Just prior to the December 11 windstorm during which a chunk of the Great Northern grain elevator's brick cladding tumbled to the ground, setting off an epic preservation battle that continues in the courts, The Campaign for Greater Buffalo completed renderings of a new type of pedestrian bridge to solve another waterfront problem, one of access and equity hiding in plain site: The Buffalo Outer Harbor is practicably inaccessible to people using public transit or simply walking or riding their bikes.
As the crow flies (or cars speed across the Skyway), only 800 feet separate Central Wharf and downtown Buffalo from the opposite shore of the Buffalo River, yet this becomes 3.8 miles (almost eight miles round-trip) on the ground for walkers, bikers and transit users, who must, if they can, make due with existing roadways. The problem will only become more glaring as the hundreds of millions of dollars proposed to be spent on Outer Harbor parks and other improvements forge ahead.
Members of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo have advocated for preserving, restoring, and appreciating the historic assets of the Buffalo River since the 1980s. This includes creating the Cobblestone Historic District and waging a federal court battle to save and restore the Commercial Slip, Central Wharf, and the Canal District’s historic street.
Those goals are more important than ever to the success of both the Inner Harbor, Outer Harbor, and social justice. Recently, the Empire State Development Corporation's Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation approved controversial plans for spending millions of dollars on an outdoor concert facility at the far south end of its Outer Harbor lands. The plan is to take the decades-old summer concert series from downtown, where it is accessible to everyone, and place it where it is only practically accessible by car.
Congressman Brian Higgins has unveiled proposals for expanding a public park along the south bank of the Buffalo River from the Buffalo Light upstream to the head of Fuhrmann Boulevard and a proposed boardwalk and park connecting stretching to the Connecting Terminal Elevator. Public transit, bicycle, and, pedestrian access are overlooked, other than as an adjunct to existing roadways. Those impose an almost eight-mile roundtrip barrier from Central Wharf on walkers, bike riders, and transit users.
The tremendous unspoken success of the Canal District and Central Wharf is their accessibility and use by all classes of residents and visitors. That springs directly from the fact that they are directly on Metrorail at the base of downtown. We must extend that success to the Outer Harbor. Especially in light of the vision set forth in the 2004 masterplan mandated by the federal district court, wherein the Canal District is to be built-out in the manner the neighborhood was before being demolished for, among other things, the Skyway and Memorial Auditorium. The Canal District and Outer Harbor would be two mutually supportive parts of a livable whole. The Canal District being historically dense, complex, and full of urban recreational opportunity, and the Outer Harbor offering open-space recreation and learning.
But the livable whole can only exist if everyone can benefit. Access must not be denied by distance, cost, or season, but must be convenient, comfortable, abundant, and free. A pedestrian bridge is essential. It makes the downtown and the Old First Ward livability index go up. Soaring over social, mobility, and equity barriers, it points toward a sustainable future. And actually, it is not a new type of bridge type, but one that is thousands of years old. It only is just now becoming used in new ways, primarily in the rugged, windy, and wintry mountains of central Europe.
The Campaign is working with the leading designer of long-span pedestrian bridges in the U.S., Experiential Resources, or ERI. Chief designer and co-owner of ERI, Todd Domeck, told WKBW-TV that the design has many advantages for an urban area. "They're safe. They're utilitarian. It's an economical choice to transport people, and like all bridges, inherently they bring people together. To bring people together on a beautiful structure is what we want to do." Domeck says his team could build the suspension bridge in about a year. WKBW's story is here.
Bridging the access gap on the Buffalo waterfront is just the beginning. Regionally, long-span low-cost pedestrian bridges solve a lot of access problems particular to Western New York and nearby Canada. Think of spanning the Niagara River between Prospect Park and Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls. Connecting Youngstown with Niagara-on-the-Lake. Crossing the Erie Canal below the Flight of Five in Lockport. Economically useful all. That they’d be fun is a bonus.