That was our client’s vision and they held incredible commitment to creating something deeply valuable for the community throughout the life of the project. There were numerous studies and data points pointing to a dearth of affordable housing and food-access. Let’s change this. That was the vision that motivated an incredible cross-disciplinary team each day as we shaped 201. Let’s change this. Let’s create something special. Let’s turn an empty parking lot into a community hub.
What do you believe is the most unique or ‘standout’ component of the project?
Buffalo is home to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of the most revered art galleries in the world. We’ve been fortunate to forge an exciting relationship with the gallery and infuse stunning pieces into some of our projects. For 201 Ellicott, we were able to have Josef Kristofoletti, a famous muralist who works all over the world, paint Golden Hour upon the side of the building. Inspired by the colors of the sky at sunrise and/or sunset, the mural adds incredible color to the project and Buffalo’s skyline. It literally brightens the city.
What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?
201 Ellicott is probably the best example of community-focused design I’ve ever been part of anywhere. And that was not a challenge, it was a joy. With our development partner we spent countless hours meeting with members of the community, hearing their ideas, and understanding their needs. We built connections and trust as we created a building that is not “for” a city, but truly “of” a city. And that’s an important distinction that can make all the difference for a project as it does with 201 Ellicott and the City of Buffalo.
How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?
I would say again, the team cared deeply that we create a project “of” the city and not “for” it. To elaborate, this is not a building we designed in a vacuum. We created this in partnership with the community. We talked to them, we ran ideas by them, we walked through the neighborhoods most directly affected, we studied the transit lines and the history of the city. We tested assumptions, saw the reality of a food desert and not just its data points. That made all the difference and it makes 201 Ellicott deeply contextual and meaningful.
What is your favorite detail in the project and why?
I love art, so it would be easy for me to say the Golden Hour mural. And, I do love Josef’s stunning contribution to this building. However, I’m lucky to work just a couple blocks from this project. So I’ll often walk over for lunch at Braymiller Market and see just an incredible cross-section of people enjoying lunch, a coffee, or grocery shopping for the week. Being able to see that building bringing all different Buffalonians together…to experience how it is amplifying the community in our city…there’s nothing better.
In what ways did you collaborate with others, and how did that add value to the project?
Without hesitation, 201 Ellicott is the most collaborative project I have ever worked on during my career. Day in and day out our team at CannonDesign worked with community members, civic leaders and stakeholders. We worked closely with the City of Buffalo, specifically its Office of Strategic Planning and the Mayor’s Office and had incredible collaborators across Ciminelli Real Estate, Arc Building Partners, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, GObike Buffalo, Braymiller Market, you name it. Community meetings, brainstorms, fun moments, they were all better because we did this together.
How have your clients responded to the finished project?
The project has been met with wonderful reviews. It’s driving meaningful outcomes for the city and it’s been named a World Changing Idea by Fast Company. Here are a few direct quotes from our client and key civic leaders.
City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown: We had hoped to do something special that would create a destination in our city, that would have affordable housing. We wanted to bring a market to the city. We knew that was a priority of downtown residents, in the core of downtown and on the East and West Side. We couldn’t be more pleased.
Ciminelli Real Estate Corp CEO Paul Ciminelli: You look at a project like this, and it really feels like we moved the needle in the community and really developed what we would consider to be a legacy project, not just for our company but for the community.
New York State Homes and Community Renewal Commissioner Ruth Anne Visnauskas: It isn’t just the project. Obviously it has an impact. Affordable housing used to really just be about affordability and could we sort of get some affordability in a place.
It then became that we wanted them to be sustainable. It then became the one of them to be architecturally significant and to be beautiful looking. We decided mixed use is really important to a lot of communities and we added that here. It’s incredible to be at a project like this that hits the ball really out of the park on all of those fronts.”
How do you believe this project represents you or your firm as a whole?
This project is deeply reflective of my love of art. I sit on the Board for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo. I paint myself. I believe there’s incredibly untapped opportunities to unite architects, designers, urban planners and artists to create more meaningful community spaces. The more creatives you bring to the table, the better the outcome. That’s what I’ve learned through this process. I think 201 Ellicott is a beacon and a model I hope others follow.
We worked closely with the City of Buffalo, specifically its Office of Strategic Planning and the Mayor’s Office and had incredible collaborators across Ciminelli Real Estate, Arc Building Partners, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, GObike Buffalo, Braymiller Market
For more on 201 Ellicott, please visit
201 Ellicott Gallery