Take Me to the River: How Buffalo Can Get Rid of its Waterfront Barrier and Achieve Widescale Preservation and Recreation-based Development
If there is one thing we can do for ourselves and our children and our children’s children, it would be to rid ourselves of the cursed and thoroughly damned Thruway along the Niagara River. Blocks of historic houses in Black Rock, Riverside, and the West Side are being consumed by disinvestment. Whole neighborhoods are at risk. Preservationists, environmentalists, neighborhood activists, and just plain residents would find common cause in this issue. [This article, as it appeared, with illustrations, in the Winter 2006 issue of our newspaper, Greater Buffalo, is available by clicking on the link that follows.]
Sure, it has been discussed before, even studied. But it always has been with the understanding that the Niagara Section of the Thruway would merely be moved and supersized to modern standards (i.e., a 70 mph design speed and infrequent but huge interchanges). That is not what we need. We need it gone, and a boulevard-like road replacing it.
There is now also some urgency to the question, for the long-running debate about whether and where to build another international bridge is coming to a head in the Final Environmental Impact Statement stage. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo supports a low-level lift bridge between the historic communities of Black Rock in the U.S. and Bridgeburg in Canada. A high-level bridge and its attendant ramps connecting to the Thruway would insure the continued existence of the Thruway and the decline of the neighborhoods it goes through.
Buffalo is the only major city in the east and midwest where the sun sets over water. We live in a resort and we don’t know it. That is because the Thruway is a wall of concrete and a wall of noise inhibiting our enjoyment and economic wellbeing.
Around the country cities are dismantling freeways to gain access to their waterfronts. Grand public parks and esplanades, some stretching for miles, fill with people from all walks of life. This in turn attracts real estate investment, stores and restaurants, and increased tax revenues. Buffalo ought to take advantage of this trend.
We can improve our economy by removing destructive waterfront highways and replacing them with parks, housing, and community retail. As we speak, Portland, Oregon is removing an expressway along the Willamette River and creating a spectacular public waterfront funded by tax revenues from $600,000,000 in private development attracted by the park. Fort Worth has torn down an elevated Interstate, built parks, and is now seeing renovations of long-neglected historic buildings and new construction. San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway was damaged in an earthquake. Rather than rebuild it, citizens demanded it be torn down and replaced by a ground-level boulevard. A truck fell through New York’s West Side Highway. Citizens rejected rebuilding the eyesore and had it replaced by a boulevard. Today the 5-mile-long, $300,000,000 Hudson River Park connects every single street it touches with the Hudson, thousands of people flock to the park daily and high end housing is sprouting where once there was only dereliction.
Boston, Cincinnati, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee are some of the other cities removing, relocating, or covering their highway blight. The projects are funded by tax revenues from adjacent development and new state and federal programs, like the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.
The key to making headway on the project may be to first construct a boulevard in Black Rock and Riverside, which would create the logic and opportunity to remove the Thruway north of Scajacquada Creek when the time comes for a major reconstruction. Such a ‘Black Rock Boulevard,’on unused railroad property from the old Black Rock Yards straight north to the Youngmann Expressway in Tonawanda could be built for about the cost of the public subsidies for the current Bass Pro retail store proposal downtown.
This needs the approval of the Interstate Commerce Commission. The boulevard, similar to downtown’s Elm-Oak arterial, would create the means to abandon the Thruway. Acre upon acre of prime waterfront land would be gained for park use.
Trucks would no longer traverse local streets to get from the Thruway to industrial plants in the rail corridor, because the boulevard would get them there directly.
The lower Scajacquada Expressway can then be removed between. Grant St. and the Black Rock Canal, and replaced with a parkway and greenbelt to the Boulevard along the northern edge of the old Pratt & Letchworth brownfield. This will shield the adjacent neighborhood from the site. It will also free Scajacquada Creek from the expressway, which now actually has support piers directly in the creek bed. The confluence of the creek with the Black Rock Canal would be an expansive space for parks and attractive housing.
The next step would be to build new parks on freed land connecting Riverside, Delaware parks and a Niagara River Park between downtown Buffalo and Lewiston. In areas where the highway simply cannot be removed, i.e. from the Peace Bridge to Scajacquada Creek, the Riverwalk should be rerouted to the Black Rock Canal shore (instead of along Niagara Street). Every single street that used to run down to the water should be reconnected to it by means of pedestrian bridges.
Lastly, the Thruway should be converted to a boulevard and park along the West Side, exactly like the old West Side Highway along the Hudson in New York has been made into West Street. This, in fact, has just been put in the city’s most recent masterplan.
In New York, West Street is a ground-level boulevard with a central median, and a new linear park, the Hudson River Park. It stretches for a length of 5 miles, connecting with the Henry Hudson Parkway in the north at Riverside Park and West Street in the south at Battery Park City. Every single Manhattan cross street is connected to the boulevard, allowing easy neighborhood access to the water. The result? A seismic upthrust in quality of life resulting in, so far, hundreds of millions of dollars of residential development and a great new social space for an entire region.
Where would the money come from to finance this? Besides the sources mentioned earlier, there are state Transportation Bond Acts (one of which, giving almost $2 billion to upstate road projects, was approved by voters in November 2005). Then there are the periodic, massive federal transportation acts which regularly amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. Getting money for roads is easy. Just about everything else is hard (including school lunches for needy children).
Why this is is nicely explained by Douglas Rae in his outstanding City: Urbanism and Its End: “Only on points of near-perfect national unanimity does the federal government act with concerted force...such points of consensus are apt to be ones on which massive consumer interests and major producer interests converge. One of these is the hegemony of the automobile, and another is the sanctity of the detached single-family home-neither of which has been friendly to our cities, both of which have been backed and sustained by governmental initiatives of stupendous proportions. When policy runs with the grain of capitalism-as it does with the automobile industry and the building trades and once did with the railroads-the full powers of a continental state can be mobilized.”
But preservationists supporting road projects? Thirty years of preservation, environmental, and social justice laws and battles have forced mitigation packages for road projects to include public goods that otherwise would go begging. This road project could cure a persistant blight, create new parks, increase the value of historic housing stock, revitalize traditional neighborhood shopping districts, and set off a virtuous spriral of investment. That seems like a good way to achieve preservation by non-traditional means.