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Canal District streets an unfortunate farce slammed by expert; politcos, bureaucrats repeat falsehoods

The October 30, 2010 Buffalo News has a story on the construction of new streets in the Canal District. The streets use some material salvaged from the destruction of the historic streets at the site last year, but are otherwise totally new: the run on different tangents to the original street network, the are either much narower (Prime Street) or broader (Hanover Street) than they were before, they have modern turning radii to accomodate tractor-trailers, they are starkly defined by modern polished granite curbing—the list goes on.

What is particularly disturbing is how the Buffalo mayor Byron Brown, Congressman Brian Higgins, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation Chairman Jordan Levy and others continue to spout the party line: that this mashup of a themed shopping environment is faithful to the directive of a court-ordered plan of 2004; i.e., that the streets follow the Secretray of the Interior's Guidelines for historic preservation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. They do not, and they have known it in fine detail since at least March of this year.

Below is the full text of a letter sent by Tim Tielman, Executive Director of The Campaign, to Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Stephen Stepniak in March, which contains an evaluation of the project by Dr. Michael Tomlan of Cornell University. The letter was copied to Mayor Brown and Congressman Higgins, among others.

Letter to Stephen Stepniak, Commissioner of Public Works, March 24, 2010

"I am appending to the bottom of this e-mail, in its entirety, an evaluation of the Canal District streets project by Dr. Michael A. Tomlan. Richard Berger and I met with members of your staff, that of ECHDC, and DiDonato Associates late last fall to discuss our concerns with the project "Erie Canal Harbor Historic Streets Design - Phase 2." At that meeting, which was constructive and amiable, we were asked what exactly we would like to have changed. Among our concerns was that no one with historic preservation expertise was part of the design or decision-making process. Accordingly, we requested time to consult with experts prior to proposing any changes.

"We asked Professor Tomlan to review the project and whatever historic documentation we could supply. He generously gave his time and submitted the appended remarks.

"Professor Tomlan is the director of the Historic Preservation Planning Program in the Department of City & Regional Planning at Cornell University. He directs the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation Planning and Cornell’s Clarence S. Stein Institute for Urban and Landscape Studies.

"He also serves as Chair of the Senior Board of Advisers to the Global Heritage Fund. Among the courses he teaches are Documentation for Preservation, Building Materials Conservation, American Urban History, and Preservation Planning and Urban Change. In addition, Professor Tomlan is intimately familiar with the project area, having visited the site several times over the years, commented on previous environmental reviews, and consulted on a ground-penetrating radar study of the area in the year 2000.

"There is probably no one more qualified to evaluate the historic preservation aspects of this project than Professor Tomlan.

"We would like to meet with you and staff as soon as possible to discuss Professor Tomlan's comments. In the interim, we ask that no further work take place on the street project.

"Public discussion and awareness of preservation issues is part of our mission, and the Canal District is a particularly important place with a high level of public interest. Toward that end, we will make Professor Tomlan's report generally available and continue constructive dialogue with the City and ECHDC regarding it.   

"The Canal District is of obvious importance to the history of the city, state, and nation. Done right, it will be a source of pride, sound urban planning, heritage tourism, neighborhood development, and economic reward. We look forward to contributing to this worthwhile project."

          Evaulation of Canal District Streets Project by Dr. Michael Tomlan

"Dear Tim,

"Thank you for contacting me regarding the Canal District streets project in Buffalo.

"I have reviewed the bid drawings of the project you sent, historic photographs and surveys of the site, and photographs of the unearthed streets taken in 2002, as well as photographs of the work as of November 2009. The persistent snow cover since November rendered a site visit unproductive, but I don't think it would have influenced my conclusions.

"I am alarmed that the work has occurred without any documentation being done, beyond the archeological work undertaken for the SFEIS some years ago.  As we learned by doing ground penetrating radar on a portion of the site, the entire run of the streets would have been uncovered and available for study, informing decisions on how to proceed. Further, the planning was apparently done without participation and formal review by independent preservation specialists.  When we consider the site’s importance to Buffalo and the nation, this is irresponsible and negligent.

"Even the most cursory review of documentary evidence by anyone with final say in the project would have produced different results.  As we see it, the streets are fully modern in every respect, down to the faux historic street lamps and posts and stamped concrete. Whatever salvaged material that remains from the demolished streets is reduced to mere decorative accent.  The project’s title, “Historic Streets Design, Phase 2,” is a misnomer; there is nothing historically authentic about it. 

"Fortunately, many things are relatively easy to correct at this stage. They must be corrected soon because the infrastructure was the point of departure for all that came after, and can again be the basis for that what is to come. Failing reconstructing the streets as they were in 1910 or 1880 or 1873, the conceptual street layout as shown in the 2004 Master Plan would be far better.  Buffalo, and history, would be much better served if the work done to date were simply scrapped.

"From the photographs you supplied and statements of city officials and contractors reported by you after a meeting on the subject, all historic material has been removed from Lloyd, Hanover, Prime, and Dayton streets. This includes sidewalks, curbs, gutters, roadways and any public facility elements, such as hydrant bases, manholes, or drainage grates which may have been there. There appears to be nothing left intact in their materials, alignment, profile, surface, edge treatment, width, length. The historic streets have been destroyed.  The positive news is that the city reports that all of the remaining street pavers have been salvaged, and perhaps some sidewalk pavers.

"Installed to date has been new granite curbing with a polished top and battered face, a gravel bed, and a uniform concrete base, as well as accommodations for drainage along one side of each street. The streets are of uniform width, which is contrary to surveys done in the early 20th century and maps and photographic evidence from the 1850’s to the 1960’s. This is particularly a concern with Prime Street as it proceeds along Central Wharf.

"Historically, the street varied in width during both the pre-railroad and post railroad periods, primarily in response to the unique property ownership and private construction through time. Prior to the railroad work in the 1880’s, for example, the right-of-way of Prime Street at Lloyd was 90 feet. The present proposal is to have a  right-of-way of only 46 feet, half the width of the street at this point historically.  You may remember that the roadway was made wider still by the railroad in dramatic and well-documented fashion in May 1886, when it installed tracks in the street under cover of darkness.  This simple physical illustration of the power of the railroads in 19th century Buffalo, and America, would be lost in the current proposal. Further, Hanover’s width has been changed, from 40 feet to 44 feet, which may have significant consequences.

"I understand work has been stopped until April. Then, the rest of the project would be done, including very damaging and seemingly counterproductive  work to facilitate two-way vehicular traffic around a Skyway pier. All the work is intended to accommodate the automobile and truck, rather than have that traffic make whatever accommodations must be made to use the historic infrastructure and the pedestrians it serves.

"The only way to remedy the situation is to reconstruct the streets faithful to the spirit and letter of the Secretary of Interior Standards. It is clear that, in order to do this, the work that is now on seasonal hiatus must not be permitted to be completed; to do otherwise would be throwing good money after bad.

"As The Secretary's Standards note on integrity says, “Emphasis is on the need for an accurate depiction. Research and documentation necessarily precedes this. “...the objective in reconstruction is to re-create the appearance of the historic landscape...” However, as this is a reconstruction, it must be noted by a marker of some type in the vicinity — a sign, a brochure, trained personnel — that informs the visitor of the reconstruction, and the reasons for it, in an unobtrusive way.

"Therefore, any serious attempt at achieving historic character requires a commitment to accuracy.  Without it, the result will be an ill-informed simulation.  Simply put, to conform to best preservation practices and the letter and spirit of The Treatment for Cultural Landscapes (formally, The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes) the streets must be reconstructed so as to replicate visible conditions prior to their destruction.

"Here is a list of items included in proposed project which need review by an independent consultant with experience in conforming to the Standards. These, in turn, should be reviewed in public at key points in the process and before final amendments are made. They are in no particular order, and not necessarily exhaustive.

Bollards (MD-1).
The plans show standardized, off-the-shelf metallic decorative bollards with an enamel finish, used in modern and pseudo-historic themed applications across America. Historic photos of the Canal District environs show simple, no-nonsense wooden and stone bollards.

Fencing (MD-2).
Plans show inappropriate modern fencing. Historic photography shows a fencing treatment on lower Main Street, near Prime Street, that consists of wooden or stone posts and wire running horizontally. The wire was kept taut with turnbuckles.

The manner in which crosswalks are designed throughout the site is, next to the intersection of Lloyd and Marine Drive, the most damaging alteration to the historic streetscape. The crosswalks are tongues of asphalt extending into the site from surrounding streets, or, on interior corners, concrete strips not less than 10 feet wide. The stone street paving is thoroughly contained and controlled. These have no historic precedent.  A much simpler historic approach should be followed.

Compliance to the ADA can be done much more harmoniously and accurately by the simply replicating documented pedestrian crossings in the area. These utilized broad sandstone sidewalk pavers. Set properly and of sufficient thickness to bear vehicular traffic, this would be an ideal solution. The curbcuts, ramps, and warning strips called for to comply with ADA are perhaps unavoidable, but the ramps should be of Medina sandstone, as the 2004 Urban Renewal Area amendment instructs.

A thorough review of historic city paving contracts and historic photography is necessary here. Great care must be taken regarding a Period of Significance. I favor a period from 1822 to 1927, at minimum, to encompass the pre-canal-, canal- and railroad eras. This would produce a "layered" landscape, which can be understood for having undergone change. Unfortunately, it was determined that most railroad-era construction be removed from the site along the Commercial Slip and proximate to it. It appears that the DL&W railroad and its predecessors were responsible for much of the concrete sidewalks in the area from their work which ended in 1917. At least on Lloyd Street, sections of sandstone remained. It is almost certain that prior to World War I, all sidewalks in the area were sandstone from the point at which the roadways themselves were paved.

It would not be inappropriate to pave all the sidewalks with sandstone if the Period of Significance is the nineteenth-century.  This decision and implementation is already implied in the 2004 Guidelines, which call for sandstone sidewalks throughout. This would have the effect of making another distinction with the surrounding streets.

It is essential to do a thorough records search on all the street (roadway, sidewalk, and curb) paving before making decisions on redesign and mitigation. This would help determine a period of significance, design details, materials, alignments, widths, and whether, for example, to extend Lloyd Street to the Buffalo River.

Street edges.
The modern granite curbing such as currently installed is inappropriate for the project. Its razor sharp edges, bright color, and high reflectivity are in stark contrast to the soft, rounded qualities acquired by Medina sandstone. It can be seen from Commercial Street how the granite curbing actually “pops out” in three dimensions, outlining and containing the older material in dominant fashion; the feeling of historicity is lost and the street becomes a mere interpretive element. All curbing must be Medina sandstone, which is approved by NYSDOT for this purpose.

Street corners.
It appears that the street corners within the entire project area were historically determined by the simplest of means: taking the adjacent sidewalk widths and arcing them around the corners of the building lots. This yielded radii generally of eight feet (when two sidewalks of different widths met, at Main and Hanover, say, the radius was that of the narrower sidewalk). It is part of what makes historic districts so congenial, comfortable, and safe for pedestrians, and thus attracts them.

The current streets project, in opposition, has enormous radii predicated on automobile engineering standards. From these, the shape of building lots apparently was determined, in the manner of a modern commercial or residential development. Not only is this clearly evident at the Lloyd and Hanover Street intersection with Marine Drive, but also at the intersections with Prime Street. There, the corners of the building lots are cut diagonally in response to engineering for cars. There are significant negative impacts on the integrity and perception of the historic resources.

The buildings that arise on these lots will shape the streets—the site’s public space—in the third dimension. The spatial dimensions of the resulting streetscape will play every bit as large a role in conveying character and feeling as any architectural treatment. The dimensions can either embody and convey the peculiar historical facts of Buffalo’s Canal District for centuries onward, or not.

Street profiles.
Quite literally, its profile contributes greatly to a historic street’s “feel.” Recent photographs of Lloyd Street show evidence of a pronounced crown in the center of the roadway. Two types of gutter are documented: The first, a single course of sandstone block laid parallel to the curb and depressed slightly below the adjacent, perpendicular roadway paving; the second, a wide trough of at least seven courses of stone parallel with the curb. On Lloyd Street, at least, the first appears to have been laid at the time the elevation and alignment of the railroad (and Prime Street) was changed, necessitating Lloyd Street to ramp up to Prime Street. Concrete retaining walls were installed at this time, producing a complex topography. The typical street sections (TS-1) show a modern, radically simplified profile. The streets are flat and canted slightly to drain to one side; guttering does not conform to the evidence.

I agree generally with your assessment of the various streets as submitted in the DGEIS process. I’ll quote them and add comment:

“Where Lloyd Street was to be simply restored as a pedestrian route, with the object lesson of a Skyway pier rising from it, the redesign shows two-way traffic routed around it on broad curving strips of asphalt. Where the historic roadway of Lloyd met Marine Drive, its width was 25 feet. The redesigned Lloyd Street flares out like a river delta 100 feet from the intersection and is fully 160 feet wide at its mouth, over six times its former width. Any buildings that would be constructed would follow the new street pattern, eliminating the feeling of enclosure that provides so much of the character and satisfaction of narrow, historic streets.
"In deciding to open Lloyd Street to traffic, and two-way traffic at that, ECHDC has made the Skyway pier the chief determinate of the Street. It is interesting to note that the driving lanes around the pier are 11 feet wide. Were the original alignment maintained, a one-way driving lane of 11 feet on the west side of the pier would be possible. With pavement markings within the section of full-width street north of the pier, it would even be possible to have a 90-degree corner without changing the historic alignment at all.”

It is difficult to select which aspect of the mouth of Lloyd Street is a more egregious violation of the Standards, but the traffic island bisected by a fake street of stamped concrete (at the level of the sidewalk), stands out. Quite separate from preservation concerns, the Amazonian breadth of the arcing traffic lanes present an uncomfortable, if not actually dangerous, crossing for pedestrians. This in an area presumably to be rich in pedestrians.

The modern design of this intersection, with its extremely large turning radii encouraging high exit speeds and “rolling stops,” would lend a feeling utterly unlike an intersection designed within the historic parameters. Having driven on Illinois and Mississippi streets in Buffalo and countless stone streets around the world, I can say that 10-15 mph is about the maximum from a noise and comfort level that a driver can bear. Indeed, if this area is treated like Delaware Park or Erie Basin, the top posted speed should be 15 mph, which may have desirable consequences on things like turning radii.

Lloyd Street should remain as the Urban Renewal plan would have it: a pedestrian thoroughfare. As is proposed in both the Urban Renewal plan and the “Canal Side” development, Lloyd Street is to be built up only on the east side, leaving the building frontages visually exposed to drivers on Marine Drive. Since the function of “drive-by” visual access is thus already achieved, and there is no on-street parking planned for in front of the buildings anyway, there is little to gain by opening the street to vehicular traffic. There is much to be lost.

“Prime Street, which varied greatly, and in an idiosyncratic manner, in width due to historic circumstances, has quite a story to tell. This is forfeited through the decisions to make its width uniform and to forego the provision of train rails in its pavement, as called for in the 2004 Master Plan. The railroads had a longer history at the site than the Erie Canal itself, yet all evidence of them will be expunged. It is not known if any rails or ties remain in situ, but the specifications would treat them as waste and removed by the contractor if found.”

The question of how to handle Prime Street is perhaps the most interesting, and perhaps the most rewarding. Not only does the current project call for a street of uniform width and bearing (with the same modern detailing as all the other streets), the street is also considerably shortened. It no longer would intersect with Main Street. This is simply insupportable. Prime Street must be reconstructed its full length. It provides the link to South Park Avenue, the DL&W station, the Cobblestone Historic District, and The Old First Ward beyond.

Ironically, the fact that the current project has not disturbed Prime Street east of Perry Street, there is opportunity to do the thorough investigation and informed reconstruction that should have been done on the rest of the site.

Indeed, if the decision is made that the Period of Significance for the street is pre-1873, then it would be fully possible to angle the street toward Central Wharf at Perry Street as it did historically, while at the same time narrowing from 50 feet to 40 feet. Then, uniquely, it angled northward to Main Street and constricted to just over 21 feet, illustrating the immense value of the frontages adjacent to Central Wharf and Main. Defined by buildings, walking through this declivity would be a unique and memorable experience. Other compelling experiences could be had should the Period of Significance extend to 1917 and beyond, when the DL&W facilities took on their finished form.

“Hanover Street’s roadway is changed in two important aspects. First, and unnecessarily, its intersection with Marine Drive is made of asphalt and meets at a 90-degree angle, achieved by curving the roadway and broadening the sidewalk into a “bulb-out.” This again is contrary to what is possible and called for in the 2004 Master Plan. Using the full width of the historic street, paved in block stone, it is possible to simply paint lines on the surface to direct traffic into a 90-degree intersection (the traffic is one-way). Further, the roadway is narrowed around a Skyway pier when the pavement should simply continue and traffic guided around the pier by means of large stones (as is permitted).”

As you mentioned earlier, in addition, there is the serious matter of Hanover Street being widened from a 40-foot right-of-way to one 44 feet wide. The rationale for doing this is not evident, and it is impossible to tell how the alignment has been changed from the historic conditions (as, indeed, it is for Lloyd and Perry streets. Prime Street, as discussed, has been radically changed and realigned). Is the ROW widening all to one side, or is it equal on both sides? This will affect constructing buildings on the historic property lines, if not utilizing parts of the extant foundations, as well as make more obvious the hierarchy of the street widths. Hanover must be returned to its historic width at its historic alignment.

“Perry Street, for all of its short length, is modernized as well. It shares the asphalt intersection and concrete crosswalks of all the other streets. This treatment, precisely where authenticity and the status of the historic streets as workaday thoroughfares is required to set the proper tone, reduces the historic stone paving left in the straight sections of roadway, fully contained by sharp granite curbs, asphalt, and concrete crosswalks, as discrete artifacts of an almost decorative quality.”

West Perry Street is short, but because of its angle to East Perry Street on the other side of Main, creates two gateway building sites. With its short length, any deviation from the historic character will be particularly damaging to how it is perceived. The bicycle path and pedestrian crossing should be handled with  sandstone slabs.

I hope this helps. If I can be of further assistance, please contact me.

Michael A. Tomlan