Nearly sixty years ago, the Kensington Expressway was cut through the East Side of Buffalo. What had been an Olmsted Parkway connecting MLK Jr. Park to Delaware Park was replaced by a sunken six-lane highway. The consequences for the community have been disconnection, respiratory illness, and economic disinvestment. In 2014, the Restore Our Communities Coalition (ROCC) commissioned the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning to complete a study on the economic impacts of building a landscaped deck over portions of the Kensington expressway, which was one of the alternatives suggested by the Department of Transportation for the Kensington Corridor. That study suggested that by enhancing community connections and drawing pedestrian activity the space could support local development which would in turn generate tax revenue to help defray some of the costs of the project over time. Eight years later, the State has heard the message and is prepared to return the parkway to the people. On June 30, the Department of Transportation held its first set of scoping sessions at the Buffalo Museum of Science presenting plans to the public. The poster and presentation are available online as 850 megabytes of PDFs. For that reason, this blog post summarizes the different concepts in one place. Furthermore, we suggest that now is not the time to let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to the restoration of the Humboldt Parkway, and to embrace the possibility offered by this decking option. Hopefully this will help you decide how to comment on the proposed plans by Friday, 29 July.
In 1937, the Home Owners Loan Corporation released its guide for banks investing in new housing in Buffalo, NY. It was HOLC maps like the one above which give us the term redlining. The Humboldt Parkway corridor (shown in blue) was described as having “exceptionally strong” rental demand, in spite of the main detrimental influence, that it was “surrounded by districts of less desirability.” These surrounding neighborhoods (C4, covering much of the lower East Side) were suffering from a “general downward trend through infiltration of lower groups and foreign born.” If there were opportunities, banks would be better advised to select areas containing “a well established section containing homes from some of Buffalo’s wealthiest citizens.” (A6, south of Scajaquada Creek). The wider Elmwood area was still considered a reasonable place to invest, despite the “encroachment of apartments and gradual infiltration of an undesirable foreign element.” It’s now illegal to write the sorts of guides that FDR’s New Deal made its peace with. Even through their warped lens, however, the writers of the guide knew that the Humboldt Parkway was a compelling reason to invest in housing in the neighborhood. Then in the 1960s the Federal Government demolished that reason.
Today, we are told we witness a Buffalo Renaissance, but wide stretches of residential land sit vacant on the East Side. Business investment declined to the point where much of the East Side relies on one major grocery store, a fact which much of the city learned only when the store became the target of a terrorist attack in May. Access to work is limited, particularly for anyone without a car, which, we have previously noted, is more than one quarter of households in the neighborhood, and everyone too young for a license who nevertheless desires autonomy and mobility. As Buffalo begins to grow for the first time in decades, it is our turn to determine whether it will happen along the same unequal lines of the last century. A restored Humboldt Parkway would enhance connectivity and attractiveness in the neighborhood which encourages the development of new houses and small business. Buffalo's rich legacy of urban parks can be a tool to rectify past harms.
Health and Wellbeing
Of course money isn’t everything. Maybe we can imagine a world in which employment opportunity would not be so central to the discussion. One thinks immediately of Universal Basic Income, and it is one approach worthy of consideration. But even if someone did not need to work to survive, would such a world be sufficient for their human dignity? Mobility isn’t just walking to work, it’s walking to places to play and relax, and walking to your neighbor’s. If you were born in a house on the Humboldt Parkway after 1970, it might be tricky to even perceive a neighbor on the other side since. The Kensington Expressway is not the sort of road that encourages people to sit on their front porch, chat, or walk for walking’s sake. It is the sort of road that keeps you awake at night and raises asthma rates. It is the sort of road you could have anxiety about sending your children across. The resultant disinvestment also means that there are fewer places to walk to. When you do walk, residential vacancy means you walk past fewer neighbors. Neighbors are the most important people when it comes to keeping us safe. Busy pedestrian thoroughfares, neighborhoods where someone is always sitting out on the front porch, and dense webs of places where people congregate and greet each other: this kind of city is a safer place for everyone, particularly its most vulnerable residents. It is also one of the joys of urban life, and urban life should be a source of joy. Frederick Law Olmsted painstakingly designed the Parkway to be just that: a a centerpiece knitting the community together, encouraged neighbors to come out of their home and congregate and enjoy life in their city. A walkable neighborhood with shared space is healtheir and happier.
After this paragraph, we will present the designs provided by the NYDoT. The DOT says it investigated ten concepts, but it has provided illustrations for seven. The missing three are two proposals which would have reduced the NY-33 to a four-lane road, and one which would have removed the expressway entirely, filled the trench entirely and fully restored the original Olmsted Parkway. For many, the sidelining of these options is an extremely bitter pill to swallow. If your first concern is with the levels of planet-heating emissions, six non-negotiable lanes of highway traffic may not sound like much of a victory. The first thing to recognize: this is not a victory over the highway, and there is no way to replay the last six decades to make it into one. This is a victory by and for the people who live in the neighborhood, and for the wider urban fabric. Community elders have won this for their children and grandchildren, who now inherit the next stage of the struggle. While we don't see a victory over the highway here, it is in the community and across the city that we can see a victory for the climate. Increasing neighborhood walkability, and encouraging dense, mixed-used development gets people out of their cars. If the deck can be given a safe connection to the rest of the Olmsted park system, we are well on our way to mobilizing a model of green infrastructure where Buffalo can be a leader. If, as an environmentalist you cannot endorse this victory won by the community, you can still choose to stand out of the way and devote yourself to building on that victory.
The Status Quo
Concept 1, "No Build," is what it sounds like: nothing is built, nothing is changed. Including these plans is a form of due diligence in this type of project. The current form of the Kensington, along with all of its attendant problems, remains intact.
Concepts 2 and 3 suggest ways of improving the existing arrangement. Both sides of the Humboldt Parkway would receive additional greenery by removing wide lane shoulders and spacing between bike lanes and parking. Additionally under concept 3, bridges crossing the Kensington Expressway at Dodge, Northampton, East Utica, and East Ferry would be widened significantly to accommodate wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and a strip of green space. Walking along or over the expressway would be somewhat safer and easier. If anyone ever needs a design for a multi-modal bridge, the NYDoT has provided one. But just because it’s possible to travel through a space doesn’t mean it’s inviting. Even with a strip of grass, no one is going to walk across unless they have to. It remains the sort of space one wants to pass through rather than go to.
Images for concepts 2 and 3Overhead view indicating locations of bridge enhancements
Section view of enhanced bridges
Section view of modified expressway
Concept 4 consists of covering sections of the expressway. This would create a series of pocket parks suspended over traffic. Pedestrian connectivity would be enhanced, in that the range of possible journeys would be expanded. Some houses would become neighbors again, but others would not. Gazing at the plan rendering of this concept, one wonders about the character of these parks in terms of noise and fumes. The large amoeba-shaped gaps in the cover seem designed to give nightmares to the parents of toddlers. This remains the kind of space you want to move through.
Images for Concept 4Overhead view of partial decking concept
Covered expressway between Northampton and Dodge Streets
Covered expressway between East Ferry Street and Winslow Avenue
Concepts 5 through 7 involve completely covering the expressway between East Ferry and Dodge, turning that section into a tunnel. Of the three, illustrations for concepts 5 and 6 (six-lane tunnels) were presented, but not for concept 7, which proposes a 4-lane tunnel. Creating a tunnel allows for the maximum of green space over the current route of the expressway. Concept 5 would fill that space with a Victorian garden, while concept 6 would use tree plantings to recreate a parkway aesthetic. Between the two, concept 6 is preferable if it also captures the utility of a tree-lined parkway. The depth of the soil on top of the tunnel will limit the height of the trees. When one looks at the trees in concept 6, they seem almost tall enough to provide shade, but they are wildly out of scale with their root structures. In Buffalo, due to Olmsted’s influence on planning, we understand a Parkway to imply a park which cleverly makes use of available space. New York State and its neighbors have many “interstate parkways” which are highways with supposedly landscaped medians. If the State is hoping to restore the parkway, it needs to be restored as a municipal parkway. The municipal parkway blends two types of city living: movement and resting, speed and slowness. Olmsted’s objective was to bring them into harmony. In order to do that, he designed parkways as places worth being in their own right. It is good that the DoT is prepared to cover the Kensington expressway. It is imperative that what covers the expressway is a place worthy of the neighborhood and the city’s architectural legacy.
Images for Concept 5Overhead view of Concept 5
Cross section of Victorian Garden cover
Images for Concept 6Overhead view of Concept 6
Cross section of parkway covering between East Ferry and Riley Streets
Cross section of parkway covering between Riley and Dodge Streets
While this is going on on the surface, underneath there will be a new challenge: ventilation. A six-lane expressway carries a lot of car exhaust, which of course is lethal in high enough concentrations, so keeping air circulating in the tunnel is a vital safety concern. All solutions presented involve creating a set of 16' tall ventilation structures in the new green space. Under option 1, these are exhaust structures, with air being drawn in through a set of sidewalk grates on either side of the tunnel. Under options 2a and 2b, these are intake structures instead, with a separate structure or structures containing an exhaust tower and control center, either disguised as a house along the parkway fitting the neighborhood character (2a), or in a separate facility elsewhere in the neighborhood (2b). As the concept slides say, these are elements to be refined. Considering these are the elements meant to come between the expressway and respiratory illness in the neighborhood, that refinement should be thorough, evidence-based, and transparent. One of the DoT posters said that air quality data would be available at the scoping sessions. It would be a useful step to post this data to the project web site.
Images for ventilation schemesVentilation with exhaust in parkway
Ventilation with exhaust and controls in one large building
Ventilation with exhaust and controls in several smaller buildings
The Frogger Option
Concept 8 is for anyone who thinks that the main problem with the Kensington Expressway is that it’s too low. Calling this a boulevard is all well and good but to a pedestrian it looks awfully a lot like a highway. The first consequence of this construction would be to provoke calls for its demolition, and its greatest merit is that such a demolition could be straightforward. It is a very strange suggestion.
If you have read this far before July 30, you should go and comment on the designs!