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