Hearing to decide fate of Voelker's 1pm Tue. Sept 14 in Council Chambers

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Campaign for Greater Buffalo flyer urging public to attend public hearing on fate of Voelker's Lanes.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo urges preservation-minded citizens to attend a public hearing and speak in favor of saving the historic Voelker's Lanes-Hotel Elmwood building at the corner of Elmwood and Amherst Streets. The Buffalo Common Council's Legislative Committee will hold a public hearing on Tuesday September 14 in Council chambers on the landmark application The Campaign prepared at the request of the Preservation Board. The Preservation Board voted unanimously in June to designate the building as a City of Buffalo landmark.

Previous articles on Voelker's and its fascinating history can be found by scrolling to posts below, where the full landmark application can also be read and downloaded.

Can't make it to City Hall? You can write a  message voicing your support of landmark status for Voelker's and what it means to you to the City Clerk Tianna Marks, who will copy it so all Council members have it on their desks in the hearing packet. Access the online form—making sure you tick the "Common Council Proceedings" circle— at https://www.buffalony.gov/forms.aspx?FID=68.


Endangered Voelker's wins Pres. Board vote, goes to Council

Voelkers animated sign


The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture scored a victory for the preservation of a pop culture landmark on July 8 when the Buffalo Preservation Board unanimously approved an application it had prepared to designate the Hotel Elmwood/Voelker’s Lanes complex an official Buffalo landmark. For Campaign members and supporters it was a satisfying first step in process to save the endangered building.

Download Hotel Elmwood-Voelker application med-res1

The fourth-generation owner of Voelker’s, who also owns Kenmore Lanes, filed for a demolition permit in April. That initiated the process by which the Preservation Board reviews all demolition applications. The Board reached out to the Campaign for assistance. The application was prepared by Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman with valuable contributions from Black Rock historians Doreen DeBoth and Monica Rzepka. Voelker wants to demolish the site at the corner of Elmwood and Amherst Streets and “build-to-suit.” By her own testimony, she has allowed the building to suffer from lack of maintenance, citing her evident negligence as reason to deny landmark status.

While many signs and pop-culture sites across the country are official local-, state-, and national landmarks, the Voelker’s building would be the first individually listed building of its kind in Buffalo. Voelker’s is known to most Western New Yorkers for its bold neon signs, but it has a much longer and varied history stretching back to before the Pan American Exposition opened across the street. It was operated as a bar probably from the beginning in 1886, when Grover Cleveland was President.
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Prior to Thursday’s vote, Preservation Board Chair Gwen Howard reported that the number of people expressing an opinion in favor of landmarking dwarfed the numbers against. That was despite the Board bending over backward and allowing Voelker more time to seek out neighbors supporting her demo request. For now, barring mischief, Voelker’s is safe until the Common Council Legislation Committee holds a public hearing—probably in September—on the merits of the application as it pertains to the Preservation Code. The Committee then sends its recommendation to the full Council for a vote.

In practice, whether Voelker’s gets demolished or saved is in the hands of North District Councilmember Joe Golombek, who has said he is undecided pending review of the application and the public hearing.


Iconic Voelker's Lanes threatened; Campaign on the case

 

Voelker's Last Call
Voelker's Lanes—the former Hotel Elmwood of the Pan-Am expo, is seen here shortly after a 10-lane bowling alley was added in 1941 (far left, brick). The bar was leased to another operator at the time.


The fourth-generation owners of Voelker’s Lanes, the neon- and krypton bedecked landmark at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Amherst Street, are seeking to demolish it, along with several other buildings in what could be called Voelkerville. It is a two-block section on the west side of Elmwood Avenue, from Woodette Place to Marion Street. It is where working class Black Rock, the industrial Belt Line, and the upper class ranges of the north end of Lincoln Parkway bump into each other. A long block away on Amherst Street from Voelker's is a horseback riding academy, while two short blocks north is the huge Pierce-Arrow Motor Car factory.

The Buffalo Preservation Board, which must review all demolition applications, acted to prepare a landmark designation for the site, and accepted an offer from The Campaign for Greater Buffalo to assist in the effort. Doreen DeBoth, of the Black Rock Historical Society, and Monica Rzepka also volunteered their research. Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman did further research and wrote the narrative. The board will consider the draft application at its Thursday May 27, 2001 meeting.

Download Hotel Elmwood-Voelker application med-res1

The Hotel Elmwood-Voelker’s Lanes building at the Northwest corner of Elmwood Avenue is the oldest and most familiar structure in precinct. It was constructed c1886 as a saloon with one or more residential units above. It was designed to be a landmark, both in its incarnation as a saloon that grew into a hotel, and as an apartment building with a saloon that grew into a bowling alley. Its signage—neon and krypton—are landmarks not only on the ground, but from the sky, where pilots use them as a nighttime navigational aid.

 

Caroline Rochevot 1897 Courier-Record
Caroline Rochevot, President of the Lion Brewery under whom the Hotel Elmwood was transformed in the lead-up to the Pan-American Exposition

Caroline Rochevot, president of the Lion Brewery, drove the transformation of a modest frame saloon into a hotel anchored by the saloon (1897-1900) directly across from a main gate of the Pan American Exposition, held in 1901. Rochevot, with Mary Cass of F.N. Burt, was one of few female corporate leaders in the city at that time. It is the sole survivor of the several hotels built proximate to the expo’s Elmwood Avenue gates.

The Rochevot family teamed up with the Voelker family to run several saloons in Buffalo. The Rochevots supplied the beer and the premises, and the Voelkers leased the saloons. The Voelker association with the site dates to c1896, when Karl Voelker (a.k.a. Carl a.k.a Charles. He preferred to be formally known by the German in old age) is known to be operating the saloon in the building owned by the Lion Brewery.

Voelker went on not only to acquire the Hotel Elmwood, but to build and assemble what could be called Voelkerville, a collection of properties that included a 1920s “taxpayer” building with four shopfronts and a gas station on the south west side of Amherst St., several houses and commercial buildings, and a coal yard for a family coal business.

The Hotel Elmwood-Voelker’s Lanes buildings embody Buffalo’s— and New York State’s—complicated and colorful relationship with alcohol and laboring, ethnic commercial ties, neighborhood development, and mass leisure activities. The core structure’s first known proprietor was a Mary Hemmert, as listed in the 1886 City Directory. The building appears in an 1891 atlas as the sole structure at its intersection. Amherst Street, running east from Lower Black Rock at the Niagara River, was the principal street. The New York Central’s Belt Line was ran several blocks north, connecting the industries of Black Rock with those on the East Side. Residential and industrial growth originated in the former lower Black Rock and spread east along Amherst Street and the railroad, especially after 1884.

The promise of the location was realized in 1892, when the Elmwood Avenue horsecar line was electrified and extended to Amherst Street, allowing rapid connections to downtown. Hemmert was moved to sell the property to George Rochevot, owner of the Lion Brewery. Saloon and tavern premises at this time could be owned by breweries, which leased them to saloonkeepers obligated to serve the breweries’ products. This ended with Prohibition in 1920; when the 18th Amendment became law in 1933, manufacturers had to sell to wholesalers, rather than directly to consumers.

Rochevot (1832-1897) was a native of the Rhenish border region of Germany. He emigrated to the

Lion Brewery
The Lion Brewery and Rochevot home on Jefferson Avenue south of Best. A section of the brewery survives.

United States in 1856 at age 24. By the next year he had established the Rochevot Brewery on Spring and Cherry streets, in the broad belt of German settlement on the East Side. By 1871 Rochevot had secured a large parcel of land on Jefferson Avenue south of Best Street on which he built a much larger and architecturally impressive brewery, and the family home. The compound gradually expanded, complete with a saloon and bowling alley managed by Caroline Rochevot, company vice-president and George’s spouse. Parts of this brewery survive.

George Rochevot died in January 1897. His widow Caroline inherited his estate of nearly $1,000,000, the presidency of the brewery, and property. Caroline soon commenced upgrading the Amherst Street property. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate the family company was in good hands, Caroline was featured in a company profile in the Buffalo Courier-Record in August of that year, along with three of her children. The Courier waxed enthusiastic of her leadership: “She is as active now and as keen in intellect as she ever was, and controls her large and diversified interests in a manner that would put to shame many so called smart business men.”

In 1898 Caroline, probably reacting to the enactment of New York State’s Raines Law of 1896, expanded the premises into a hotel. The Raines Law raised the drinking age from 16 to 18, and allowed only hotels of 10 rooms or more to serve alcohol on Sundays. During the era of the six-day work week, Sunday would have been the biggest day of beer sales to the working and middle classes, and saloons could not easily sacrifice their most profitable day. This led to a boom of small hotel construction across the state.

The building gained a two-story wing and additional entry along the Elmwood Avenue frontage (This addition was given the address of 1620 Elmwood Avenue). A crested Second Empire tower with flag pole emphatically marked the Elmwood-Amherst corner, and a snappy veranda united the Elmwood frontage.  A second impulse was perhaps the announcement, in the summer of 1898, that Buffalo would be hosting a Pan-American Exposition three years hence on the Rumsey farm across Elmwood Avenue. The Rochevots were not hoteliers, but it would have been hard to ignore the prospect of housing not only fair visitors for a six-month run three years off, but the much surer prospect of housing construction workers and staff.

The 1899 season may have provided proof; at the tail-end of the year they applied for a permit to extend the Elmwood wing to its final dimensions. Census records of 1900 showing a full house of largely immigrant lodgers at the hotel. On May 2 of that year, day laborers staged a strike for an eight-hour workday. They gathered at the Hotel Elmwood. They posed for a picture in front of the hotel with their shovels, tool boxes, and lunch pails. This would have been the logical place to anchor themselves, where working-class Black Rock met striving Elmwood at a worker-friendly establishment. Already the building had become a neighborhood landmark.

 

Hotel Elmwood envelope detail
The Hotel Elmwood, seen here in a 1901 hotel stationary cover, was conceived as a landmark, with its mass culminating in a pyramided tower with iron cresting and a flagpole. Signage bedecked the building from its earliest days.


The Rochevot’s first saloon keeper documented on the site was Frederick Ebling, from c1892 through 1895. After Ebling came Karl Voelker (d. Nov. 1953) in 1895. Karl had emigrated from Germany in c1886. He wasn’t the only Voelker running a Rochevot establishment at the time. W.J. Voelker was a proprietor of two Voelker & Rochevot restaurants in downtown Buffalo, one on Seneca Street opposite the Main Post Office, and another on Ellicott Street near Genesee.

Karl’s first stint as saloonkeeper at the corner of Amherst and Elmwood came to an end in 1900, as the Rochevot’s Lion Brewery plowed a substantial sum into improvements and leased the saloon to Caroline Rochevot’s son-in-law (company vice-president), Henry Mesinger. According to a later affidavit, Mesinger then flipped the lease to a company investor in February 1901 for a substantial profit. After the fair the lease went back to Mesinger.

The Rochevots were a feuding family, however, with battles over cash and control spilling out into public view through lawsuits that played out through 1905, when the Lion Brewery was taken over by the Schoellkopf family, which renamed it Consumers Brewery. The Hotel Elmwood was sold to local power broker and brewer Henry W. Brendel. Brendel served as both president of the East Buffalo Brewing Co. and secretary/treasurer of the Lake View Brewing Co., and was for a time an Assemblyman, Erie County Republican party chairman, and Customs Inspector.

Karl Voelker, meanwhile, wasn’t sitting still. He proprietor of at least two eating and drinking places, one across from a brass factory on Military Road, and another, the Amherst Hotel at 572 Amherst at Bridgeman St., which he owned outright. Like the Hotel Elmwood before and after the fair, this would have been akin to a boarding house rather than the modern conception of a hotel, catering to single working men who sought to live within walking distance of employment or public transportation.

It is unknown how long Karl Voelker owned or operated these or other establishments, but by April of 1910 he was back running the saloon at the Hotel Elmwood, this time to stay.

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In 1918 Henry Brendel, in what appears to have been a three-party agreement, deeded the Hotel Elmwood to the Consumers Brewery, which turned around and sold the property to Karl Voelker. Karl, according to later notice, then turned over the day-to-day running of the saloon to his 22-year-old son James C. This scion proved to be a troublesome branch of the family tree. That very January, James—Jimmy— made possibly his first appearance on the police blotter, arrested for allegedly fencing stolen jewelry. Perhaps Karl thought minding the store would keep Jimmy out of trouble. The entire Voelker clan at this time lived over the tavern.

Trouble of another kind was brewing in the form of anti-alcohol and anti-saloon legislation. Prohibition went into effect on January 1, 1920. The alcohol, saloon, and restaurant industries were devastated, and countless establishments went out of business. The Voelker family was fortunate in owning their building, one that was located at a streetcar turnaround and within walking distance of the new Pearce Arrow Motor Car factory and Belt Line industrial node. Still, the loss of legal alcohol revenue was apparently too much for James to take lying down.

James told the city directory enumerator in the fall of 1921 that he worked in soft drinks and lived at the Hotel Elmwood (as did his father, mother, sister Anna and her husband Anthony). That was a cover. James Voelker was a bootlegger.

By early 1921, James had become, according to authorities, involved in methodical thievery of railcar

James Voelker  1926
Jimmy Voelker, Buffalo's bootlegger king, 1926


shipments of alcohol, starting with a heist in the Black Rock Yard. A year-long investigation culminated in the arrest of dozens in a mammoth sting operation, including James, who was released on $5,000 bail. The outcome of this case is unknown. but it would have been clear that James could not afford to be associated with operations of the Elmwood Hotel. Anna Hartmann (nee Voelker) was hence forward listed as the operator of Hartmann’s Restaurant in the former saloon space of the Elmwood Hotel for the duration of Prohibition. She lived upstairs with her husband and son.

Karl and James had acquired neighboring houses across the street from the hotel, at 663 and 659 Amherst Street, respectively, modest Arts and Crafts bungalows in the dominant style of the post-Pan-Am development of the neighborhood. Each had a garage—a new residential accoutrement—and James’s became, according to published reports over the years, a veritable liquor warehouse. It became perhaps the most famous garage in Western New York. 

In it, James had stored in July 1926 at least 400 gallons of methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”) that he had bought in New York. He began distributing it, in bottles labeled as Gordon’s gin, that month. Soon, a woman and a man at an Allentown house party died of methyl alcohol poisoning. Within days, scores of others across Western New York and Ontario were poisoned, resulting in 45 deaths. New York State papers called the unfolding events the alcohol horror, and the British House of Commons debated whether to lodge an official complaint with the United States government, charging that subjects of the crown were being killed by U.S. citizens.

Only the Allentown woman could be definitively tied to drinking the counterfeit gin from a bottle she had acquired from James Voelker. Police raided his house, finding bank records indicating income of up to $20,000 per week (Over $300,000, adjusted for inflation, in 2021).

He turned himself into authorities. He cooperated in naming associates, negotiated a plea-bargain and eventually was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years at Auburn Prison.

Voelker was paroled after five years. A scant two years later, while still on parole, Voelker’s garage was found to contain a quantity of smuggled ale. A mob gathered. Two “dry” agents loaded the beer onto a truck and were promptly attacked and beaten by the mob as they attempted to drive away. The mob made off with the load of liquor. A federal commissioner discharged Voelker, who was not implicated in the mob action, the same day. It was a small story in that day’s news, which may indicate how routine such events were, and the Robin Hood aspect that resistors to duly constituted authorities sometimes acquire.

After Prohibition James was enumerated as a vendor of cigarette and candy machines typically found in bars. Indefatigable, he was also arrested as part of a ring of slot machine operators. The consequences are unknown. He died unexpectedly in August 1953. Pursued after death, his estate had to pay the IRS a five-figure tax lien.

James’s brother Edward and sister Anna proved to be the saving graces of the family. Anna ran her restaurant throughout Prohibition and Depression without public notoriety. In the early 1940s, brother Edward assumed ownership of the premises. Edward was responsible for shifting the business from being primarily a bar-restaurant to a bowling center with a beer habit. Edward added a 10-lane bowling alley in 1941 with a separate entrance on Amherst Street. It is probable that the animated neon sign that exists today over the bricked-in entrance was installed during that period. This became known as Voelker’s Bowling Alley, 686 Amherst Street. The lanes ran perpendicular to Amherst Street.

 

Voelkers animated sign
Ed Voelker was responsible for the animated neon blade sign placed over the entrance to the 10-lane bowling alley he added to the family tavern in 1941. Ed Healy photo


The alley at 686 Amherst was a clear dependency of the bar-restaurant at 692 Amherst, whether viewed from Amherst Street or Elmwood. In this, the alley was similar to many built as additions to bars and taverns across the city. Operators could guarantee a steady stream of customers by sponsoring teams and hosting leagues during the cold-weather months.

Edward was casting Voelker’s net beyond a neighborhood walk-in tavern, although the original hotel building would have been recognizable to anyone who had visited the Pan-Am. The corner tower had been truncated, and the veranda shortened to serve only the apartments in back and above, but the siding and fenestration was unchanged.

The postwar bowling business proved fruitful, and Edward more than tripled the number of lanes in 1951. The identity of the establishment was transformed. Voelker’s was now a bowling center, perhaps the most successful such mom-and-pop enterprise in the area. The old address of 692 Amherst even disappears from city records as 686 was lent to both flanking structures.

This second addition was a simple but large concrete box with a brick veneer on the Amherst Street side to match the brick of the earlier alley. The new lanes were placed perpendicular to the first set of lanes. The business became known as Voelker’s Alleys and Voelker’s Bar-Restaurant.

This expansion also brought with it changes to the original hotel building. The brick of the alleys was carried over to the ground-floor storefront on both Amherst St. and Elmwood Avenue. The restaurant fenestration was changed to large metal sash windows, the entrance was flanked by glass block sidelights, and the Elmwood facade received an Art Moderne strip window stretching from the corner entrance to the side door. Each end is semi-circular. It is probable that the rooftop neon signs were installed shortly after.

Edward had gone all-in with bowling. With the tremendous increase in overall business came a much greater geographical reach, with most patrons now arriving by car, necessitating parking lots, built on scattered adjacent parcels. Bowling was also a seasonal affair, with patrons seeking out the warmth, light, and camaraderie of bustling bowling alleys during cold and dark winters. During summer, the appeal of indoor activities waned.

A third generation of Voelkers, brothers Glenn and Mark, took over the business in the late 1970s. They bought their nearest competitor in, Kenmore Lanes 1979, and caused the final changes to the original Hotel Elmwood. The facade, previously covered with faux brick above and brick veneer below, was covered with an exterior insulation and finishing system (EIFS). The small freestanding hotel addition, the last of the Pan-Am construction campaign. was demolished in 1969. It had been long converted to a small shop and apartment.

The prominence of Voelker’s has long been noted in local media. For example, a recent Buffalo News article, “The Ultimate Western New York Bucket List: 100 things every Western New Yorker should do at least once,” states, at number one, “Bowl a few games at Voelker's Lanes on Amherst Street near Elmwood. Think ‘bowling alley’ and what you see in your mind's eye looks like Voelker’s.’” It does, to the extent that filmmakers use it to set a “typical Buffalo” scene and magazine editors spalash it on their covers. It is difficult to think of another Buffalo business so fused with symbolism and place consciousness.

Voelker's at dusk
Voelker's at dusk. A Buffalo landmark since the day it was built.Ed Healy photo.


Through its sheer presence and eagerness to please, at a location that many Western New Yorkers have had occasion to pass many times during the course of their lives, if not entered to bowl or socialize, Voelker’s has long been a landmark of the populist kind. It is not only a physical landmark, it is a landmark of the mind. Donation banner2 1


A new expressway to solve an old city-killing expressway? Leave it to NYS DOT.

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The New York State DOT’s proposed solution to closing its Route 5 Skyway is to build or expand over five miles of limited-access highway (in red, above) away from where people want to go. At staggering expense, it fails to address Buffalo’s problematic highway history, and reduces citizen access to the waterfront.


Hey, Highwayman! Put down your mouse. Back away from the screen.

Stop trying to rationalize building an entirely new limited-access highway that goes 2.6 miles in the wrong direction and dumps traffic onto a crowded Thruway, threatening new congestion for 2.3 miles that you propose to build yourself out of by expanding on/off lanes for the entire length, and building three spirit-killing, street-life-sucking, pedestrian-alienating, conflict-inducing interchanges with city streets. And generally coarsening neighborhood life to fulfill your through-traffic bias.

At a cost of almost $550,000,000, plus generations of maintenance and life-cycle costs that would exceed the original construction cost.

You’re not helping. Get a grip on how the rest of us live, and want to live.

Slow down, for one.

Look at the two-mile stretch of Route 5 in Woodlawn and Lackawanna. Three lanes in each direction max, a 40mph posted speed, intersecting streets, and stop lights here and there. Almost 38,000 vehicles use it per day, more than the Skyway itself. Ohio Street (until 2009 striped as four lanes) and a new two-lane, one-mile Ganson Street extension across the City Ship Canal connecting to Michigan Avenue would give you six traffic-calmed lanes, minimum, into the city.

That is better than reducing waterfront access to just one lane in each direction (the current configuration of Ohio Street). Further, diverting four lanes on an epic 5-mile detour through railyards, junkyards, and tank farms will not prove attractive to people who can see downtown Buffalo directly ahead of them, and will opt to go straight ahead. (On Day One this will jam up Ohio Street thicker than jelly, and we’ll have to wait years for its common-sense return to four lanes and a Ganson Street extension anyway.)

Even without the 30%-50% traffic diversion to the Thruway (via the Milestrip Expressway) that you yourself predict in your Route 5 Project Scoping Report, more than enough reserve capacity exists on local streets to handle foreseen traffic. Elmwood and Hertel avenues, in their most popular stretches, handle much more vehicular and foot traffic than presently crosses the Buffalo River on any street.

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The distributive ability of the universal-access local street network to get people directly where they want to go is better, by definition, than a limited-access highway. The north-south streets of Ganson, Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana, and Abby, plus the east-west connectors of Exchange and South Park (both four-lane width), renewed as “complete streets,” could profitably accommodate the traffic.

Can you prove, Mr. Highwayman, that Buffalonians and their neighborhoods would be better off with another expressway? That the construction-, maintenance-, environmental-, and social costs would be worth the foregone benefits?

The benefits? They start with access for all, including walkers, bikers on an iconic Cloudwalk, with a Metrorail station at the bottom. Acres of downtown land restored to neighborhood and park use along the lines laid down by Joseph Ellicott in 1800 (A reclaimed Terrace Park). A downtown waterfront that is complex, rich, dynamic, and layered with history. An Outer Harbor a walk away that is a human and natural refuge, with walkway and ridge-top views over a Great Lake. Allow us to explain. See the Big Picture


Buffalo's Big Picture, Kensington, Scajacquada plans could gain in "Reconnecting Communities Act"

Canal west from Pearl
Rebuilding the Erie Canal between Pearl and Erie Streets and the rest of Big Picture Plan could be realized under federal highway remediation bill

 

Big Picture cover
The full folio of Big Picture images can be had here Click to view and download Big Picture folio

For those who have worked for decades to remove barriers to the Buffalo waterfront, downgrade the Scajaquada Expressway, and mitigate the Kensignton Expressway, help is on the way. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo's Big Picture Plan, released last week (it includes the Cloudwalk, released seperately in February) is in the wheelhouse of a proposed "reconnecting Communities Act," which targets "infrastructural barriers that create to mobility or economic development, or expose the community to air pollution or other health and safety risks.” The Big Picture seeks to do all of those things, in addition to building new workforce housing, parks, and canals to support downtown retail and public transportation, as well historic preservation.

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The Washington Post reports "Key Democratic senators are introducing legislation to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by the Interstate Highway System.  The “Reconnecting Communities Act” is aimed redressing some of the historic inequities and racial disparities in the federal government's transportation investments.

"The legislation mirrors the $20 billion fund to take down highways outlined in President Biden's infrastructure proposal: it calls for the same levels of funding to be distributed through a grant program that would live in the Department of Transportation, according to an advance copy of the bill.

"The undertaking is also intended to alleviate traffic-related pollution — a continuation of the Biden administration's push to address environmental justice."


Cloudwalk and Skyway: Where would drivers go?

Ground-level Route 5 sheet 39
A lot of people are wondering what the 37,000 vehicles a day using Route 5 between Woodlawn and downtown Buffalo would do if the Skyway were closed to vehicles and reprogrammed as the Cloudwalk for walkers, bikers, picnicking and the like. Route 5 in Woodlawn and Lackawanna is at-grade, with cross streets, traffic lights, a 40mph posted speed limit, and six moving lanes (three in each direction).

The short answer is to merely insure that there are six lanes crossing the Buffalo River along the waterfront. You don't have to build a new $550,000,000-inland-expressway-and-Thruway-widening to do that. Just return Ohio and Louisiana streets to four lanes (as they were until 2009) and add a two-lane bridge and a Ganson Street extension on the west bank of the City Ship Canal. A few other details here and there, and you save a lot of time, money and angst, and you get a much nicer transportation network for people and neighborhoods. The DOT hasn't yet considered such a solution.

Considering DOT itself estimates that 12,000 vehicles will use the Thruway instead, the local street network (which could use a re-paving, new sidewalks, and flanking bike paths anyway) has enough reserve capacity to handle the remainder. All that, plus the Cloudwalk? Yes, please! Here is a sheet from the Big Picture folio that explains it. You can access the full folio of images here: Download Big Picture folio 40pp


The Big Picture: A Plan for Buffalo

Big Picture cover mailbox
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture is calling on the NY State Department of Transportation, with other state agencies, to restore reclaimed land from Skyway removal to conditions established by founder Joseph Ellicott in 1800 and Erie Canal builder DeWitt Clinton in 1825. The aim is to reclaim Buffalo's heritage, economic advancement, and a measure of social equity.

That includes restoration of Buffalo's first public park—The Terrace— as well as the run of the original Erie Canal between Pearl Street and Erie Street and the parallel famed Canal Street, and the Prime Slip, another historic canal which is possibly an archaeological motherlode.The Campaign is urging DOT to embrace the Big Picture—and to fund it with money from the Skyway project—to repair the damage caused to Buffalo's historic core by highway construction. Indeed, The Campaign is calling its proposal just that: The Big Picture Download Big Picture folio 1

The DOT is currently working on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Skyway removal.

The Big Picture incorporates a number of opportunities that could change the prospects of the city. Canyon Research Southwest, a real estate analytics firm, estimates that development on the reclaimed land as proposed (mostly 3-4 story residential) in the Big Picture would yield over $82,630,000 in real estate and sales taxes over a 20-year period. Spin-off benefits beyond the Skyway reclamation area were not calculated. This suggests the enormous lost opportunity cost since the Skyway opened in 1955, and the ongoing lost revenues if the Skyway is not removed.

Among the infrastructure and rehabilitation works proposed:
• The long-overdue reconstruction of the Union Block, site of Dug's Dive, the documented stop on the Underground Railroad once operated by William "Uncle Dug" Douglass. The Union Block in its last days was also an Italian tenement (so called on maps of the day).
• The systematic archaeological excavation, preservation, and rewatering of the main section of the Prime Slip, a private canal filled in by the Civil War and in which sits a pier of the Skyway.
• The restoration of the Canal District streets to their exact historic locations, with historically accurate paving.
• The restoration of Canal Street and the Erie Canal between Pearl and Erie Streets.
• The retention and adaptation of all of the Skyway from the north bank of the Buffalo River to Tifft Street as the Cloudwalk (detailed in an earlier proposal of February)
• The restoration of the DL&W train shed and a multi-use viaduct to connect it with the Cloudwalk ,Central Wharf, and the Cobblestone Historic District (also detailed in February)
• The reconstruction of Terrace Park, including Terrace Station.
• Construction of a local bus hub on The Terrace and under the Thruway viaduct between Pearl and Washington streets
• Re-platting all state lands into much smaller lots than typically planned in Urban Renewal projects and closer in spirit to those of Joseph Ellicott’s survey of 1803-4, with a goal of individual ownership.

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The scope of the Big Picture may seem vast, but it is small compared to what Buffalo lost in the 1950s and 1960s," says Tim Tielman, Executive Director of the Campaign.

“The Big Picture plan would reclaim 12 acres of the 292 acres that were totally destroyed in combined highway and urban renewal projects along the waterfront. Buffalo has been in an induced coma since. We now have the knowledge, means, and motivation to correct this massive historic, social, and economic injustice. We cannot defer justice any longer. The times call upon us to act.”

Richard Berger, a Campaign boardmember and lead attorney in the federal case which resulted in the 2000 lawsuit that reversed an earlier state project and a later attempt to put a Bass Pro megastore, says “We must restore our heritage sites to restore our economy and social equity. That begins with insuring that the Environmental Impact Statement is thorough and unbiased.”


Joseph Ellicott's original Buffalo street plan can be restored once downtown Skyway goes

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The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is proposing that The Terrace, a blocks-long public park and promenade linking several squares, be reconstructed as part of the state and federal project to remove all or parts of the Skyway.
The Campaign released proposals for the DL&W train shed and the Cloudwalk in January (see Cloudwalk: Skyway recycled), as part of the overall process to reinvigorate historic sites and re-establish the historic street patterns of Joseph Ellicott’s New Amsterdam plan, and the neighborhoods destroyed by highway construction and Urban Renewal. The Canal District streets and Central Wharf were the first fruits of that effort.

Until Frederick Law Olmsted's Park and Parkway system was laid out in the 1870's, Terrace Park was Buffalo's primary outdoor recreation and social space. You want a balloon ascension? The square at The Terrace and Church Street was the place. You want to build a market or raise a liberty pole? The square at The Terrace, Main & Lloyd was the spot.

The implementation of the Olmsted plan ironically led to the piecemeal destruction of the Terrace; The Terrace was largely forgotten as a civic space for the larger population. Its northern reaches between Court and Church streets became known mostly as neighborhood parks, its center section appropriated by the New York Central for its principal Belt Line and International station, and the southern section cut in half by a NY Central trench into the slope between Main and Evans streets.

Ellicott New Amsterdam proposed plan 1800
Joseph Ellicott’s first sketch of plan of Village of New Amsterdam, October 1800.
The steep slope—represented by black shading— fronting the lakeshore is the topographical feature which determined the orientation of streets. The slope between Seneca street and Court was set aside as a public park, Buffalo’s first, in Ellicott’s survey of 1803-4.

Terrace Park goes back to Joseph Ellicott’s very first sketch of his proposed Village of New Amsterdam. As Ellicott explained to his employers at the Holland Land Company in October 1800, New Amsterdam had lowlands at the western end of Lake Erie and along Buffalo Creek which, being flat and just four feet above the surface of the lake, could readily be laced with a network of canals and used for marine commerce. His canal at the foot of the Terrace and terminating at Little Buffalo Creek near Main Street so logically fit the natural geography that state engineers placed the Erie Canal along this path 25 years later. The lowlands ended at a steep slope, above which residential streets could be laid out from the upper terrace of land and eastward.

1872 Hopkins Terrace and Niagara Square
1872 map demonstrates the roles of border and promenade intended by Ellicott in his sketch of 1800.


The determining factor in his orientation of the entire future city was the disposition of the edge of the slope virtually parallel with the lake shore. He sketched lanes along the flat land at both the top of the slope and the bottom. Thus, Upper Terrace, Lower Terrace, and the sloping Terrace Park, set aside for public recreation. From the Upper Terrace, fine views of the Lake could be had, while the Lower Terrace could act as the interface between maritime commercial enterprises and the upper town.

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In addition to re-establishing Terrace Park, Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes that economical housing be built to replace that taken for Skyway and the Waterfront Urban Renewal Area. This view, with stylized railroad crossing arms signifying a former use, to northwest from Erie Street. The roadway is a lane meant for access, not speed, flanked by broad sidewalks, bicycle paths, and a “logistics strip” for deliveries and drop-offs. On the right is a new mixed-use building that recalls St. Stephen’s Hall, where Grover Cleveland was nominated for mayor in 1871. It was demolished during the Depression.

Then, starting in the 1950s, the Skyway and Thruway set in train the events which would reduce the Terrace to a short stretch of stone wall between Genesee and Church streets. Everything else—parks, schools, apartment houses, commercial buildings, restaurants, corner stores, train station, civic gathering spots—was destroyed.

In the early 1880s, the city permitted the New York Central to build tracks across Main Street (these would shortly be routed through a tunnel) in exchange for establishing a passenger service on a belt line. The trench was cut across the slope to create a gradient to Church Street, where the tracks turned west to run along the Erie Canal. A Stick Style station with landscaped approaches was built between Swan and Church streets. Several footbridges were built to cross the trench and keep the Canal District connected with downtown. A four-block stretch of Terrace Park was thus abandoned to casual recreation (although the railroad carefully landscaped its section and erected an ornamental station, it was perceived as railroad property. The city even built what could have been its first public parking lot in the arc of greenery between Lower Terrace and the tracks).

The block south of the station grounds became the site of a new and imposing Buffalo Police Headquarters in 1884. With the building frontages on lower Pearl and Lock Street, a de facto square was created. 

Buffalo balloon ascension
Samuel Archer King, pioneering aeronaut, prepares to launch his Buffalo from Terrace Park at Church Street, 1873. Building at left is St. Joseph’s Academy, forerunner of St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute.

Another square was created where The Terrace met Church Street. This was the closest open space to the civic heart of the city, the interface between the commercial-industrial waterfront and emerging office and government precincts. This square was where perhaps the most famous aeronaut of the 19th century, Samuel Archer King, launched his hot-air balloon Buffalo, on September 16, 1873. The balloon was manufactured on an upper floor of the Aetna Building on Prime and Lloyd streets in the Canal District, and its ascension warranted a story in the New York Times. King called it the largest balloon in the world; it contained over 94,000 cubic feet, and the airship’s name was spelled out in letters seven feet high. King took the Buffalo all across the country. In 1877, it delivered the first airmail-stamped letters on a flight from Nashville to Gallatin, TN.

The Little Station That Could

Historically, the modest Terrace Station played an outsized role in the history of transportation in the city for several reasons. First, it was the chief station on Buffalo’s commuter rail network, include the Belt Line. Demand was so great it soon became, by the testimony of the NY Central itself, the third-busiest station in the entire NY Central system at a time when the Central was the second-largest transportation enterprise on the planet. (Grand Central Depot in New York was first, Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station, second).

Second, it was the station through which the NY Central ran its chartered excursion trains. Right through to the 1950s, Rochester travel agencies were running promotions to the Terrace Station for the Ice Capades and sporting events at Memorial Auditorium. Third, it was the Central’s station for trains to Niagara Falls and points north and west, thus many Canadians and Michiganders stepped onto its platform.

Train at Lower Terrace and Church St.
Until the early 1950s, New York Central commuter, excursion, and International trains used tracks laid in Terrace Park and Church Street. Terrace Station was for a time the thrird-busiest in the Central’s system. Train turning from Church Street onto The Terrace.

The Terrace Station was a stealth stop for very important people. In September 1901, for example, Theodore Roosevelt made his first-ever public appearance as President on the platform of the Terrace Station when he alighted from a special express train from North Creek, NY after the assassination of President William McKinley.

Roosevelt became president at the moment of McKinley’s death early in the morning of September 14th (he had been shot on September 6th) while hurtling down from Mt. Marcy after receiving a message that McKinley would likely die; when he boarded the train in the morning darkness at North Creek, he was told that McKinley had, indeed died. That afternoon, thousands gathered around the Exchange Street Station waiting for Roosevelt’s train to arrive at the Central’s main Buffalo Station. Unknown to the general public, plans were in place to have the train pass the station and stop several blocks away at The Terrace, where a detachment of soldiers and other security personnel cleared his path across the platform to a waiting carriage, which took the new president directly up Delaware Avenue to the Wilcox house near North Street for the Oath of Office.

(A week earlier, McKinley’s assassin had been taken to police headquarters on The Terrace immediately after the shooting. The NY Central tracks to the Terrace Station passed directly behind the building, and the two buildings were easily seen from each other.)

It was standard fare for newspaper reporters to be sent to stake out train stations for arriving celebrities and politicos, and the Terrace Station had its share, from entertainers to six-day-bicycle racers arriving for competitions at the Broadway Auditorium. Exclusive platform interviews were the stuff of reputations and circulation. None could possibly be bigger than the King and Queen of Britain, and one newspaper reporter, Courier-Express police beat writer Manuel Bernstein, was on hand for the unscheduled stop on the night of June 7, 1939. It wasn’t by accident.

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Reconstructed Terrace station would act as a stage, picnic shelter, and cafe for re-established Terrace Park, occupied since 1954 by the Skyway. Theodore Roosevelt and the King and Queen of Britain were among unscheduled transients to the site.

Bernsein had a long career as a police reporter and—making up for the penury of a writer’s wage—a pharmacist. Reporters would lounge around the front desk at police headquarters waiting for stories to come across the transom as perps were dragged in or calls went out. With multiple dailies, police reporting was more voluminous than today (yes, hard to believe), ranging from bloody mayhem to incompetent capers of juveniles and pick-pocketing around train stations. A New York Central railroad cop stopped by Bernstein’s desk one day, as recollected in a story for the Buffalo News over 50 years later, and complained that Bernstein never wrote up his collars. Bernstein told him the next time he made an arrest and could take him to the thieve’s lair, he’d write up the story. Within a week the cop had an arrest, Bernstein had an exclusive, and the cop a measure of crime-fighting fame. This earned Bernstein a favor from the cop that got the reporter an exclusive with the Queen, a $200 bonus, and a two-tiered Page One headline.

The railroad cop let Bernstein in on a little secret. The Royal train would be sitting at the Terrace Station, hard by police headquarters, while track work went on ahead. King George IV and his wife Queen Elizabeth (not the present Queen, but her mother. The Queen Mother). King and Queen were on the first-ever visit to the dominion of Canada of a British monarch. They would make a trip to St. Catherines to dedicate a highway named after the Queen, and see Niagara Falls (the monument she and the King unveiled that day is still to be seen, whizzing by on the QEW over a small bridge). That night they would cross into the US directly to Washington to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt (thence to Hyde Park for hot dogs), becoming the first King and Queen to set foot in the U.S.

They would have to switch tracks in Buffalo, from the NY Central to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The switchover would occur along Seneca Street near Hamburg Street. It was a complicated maneuver that would take teams of men working in coordinated fashion in the dark (the Central and the Pennsylvania were bitter rivals and did not share track; a temporary link would have to be engineered in a busy train yard and Pennsylvania engines attached to both the Royal train and a press pilot train). This time, they would be viewed by thousands, despite the best efforts of police to keep people from the overlooking viaducts. Time for stealth.

Terrace station
Detail of the south end of the Terrace Station highlights the Stick Style architecture with decorated brackets, panels of drop siding, and contrasting framing sticks. The tracks were about five feet below Upper Terrace (rear) and the buildings of St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Despite the late hour, thousands of people gathered at crossings and viaducts to witness the Royal Train. Cross-streets were closed off. Mobs of people were gathering at the Pennsylvania yards. The plan: The Royal train, rather than parking on a Pennsy siding, would stop at The Terrace, the press in the pilot train would sit on the siding near Hamburg Street until all work, except for the switching of engines, was over. That was Bernstein’s tip. He didn’t tell anyone else, not even an editor. When the train arrived, he was the only civilian in the station.

Bernstein, as quoted in the News: “It was at night, and City Hall was all lit up,” Bernstein recalled. “The queen stepped out on the back platform of the caboose and asked, ‘What's that beautiful building?’ I told her, ‘Your majesty, that’s our new City Hall.’ Then, I said, ‘I hope you enjoy your visit here with the president.’”

Nice chap. The Queen decided to chat. She told Bernstein (it is not clear he identified himself as a reporter) that she had important business in Washington

Bernstein, coy: “What’s so important, your majesty?”

Elizabeth spoke of war clouds and the need for British allies against Hitler’s Germany. That was no secret, but a royal saying it, that was news (British royalty are forbidden to engage in overtly political or diplomatic discussions). Scoop.

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada during their 1939 grand tour


“But out walks King George onto the platform. I can see he’s mad as hell. He whispers something in the queen’s ear and really roughly pulls her inside the caboose.” That didn’t make the story, but everything else did. Queen Elizabeth and King George set foot in America at Terrace Station, the Queen had an eye for architecture, and war was all but declared.

This somewhat foreshortened view shows the run of The Terrace between Main and Court streets as it appeared in 1932. Terrace Park once extended from police headquarters to Court St. Buffalo History Museum Collection.

The Little Station That Could almost did not survive its first decade. The Central wanted to build a much grander station of stone with another platform to handle the traffic and symbolize the line’s third-busiest depot. It sat on land the city owned, and the agreement hammered out permitting the Central to build the Belt Line gave the city the upper hand in negotiations. Despite two concerted attempts to obtain demolition permits, the Central was unable to overcome the resistance of Lower Terrace bar owners, whose establishments directly overlooked the wooden station and its platform. Thirsty commuters, travelers, and horseplayers going to Fort Erie, could, and did, walk directly across the tracks to the bars. The new station would have presented a solid stone wall facing them.

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The Terrace in 1932. Buffalo History Museum Collection. By 1952, when the station faced its imminent demise to make way for the Skyway, it had progressed from the calumny heaped upon it by its owner to become a source of civic recollection, fond newspaper stories, and pleadings for its preservation, even moved offsite for restoration and display. It was not to be. The station closed at noon on August 1, 1952.

That needn’t be the end of the story. The state’s ongoing environmental review of the Skyway’s closure must take into account the possibility—and the funding—of the restoration of Terrace Park, both as a recreational, cultural, and historic piece of topography, but also as an arrow that points straight to the Canal District and the Cloudwalk.

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Buffalo’s birthplace, re-established. Joseph Ellicott established the Village of New Amsterdam to take advantage of two geographic features at the eastern end of lake Erie: Buffalo Creek and The Terrace. Removing downtown section of Skyway would open opportunities to reconstruct historic parks, canals, neighborhoods, and redress 60 years of social and environmental injustice. Over 12 acres of land would be freed by Skyway removal alone. An Urban Renewal superblock behind City Hall that has been mostly parking lot since St. Anthony’s Park and the surrounding buildings were destroyed, is envisioned as an “urban hamlet.”

Upcoming posts will look at The Campaign’s proposals for the northern sections of the former Terrace Park, the so-called Two-Park and St. Anthony’s Park, lost to highway building and Urban Renewal. In the meantime, the status quo isn’t working. It should become clear that removing the downtown section of the Skyway and replacing lost public amenities is a tremendous opportunity that should not be frittered away.

Want to help realize the vision of rebuilding The Terrace and Canal District, extending the Erie Canal, restoring the DL&W train shed, and do the Cloudwalk? Contact the Campaign for Greater Buffalo at [email protected]


Cloudwalk: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle the Skyway. It's good for Canal District, Cobblestone District, and DL&W

Cloudwalk one-minute
The Cloudwalk would transform the lives of bike riders and walkers. For bike riders, getting to the Outer Harbor becomes a scenic one-minute ride across the Buffalo River and City Ship Canal. A walker could traverse the distance in five minutes. What happens when you deliver such a radical improvement to a transportation mode? You induce traffic. In this case, the virtuous kind, for urban vitality as well as personal vitality.


The New York State Department of Transportation’s Skyway environmental review process is being steered to a pre-determined outcome featuring a new inland limited-access highway with three interchanges, a de facto additional two lanes of the Thruway, and a total scraping away of 3.3-miles auto-free infrastructure, whether that is necessary or desired. What started as a good idea by Governor Cuomo in 2018—how to undo the urban damage inflicted on Buffalo by an obsolete state highway —has morphed into a $600,000,000 Trojan Horse.

Download Cloudwalk - DL&W folio

We need a reset while it can still happen, as the environmental review process moves from scoping to draft stage. For starters, if a decision is made to abandon the Skyway for vehicular use and to deconstruct the damaging parts (the 3,300-foot viaduct north of the Buffalo River and its massive Thruway interchange), there is no legitimacy in removal of the urbanistically useful parts of it (14,000 feet, from the north bank of the river to Buffalo Harbor State Park). Parts that were just rebuilt at a cost of almost $90,000,000 in 2010.

The poster child of that reset—a reset of the very idea of expressways in the hearts of our cities— must be the conversion of the former Skyway, after deconstruction of the north viaduct, to a Cloudwalk connecting the historic DL&W train shed and Central Wharf to the Outer Harbor.

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The Cloudwalk would be active transport link (walking, pedaling, wheelchair) and observation deck. It transforms noisy, blighting piece of infrastructure into civic and mobility asset. It provides close-ups of General Mills grain elevator, which architectural historian Reyner Banham called “the most influential structure ever put up in North America,” as well as unparalleled, unhurried, and otherwise unattainable views of Buffalo’s grain elevators, a globally unique cultural landscape. Once Cloudwalk is built to Buffalo Harbor State Park, it should become part of the park.


This public-works project can continue to do public work by serving other transportation modes
, i.e., walking, bicycling, even skiing in winter. And, oh, there is that 50-mile view across the lake. And the views of the city. And the views of the unique cultural landscape of the grain elevators along the Buffalo River and City Ship Canal. And a direct, safe route for potentially millions of users per year from downtown to the Outer Harbor.

The Campaign contends that, once abandoned to vehicular traffic, removing the entire complex serves no transportation function and therefore there is no legitimacy for that action. Rather, removing the crossings and viaduct over the river and to Buffalo Harbor State Park prevents this expensive public work from serving other transportation modes, i.e., walking, bicycling, even skiing in winter.

“It is inexplicable from a transportation perspective that the primary goal of the DOT project is not transportation, but to ‘disappear’ all parts of the Skyway,” says Tim Tielman, Executive Director of The Campaign. “While there may be reasons to abandon it for vehiclular use, there is no argument to remove all the urbanistically useful parts of it along with the urbanistically damaging parts of it.”

Removing the northern approach, which prevents rebuilding the Canal District and whose massive interchange with the Thruway has cast a pall on all links between downton and the water for decades, is a good thing. It would free up over 12 acres of valuable land that could be restored to its historic purpose.

The crossing over the Buffalo River itself, however, and the southern approach (a viaduct and mile-long earthen embankment), can play a vital role in transportation and economic development and do it in a way that gives the city a new icon. Deconstructing the northern section while adapting the southern section for pedestrians and bikers would be a transportation and recreational asset for the millions of people who, even now, visit that area.

The Campaign fears that, if DOT gets its way, Buffalo will end up with a Trojan Horse, bringing ever more traffic, ever faster, to new and expanded limited-access highways, at a cost of $600,000,000, when the project could create new attractions, opportunities, and leverage other state projects instead.

Richard Lippes, attorney and Campaign Board member, says "This is a reasonable alternative to simply scraping away three miles of potentially transformational infrastructure built and rebuilt at great public expense. All reasonable alternatives must be considered under State and National environmental law, and we certainly will take whatever action necessary to assure that DOT and the public has this alternative to consider"

DOT owes a lot more to Buffalo than merely removing damaging pieces of infrastructure. It also must help rebuild the neighborhoods its highway policies destroyed, and their capacity for sustaining urban life. That’s something the Campaign will take up soon. Right now, Priority One is to save the infrastructure for a Cloudwalk.

“We should be thinking of Universal Access, and of ways to reduce traffic on the Thruway by looking at other modes and routes. We should be redistributing some of it along the local business routes that played such an important role in the Old First Ward,” says Tielman.

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The historic DL&W trainshed is an evocative industrial shelter directly under the current Skyway. Connected to the Cloudwalk, it would work spectacularly well as an open-air platform for all kinds of civic, recreational, social, and commercial uses. It even has an outdoor deck of enormous proportions on the Buffalo River overlooking the Michigan Avenue bridge. A pedestrian bridge linking it to the existing parking garage and the Cobblestone Historic District at Illinois street would be an obvious enhancement. A key to rejuvenating the DL&W is emphasize its historic character, not to waste time and treasure trying to make it into something it isn’t and should not be: a de-natured 365-day-a-year indoor shopping mall in an environment that, experience shows, is only optimally active during fair weather months. To be a success, the DL&W must have ramped access at multiple, visible points to advertise accessibility in easily understood ways. The most visible is Cloudwalk.

Saving Buffalo Central Terminal, Serving Neighborhood Starts With the Land.

The Central Terminal Restoration Corporation, working with a $5,000,000 state grant and a report by the Urban Land Institute, has been working on urgent building-envelope and utility needs, as well as developing long- and short-term strategies for its property, which includes the iconic office tower, concourse, and a five-story baggage wing, in addition to the elevated plaza that forms the terminus of Paderewski Street and open land between Memorial Drive and  Curtiss Street. It has spent much of the year on public outreach and discussion of community priorities.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo  has long felt that the entire historic complex, including land and buildings owned by the City of Buffalo, should be consolidated. It is the only way to proceed in a sustainable, comprehensive way. (Executive Director Tim Tielman was a founder of the Restoration Corporation and part-owner of the Terminal) The concept that The Campaign has shared with the Restoration Corp. and state officials is briefly laid out in the two pages attached below.

The concept implies treating the consolidated site as a kind of fairgrounds, with a mix of permanent buildings and designated areas for temporary ones, whether for one weekend, a season, or several years. The backdrop will always be the terminal tower, a branding device and symbol that is without equal, and would confer value and advantage to every enterprise in its domain.

 

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Saved at the Bell: How an Illegal Demolition was Stopped, a Buffalo Landmark Saved, and What Remains to be Done

 

St. John's
Quick, decisive action by The Campaign for Greater Buffalo stopped the destruction of St. John's iconic tower. The church, opened in 1927, is a masterpiece by architects Oakley & Schallmo.

Out-of-the-way but not out of mind, the greatest piece of architecture in Black Rock was being taken apart. But fate was about to intervene. Shortly after 7:00pm on Tuesday October 6, Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman was driving by the former St. John the Baptist R.C. Church on Hertel Avenue and East Street in Black Rock, and noticed a rental lift on the lawn next to the church. Tielman stopped to investigate and discovered that the church's emblematic Lombard Romanesque tower, or campanile, along the East Street side of the building, was being demolished. No one knew about it because there were no permits and no permission to do any work, let alone demolition. Click the link for the story as published in Greater Buffalo #29.0.
 Download Greater Buffalo St. John's hi-res 

Signs on the property proclaimed tenancy by North Gate, a Clarence-based evangelical group; the owners are RiverRock Church LLC and Buffalo Myanmar Indigenous Christian Fellowship. The last Catholic service was held in the church in 2005.

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Since then, a succession of entities owned it. The three-tiered campanile (pronounced camp-a-knee-lay), was offset from the nave of church, toward the rear. The campanile of St. John’s played a particularly prominent role in its architectural composition, almost acting as a second front. The east wall of the nave is held in place by a range of massive buttresses, of which the tower can be said to be the largest and last, as it visually supports the entire church by means of lateral bridging which is almost as stout as the tower itself. When Tielman got there, the uppermost lantern and cross of the iconic campanile were gone, and the lower octagon was partially gone. Wood and wire shored the tower, allowing for what appeared to be demolition by hand. A pile of bricks lay at the base of the tower, and a large dumpster contained what appeared to be the rest of the bricks of the demolished tower. A smaller dump-trailer contained interior demolition debris.

Tielman called Buffalo Commissioner of Inspections and Permits James Comerford immediately, looking for a stop-work order. Comerford confirmed that no permits—demolition- or asbestos-related— had been requested or issued, and said he would dispatch an inspector that night.

Demo Work Halted

The next morning, shortly after 7:00AM, Tielman was on-site. Seeing a group of contract workers from Cambar Contracting assembling, Tielman again called Comerford, who dispatched inspector Tracy Krug. Tielman informed the workers that no permit had been issued for the work, no review by the Preservation Board had occurred, and that they would be advised to stop work. The foreman refused, pending arrival of City officials and Buffalo Police, but no further demo occurred in the time it took the City inspector to arrive and shut the job down. Comerford confirmed that a written stop-work order would be delivered that afternoon.

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The campanile of St. John's on the morning of October 7.

 Shortly before the inspector's arrival, a Cambar supervisor arrived on-site and brandished a letter to Tielman from Siracuse Engineers, which allegedly summarized hazardous conditions in the tower. Tielman also called Preservation Board chair Gwen Howard and shortly met her at the site. She was emphatic with representatives of NorthGate, and evangelical organization that was overseeing the work, that plans must be submitted to the Preservation Board before any work could be approved.

 

Who made the decision to demolish?

The decision to demolish without permission, rather than mitigate the hazard in some other fashion pending resolution through proper channels, was apparently made North Gate, an evangelical organization that is partnering with the owners of record, RiverRock Church. RiverRock Church split the property in two pieces, selling the parish house to an entity known as 60 Hertel LLC. North Gate is expanding into the city with this project. A North Gate staffer on-site revealed, had established a deadline of November 1 for the work. That was driving the pace of the work. When Tielman offered that arbitrary deadlines shouldn't drive improprieties, he was told by the North Gate representative that "It is God's deadline." The North Gate representative claimed ignorance of the need for permits. Evidently, in Clarence people are allowed to undertake potential asbestos removal and disposal, demolition of historic structures, and excavation work related to the public water supply without permits. On top of all this, major masonry repointing has occurred without review. New copper flashing is in evidence as well, but again, without review. A pair of unique glazed terra cotta urns is missing from were the flashing was installed, and has been reportedly destroyed. The Campaign’s goals at Hertel and East were be to immediately stop further deterioration and see that plans for the full restoration of the tower were undertaken. These were accomplished. This will take more money and time than it should have.

Law is clear

 

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The St. John campanile serves as a second front on East Street, balancing the nave and apse

The Preservation Board at its October 15 meeting followed the legal directives of New York State and insisted that the tower be rebuilt. North Gate apologized for its neglect in asking for permits and undertaking demolition and modification. It agreed to come back with plans and descriptions of stabilization and reconstruction of the tower. Legal enforcement of proper civic conduct is the burden of the Preservation Board and the Department of Inspections and Permit Services. On the preservation side, the rules for designated historic structures are clear. New York State law mandates that localities adhere to the standards. They are issued by the Secretary of the Interior and are embodied in the New York State standards and the City of Buffalo standards for local landmarks. The very first piece of guidance in the entire corpus of preservation law is "identifying, retaining, and preserving character-defining features." The tower is obviously character-defining. The upper part of the tower and decorative terra cotta urns formerly capping the portal are dismantled, but the historic materials are still on site. There they must remain until they can be used to reassemble the tower.

A Mea Culpa and Promise to Rebuild

North Gate returned to the Preservation Board on October 30 with plans in hand. The Board approved an initial phase of work, including temporarily removing the top of the tower for stabilization and the construction of a platform on which the rebuilt upper tiers will rest. All materials from the campanile are to be sympathetically dismantled, documented, and stored on the site. In addition, periodic progress reports must be submitted no less than quarterly. The vote to approve was 8-0, contingent on the tower being fully restored. There was one recusal. Anthony James, an architect and Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s representative on the Board, was forced to recuse himself when it was revealed through his Facebook comments that had been asked “to look at” North Gate’s options last summer, had informed Preservation Buffalo Niagara at the time, knew of the owner’s Donation banner2 1decision to demolish, and was aware of ongoing work. It became known, in addition, that James was a member of North Gate, a fact which he did not divulge to the Preservation Board. James did not inform the Preservation Board of the threat to a landmarked structure, and insisted that St. John’s was not an official landmark. In fact, St. John’s was among the earliest designations, in the first year of its eligibility. The process of rebuilding the tower will take time, patience, diligence and more money than it should have. That is time and money well spent to preserve the first building in Black Rock to be awarded city landmark designation. Stopping the destruction was only the first step.

Architects Albert Schallmo and Chester Oakley

The former St John the Baptist Church is one of four masterpieces designed by the firm of Oakley and Schallmo in the 1920's. St. John’s, in a group with Blessed Trinity, St. Luke, and St. Casimir. They display the highest level of craftsmanship in brick architecture in the city. Recent research suggests Albert Schallmo, a German Catholic raised in the Fruit Belt, did the drawings. A talented draftsman and architect, Schallmo is credited with designing the recently demolished Franks House at 184 West Utica Street in Buffalo. That demolition, by companies affiliated with developer Nick Sinatra, was opposed by block clubs and the Preservation Board, which had voted to landmark the house based on the association with Schallmo and the evident craftsmanship. The Franks House was completed in 1907. It is unclear whether Schallmo was moonlighting, but in any case, he was back at the drafting board full-time from 1908 through 1918, working successively for Lansing & Beierl, Williams Lansing, and finally, Lansing, Bley & Lyman.

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Blessed Trinity, though last of Oakley & Schallmo churches too be completed, was designed first and caused the St. John parish and two others to commission the firm

Lansing & Beierl was one of the top firms in the city in the first decade of the 20th century. In the first three years Schallmo is known to have worked for them (1908-1910), the firm designed over 20 buildings or additions, including 219 Bryant Street for Children’s Hospital and a house for masonry contractor Ballard Crocker at 114 Chapin Parkway, of, naturally, finely detailed brick. Schallmo stayed with Lansing when the latter split with Beierl in 1910. Lansing’s work address is then listed with Bley and Lyman, with some work credited to him alone, and others to Lansing, Bley & Lyman.

In August 1913, the same month parishioner Schallmo was married in Our Lady of Lourdes church, Lansing, Bley & Lyman were designing the Lourdes school. With Lansing, two exceptional houses came off the drafting boards: 68 Penhurst Park and 180 Chapin Parkway, both Arts & Crafts temples of domesticity. In 1913, another draftsman is hired, Chester Oakley. Like Schallmo, he had East Side working class roots, living in the Fruit Belt with his peripatetic parents. Unlike Schallmo, who had five siblings, Oakley was an only child. It seems, from later events, that the two hit it off.

Thriving, Schallmo designed and built his own stuccoed Arts & Crafts cottage in 1915 on the banks of Ellicott Creek in Williamsville, where he grew up. Art glass, terra cotta, and oaken detailing in the Schallmo house are a warm embrace of the Arts & Crafts ethos, and a steppingstone between the Franks house of eight years prior and Blessed Trinity eight years after. By 1916, there was no question the United States was going to join the allies in the Great War. This put a damper on architectural work, and plan filings at Lansing, Bley & Lyman virtually dissappear. In late 1917 the U.S. is at war against Germany, and Schallmo does not appear to be employed in the City of Buffalo.

Sometime in 1918 Schallmo is back at work in Buffalo, as an architect and engineer with Sizer Forge, an essential wartime industry. After the war, back at Lansing, Bley & Lyman, the latter two decide to set up their own firm in 1919. Draftsman Oakley stayed with Lansing, becoming a partner in Lansing & Oakley. A short year later, Lansing dropped dead over dinner at home.

Oakley reached out to Schallmo, busy designing houses in Williamsville for his neighbors and fellow parishioners at SS Peter and Paul R.C. Church (for which he designed a school). Schallmo agreed to a partnership. Oakley & Schallmo set up shop in 1921. The first structure to which Schallmo’s name is attached from this office is the craft-forward rectory of Annunciation Church, completed in 1922. Schallmo was the motive force in the firm, with his connections in the German Catholic East Side paying dividends almost immediately.

Schallmo’s expressive talent in brick architecture, begun at 184 West Utica, honed at the elbows of Williams Lansing and Max Beierl, and reaching maturity at the Annunciation rectory, would come to fullest flower in four ecclesiastical masterpieces over five years.

When Schallmo moved out of the family house in the Fruit Belt upon marriage, the rest of the Schallmo clan joined eldest brother William in a classic shophouse at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Holden Street. It was in the largely German neighborhood that grew up around quarries in the northeast section of the city known as the Yammerthal (“Vale of Tears”). The Buffalo Diocese had just established Blessed Trinity parish, and laid the cornerstone of a its combination church-school-social hall in 1907. The Schallmos were there at the start. When John Schallmo died in 1915, his funeral service was presided over by the founding priest of Blessed Trinity, John Pfluger. In 1916, Pfluger was assigned to another German parish, and Albert Fritton, a Canisius College graduate, took over. Like Pfluger, Fritton was a graduate of the famous Canisianum Jesuitical institute in Innsbruck, Austria. While there, Fritton traveled to neighboring Italy, where he was deeply impressed by the religious architecture of Lombardy.

At the fast-growing Blessed Trinity, Fritton had the opportunity to plan for a new, permanent church, agreed upon by the parish in 1922. When thinking of who might design the structure, Albert Schallmo must have crossed Fritton’s mind immediately. In late 1922 Oakley & Schallmo filed plans. The larger-than-life figure of Thomas Plassman, new president of St. Bonaventure College, chose the hundreds of iconographic castings which adorn the exterior. The polymathic Plassman, yet another German native, would have been known to all involved. Schallmo supervised construction, which started in 1923.

 

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St. Casimir in Kaisertown is one of four brick masterpieces by Oakley & Schallmo

One look at Blessed Trinity’s plans, and other parishes rapidly enlisted Oakley & Schallmo: St. John the Baptist (the first of the four completed, in 1927), St. Casimir, and St. Luke. Each was in an outlying working-class neighborhood. One imagines the two young architects seizing the chance to bequeath people like themselves architectural objects of great beauty generally reserved for downtown. In addition, President Plassman of St. Bonaventure followed up with commissions for a dormitory and oratory at his growing college, with the promise for more work.

 

The future looked bright, but disaster struck. In January 1928, after St. John’s had opened the previous summer, ground been broken for St. Luke in the fall, and as finishing touches were being applied to Blessed Trinity and St. Casimir, Schallmo died suddenly. He was 43. No cause of death was made public. With the talented Joseph Fronczyk also having just left for his own practice, the firm withered under the reclusive Oakley. The practice lived largely off relationships established by the socially active and hands-on Schallmo.

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Law is Clear: St. John's Tower Must Rise Again

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Drawing by Lawrence McIntyre from the book "Designated Landmarks of the Niagara Frontier," shows significance of recently destroyed tower of St. John the Baptist Church to overall composition of building
 
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Condition of tower, with temporary shoring, after an illegal attempt by owner to remove it was stopped by The Campaign for Greater Buffalo. Owner intent was to leave only bottom tier of tower.

 

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2007 photo shows glazed terra cotta ornament on stone or cast stone plinths on either side of entrance have been removed, and the plinths capped with copper.


It remains unclear who funded or directed the illegal destruction of the character-defining tower of the former St. John the Baptist Church, a brick-and-terra-cotta masterpiece by architects Oakley and Schallmo. Completed in 1927,  it has long been a designated City of Buffalo historic landmark. Its dismantlement became public knowledge when Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman drove by the site on Tuesday night.  It is clear, however, that the Preservation Board must follow legal directives from New York State and insist that the tower be rebuilt (it next meets on Thursday, October 15), and Mayor Byron Brown must back up the Preservation Board's resolve through enforcement actions of the Department of Permit and Inspection Services. North Gate, an evangelical organization that has now badged the property with its banners, must take moral ownership of its lapse and fund the reconstruction. Legal enforcement of proper civic conduct is the burden of the Preservation Board and the Department of Inspections and Permit Services.
 

The money to fix the tower must be prioritized. A lot of money is being spent around the complex by North Gate. The religious organizations involved—North Gate is partnering with RiverRock Church and another organization— will claim they didn't have the money to preserve the tower, so they certainly would not have the money to rebuild it. But a religious organization's financial books are, uniquely, closed to all. So the public is left to trust organizations whose supervisor on the site claimed ignorance of the need to get asbestos surveys and permits, demolition permits, and Preservation Board review.

On the preservation side, the rules for preservation of historic structures are clear, and New York State law mandates that localities adhere to the standards.  They are issued by the Secretary of the Interior and are embodied in the New York State  standards and the the City of Buffalo standards for local landmarks. The very first piece of guidance in the entire corpus of preservation law is  "identifying, retaining, and preserving  character-defining features." The tower is obviously character-defining. The upper part of the tower (and decorative terra cotta ornaments formerly on the front wall of the church) is dismantled, but the historic materials are still on site. There they must remain until they can be used to reassemble the tower. Preservation Board Chair Gwen Howard arrived on site Wednesday morning and was emphatic with representatives of NorthGate, and evangelical organization that was overseeing the work, that plans must be submitted to the Preservation Board before any work could be approved.

On the City side, Commissioner James Comerford, upon being informed of the situation Tuesday night, immediately confirmed that no permits—demolition- or asbestos-related— had been requested or issued, and dispatched an inspector that night. On Wednesday morning shortly after 7:00AM, when notified by Tim Tielman of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo that workmen were on site and preparing to continue the dismantlement, again dispatched an inspector who stopped work upon arrival, and was to issue a written stop work order that day. No work may proceed without Preservation Board review and approval. The Board next meets (remotely) on Thursday October 15.

The process of rebuilding the tower will take time, patience, diligence and more money than it should have. That is time and money well spent to preserve the first building in Black Rock to be awarded city landmark designation. Stopping the destruction was only the first step.

[This article has been updated to correct ownership information]


Demo work halted at St. John's in Black Rock; other violations come to light.

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The tower of the former St. John the Baptist on the morning of Oct. 7, after demolition work had been stopped. Emergency water-shedding measures have been approved by the City. The ornamental ventilator of the historic school is visible through the tower's arch.


The demolition work at the former St. John the Baptist Church in Black Rock has been halted, thanks to the timely intervention of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford dispatched inspector Tracy Krug to the site at 62 Hertel Avenue shortly after 7:00 AM upon receiving a call from Tim Tielman of  The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, who was on-site.  Tielman approached a group of contract workers from Cambar Contracting and informed them that no permit had been issued for the work on the landmark, no review by the Preservation Board had occurred, and that they would be advised to stop work. The foreman refused, pending arrival of City officials and Buffalo Police, but no further demo occurred in the time it took the City inspector to arrive and shut the job down. Comerford confirmed that a written stop-work order will be delivered this afternoon.

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A trailer filled with interior demolition debris, some of it friable, and none of it tested for asbestos, sits behind the former St. John the Baptist Church

Shortly before the inspector's arrival, a Cambar supervisor arrived on-site and brandished a letter to Tielman from Siracuse Engineers, which allegedly summarized hazardous conditions in the tower. The decision to demolish without permission, rather than mitigate the hazard in some other fashion pending resolution through proper channels, was apparently made North Gate, an evangelical organization that is is partnering with the owners of record, RiverRock Church. RiverRock Church split the property in two pieces, selling the parish house to 60 Hertel LLC to the Mosaic 659 Foundation. Mark Herskind, a trustee of Mosaic 659, which is registered at the same  address as his residence, is a significant supporter of local evangelical Christian enterprises, including Jericho Road Community Center, which River Road also claims as a "partner." 

North Gate, a Clarence-based evangelical group that is expanding into the city with this project. North Gate is funding a large project there with a deadline of November 1st, an organization staffer on-site revealed. That is driving the pace of the work. When Tielman offered that arbitrary deadlines shouldn't drive improprieties, he was told by the North Gate representative that "It is God's deadline."

 

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North Gate, a Clarence-based evangelical group, is funding the unpermitted demolition and plumbing work as part of its expansion into Buffalo. It is advertising a Nov. 1 grand opening 

The North Gate representative feigned ignorance of the need for permits. Evidently, in Clarence people are allowed to undertake potential asbestos removal and disposal, demolition of historic structures, and excavation work related to the public water supply without permits.

On top of all this, major masonry repointing has occurred without review. It is unknown if the mortar mix used matches the original specifications of architects Oakley & Schallmo, who are perhaps the greatest masters of brick architecture the city has produced. New copper flashing is in evidence as well, but again, without review, the public has no knowledge of whether this or any other work was properly done.

The goal at Hertel and East must be to immediately stop further deterioration and issue plans for the full restoration of the tower. This will now take more money and time than it would have, but North Gate must commit to it, and commit to following the laws of the City of Buffalo henceforth.

[This post has been updated to correct ownership information.]


Campaign Moves to Stop Illegal Demo at St. John the Baptist in Black Rock

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The East Street elevation of St. John the Baptist shows the tower as it existed last month


An illegal demolition at the former St. John the Baptist church at 60 Hertel Avenue in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood has been uncovered. The church is one of four masterpieces designed by the firm of Oakley and Schallmo in the 1920's. St. John, in a group with Blessed Trinity, St. Luke, and St. Casimir, displays the highest level of craftsmanship in brick architecture  in the city. Shortly after 7:00pm on Tuesday October 6, Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman was driving by on Hertel Avenue and noticed a rental lift on the lawn next to the church. Not recalling any action before the city's Preservation Board, Tielman stopped to investigate and discovered that the church's emblematic Italian Renaissance tower, along the East Street side of the building, was being demolished.

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St. John the Baptist was opened in 1927, a masterpiece of brick by Oakley and Schallmo


The tower was designed as a three-stepped structure terminating in an arcaded octagonal lantern with a tiled roof. Atop all was a cross. Below, the tower is supported by a square shaft with a monumental battered base. Architecturally, the tower forms a necessary counter balance to the extravagantly ornamented elevation, which features a heroic rose window over a Spanish Baroque portal. The east wall of the nave is held in place by a range of massive buttresses, of which the tower can be said to be the largest, as it supports the entire church by means of lateral bridging which is almost as stout as the tower itself.

It is this tower which is in a state of demolition. The uppermost lantern and cross are gone, and the lower octagon is partially gone. Wood and wire bracing wraps the tower, allowing for what appears to be demolition by hand. A pile of bricks lies at the base of the tower, and a large dumpster contains what appears to be the rest of the bricks of the demolished tower. A smaller dump-trailer contains interior demolition debris.

The last Catholic service was held in the church in 2005. Since then, a succession of entities owned it. Records show the the current owners are River Rock Church LLC and the Buffalo Myanmar Indigenous Christian Fellowship.

Tielman called Buffalo Commissioner of Inspections and Permits Jim Comerford immediately, looking for a stop-work order. Comerford reported that no permits had been issued for the work, and that he would send an inspector and the police in the morning. The Campaign will be there as well, bright and early.

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The partially demolished tower on the night of October 6. The demolition is illegal.
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Confirmation of demo, rather than repair: bricks from the tower in a dumpster in back of the church

 


Cornell, UB teams working on Campaign concept of high-speed "Road Train"  

Road Train cover 2 Road Train head 1The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture is sponsoring a series of design studios this fall and next spring with Cornell University and the University of Buffalo

Two studios, one at Cornell and one at UB, are researching a concept of The Campaign for an intercity public transit system utilizing high-speed articulated vehicles in the median of the Thruway at average speeds above 100mph. The UB studio, led by professor Jeffrey Rehler and consisting of Environmental Design and Architecture students, will evaluate mobility systems and explore the design of the new road bed, stations, and the station areas. 

The Cornell studio, led by professor Sirietta Simoncini and consisting of Masters students in Systems Engineering, as well as City and Regional Planning students, will utilize  a process of "systems design thinking" to investigate how such a sustainable mobility system could be set up, implemented, and operate. 

The studios  are under the auspices of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UB and the College of Engineering at Cornell. 

"We are excited to be sponsoring studios that address urgent needs in Buffalo and Upstate cities as a whole," said Tim Tielman, Executive Director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo.

"The Road Train studios spring from the observation that the railroad era gave us cities with very strong centering effects," continued Tielman. "After 60 years, it is evident that frequent, fast public intercity train service, like that available to downstate residents, is not in the cards for upstate, and it is time to explore whether center cities can be revitalized, and citizens helped, by a transit system that duplicates the success of trains but at much less time and money."

Download Greater Buffalo #28.1 Road Train