Submitted by Dr. Edward Steinfeld and Megan Basnak – Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, University at Buffalo:
Noted by state and federal agencies as “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient,” the Buffalo Skyway is often viewed as a major barrier between the City of Buffalo and its waterfront. A major effort has been launched by civic leaders to demolish the structure in order to regain valuable space for future development. The estimated cost for demolition will be well over $10 million dollars. Some believe that this money could better be used elsewhere and that the proponents for demolition are overlooking the possibilities for reuse of the structure. The Skyway is a unique structure with outstanding views of Buffalo and Lake Erie. It provides a direct connection between downtown and the Outer Harbor. As a highway, it may be a barrier to development, but what would happen if the structure were to be repurposed and utilized in such a way that it actually contributed to and facilitated development in Canalside, the Outer Harbor, and the Grain Elevator District? It could be one of the city’s best assets – drawing worldwide attention and global tourism.
The reuse of obsolete transportation infrastructure is not a new concept. Historically, the Ponte Vecchio was the most well known example. Built and rebuilt during the early to mid-eleventh century, it is now a pedestrian bridge that crosses the River Arno and is lined on both sides with shops and merchants. La Promenade Plantée, opened in 1993 in Paris, France, was an abandoned elevated railroad line that was repurposed into a greenway at the track level. Shops were also built within its structural arches. The Highline in New York City, constructed in 2006, is a popular one-and-a-half mile linear park 30 feet above the ground on a former elevated section of the New York Central Railroad known as the West Side Line that has invigorated the surrounding neighborhoods and spurred major new development efforts. While the Highline and la Promenade Plantée are examples of repurposed railroad infrastructure, there are several cities that have tackled the challenge of rethinking highway infrastructure. In 2006, the city of Houston, Texas transformed an underutilized portion of valuable property along the city’s famed Buffalo Bayou waterway located under an elevated highway into an award-winning 23 acre recreational area with walking and bicycle paths and designated spaces ideal for art and musical performances.
Similarly, the city of Seattle, Washington in 2007 reinvented space under one of its main highways, the I-5, as a recreation area including 2 acres of mountain bike park. In addition to providing recreational opportunities, the park also serves to reconnect two neighborhoods once divided by construction of the highway. Buffalo’s neighbor city to the north, Toronto, has its own solution for recapturing lost space under elevated highways. Known as Underpass Park, the recreation area provides opportunities for leisure with a playground, basketball courts, skate-park, and open areas that are used for farmers markets and other outdoor events. Although these examples are all very different, they demonstrate how the spaces created by transportation infrastructure can be reused to address the specific needs of cities in which they are located, and without demolition, overcome barriers created by ill conceived projects of the past. The Buffalo Skyway also presents such an opportunity.
To explore the possibilities, University at Buffalo architecture professor Dr. Edward Steinfeld had his students investigated ideas for reuse of the Skyway. Dr. Steinfeld tasked his students with the challenge of conceptualizing speculative design ideas that took advantage of the unique spatial conditions created by the structure including long spans, prominence in the landscape, and fantastic views. The project statement asked students to focus on the development of exciting experiences for all ages that would attract national and international tourists, generate repeat visits, and produce income streams to support the activities and maintenance of the structure. Student design proposals included concepts ranging from an extreme sports complex with a sky ropes course and rock climbing, to an amusement park with roller coasters that would carry visitors above and below the Skyway road surface. Overall, the projects demonstrate that the Skyway is an opportunity rather than a liability. The wide variety of proposals conceived by the students, a sample of which is shared below, serves to further confirm how well the structure of the Skyway lends itself to being used for a variety of purposes other than simply transportation infrastructure. For more information on the projects described below please visit this site.
Four Seasons Landscape by Irfat Alam – larger version at bottom of page
Four Seasons Landscape provides year-round recreational and leisure opportunities for visitors of all ages. Summer activities include flower gardens, water displays, and bird and butterfly viewing areas. A bicycle path throughout the landscape can be transformed during the winter months into an ice-skating path. The areas beneath the main level are transformed into areas for indoor activities including a library, exhibition space, movie theater, and restaurants.
In areas opposite the indoor programming, small wind turbines are placed that produce electricity to support the landscape’s ‘Wind Art’ feature. Wind Art, based on the use of energy-saving strip lighting, allows for the landscape to glow at different levels of brightness depending on the amount of current that is received from the small wind turbines. The Skyway’s Wind Art provides a year-round, ever-changing experience for visitors of all ages. A dynamic, programmable lighting display would transform the skyway into a magical nighttime attraction.
The Active Skyline by Nicholas Karl – larger version at bottom of page
The Active Skyline takes advantage of the views offered by the existing Skyway and its surroundings to benefit the health and wellness of Buffalo residents and visitors throughout the year. The Skyline offers different zones of activity that vary throughout the year, including areas for retail and sports equipment rental, restaurants, and a sports complex, which are all tied together with a walking/jogging track.
The open areas between each programmed space are in-filled with parks and other recreational areas that can be used for activities such as sledding and pond hockey during the winter months. The track and various programmed activities alternate sides of the Skyway in order to allow for both elements to take advantage of the various views offered by the structure’s extreme height. The Active Skyline expands on the HARBORCENTER Academy of Hockey and provides a year round experience that allows visitors and Buffalo residents alike to appreciate the beauty that the city and waterfront have to offer.
Up-Above Land Amusement Park by Braedy Chapman – Click to enlarge
Up-Above Land Amusement Park uses its position on top of the Buffalo Skyway to provide a one-of-a-kind experience to visitors of all ages. The thrill of riding one’s favorite rides is intensified by being 80+feet above the ground with the water and city skyline as the backdrop.
Shops and various entertainment activities complement the thrilling rides to provide a year round, enjoyable experience for all visitors. Public car access is replaced with a trolley system to connect the park to downtown from one end and the Outer Harbor from the other. A lower level added below the roadbed of the Skyway provides sheltered areas for rides and shops. Up-Above Land repurposes the Skyway to take the traditional amusement park concept to greater, more exciting heights.
Erie Canal Harbor Pavilion by Xi Han – larger version at bottom of page
The Erie Canal Harbor Pavilion creates a connection between visitors, the history of the Erie Canal, and the city’s waterfront. The Pavilion provides indoor and outdoor space for individuals and families to enjoy different activities throughout the day across all seasons, including open-air concerts during the summer and indoor media viewing during the winter.
Visitors are also invited to appreciate the natural beauty of water through the small waterfalls and shallow pools that anchor the pavilion complex. With the small waterfall structures intentionally placed to mark the original location of the canal, traffic flow is still maintained on the above road surface. By reducing the number of lanes, the current roadbed could include biking and walking lanes. Traffic calming and aesthetic improvements would make the roadbed amenable for pedestrian use.
Skyplay by Wayne Fung – Click to enlarge
Buffalo Skyplay is multi-sport venue that offers five different activities to visitors including a high ropes course, trapeze school, rock climbing, and bridge climbing. Utilizing a universal harness system to ensure maximum user safety, each activity offers various levels of difficulty.
Skyplay utilizes the existing Buffalo Skyway as structure for its various activities that occur above and below the existing roadbed. Buffalo Skyplay seeks to offer visitors a unique sports experience with the waterfront and Buffalo skyline as its backdrop.
Island in the Sky by Alyssa Phelps Click to enlarge
Island in the Sky is a unique destination located on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor that provides a place for both adults and children to enjoy interaction and leisure centered on wildlife, water, and natural landscapes. Using the structure of the Skyway as framework, various activities that incorporate water fun with animals, such as Toucan Land with its low slides, dump bucket, and birds, are layered throughout the facility, with kayaking and boating on the lowest ground level.
A gondola line transports visitors to and from Island in the Sky from other activities and nearby hotels along the Skyway. Designed for year round use, Island in the Sky combines fun and learning to provide a distinctive experience for visitors of all ages.
Sky Park by Prashant Verma – Click to enlarge
The Sky Park is a venue that combines entertainment and learning through the mediums of water and sky. The inflated tensile structure houses a trampoline park along with indoor skydiving that attracts visitors of all ages from all over the region and the world beyond.
The highway structure, reduced to a single lane on each side, utilizes piezoelectric sensors to produce enough electricity from the traffic flow to supply all of Sky Park’s energy needs as well as those of many of the neighborhoods lining the Skyway. Combining entertainment with practicality and functionality, Sky Park provides a one-of-a-kind experience for both visitors and commuters.
Sci-Fi Skyway by Niranjan Prabhu – Click to enlarge
The Buffalo Sci-Fi Skyway serves as the largest pop culture event center in North America. It plays host to events related to the latest in comics, graphic novels, anime, manga, video games, toys, and movies. Over the years, an event known as Comic-Con has become the focal point of the world of comic conventions.
Similarly, Sci-Fi Skyway brings fans together with comic creators, science fiction and fantasy authors, film and television directors, producers, writers and creators of all aspects of the popular arts. As the Sci-Fi Skyway continues to grow in popularity, additional phases will be completed that will add additional events to the Sci-Fi Skyway’s existing comic book store, event staging area, and virtual reality game dome.
The student proposals were designed to push the envelope and explore the possibilities. Some of the ideas may seem unrealistic, but that is probably what people told Walt Disney when he envisioned Disneyland as a permanent theme park! These ideas demonstrate how well the structure of the Skyway lends itself to being used for a variety of purposes other than simply transportation infrastructure. Some are relatively simple and do not require a mammoth investment to get off the ground. The more extravagant proposals are so unique they would be global attractions; thus they provide high value for their cost. They all demonstrate that the Skyway provides a framework for creating unique places that will draw people from all over the region and visitors from all over the world on a regular basis.
As Buffalo and the New York State Department of Transportation contemplate the future of the Skyway, they have the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to view it as a barrier to development or an opportunity – a glass half empty or a glass half full. Other cities are seeing the opportunities. The City of Chicago is currently converting two miles of the elevated Bloomingdale Line (former railway) to a public greenway that will soon be part of a larger system of parks and trails known as the ‘606’. Similarly, the city of Philadelphia is in the planning stages for converting its Reading Viaduct, located just north of the city’s Central City section, into an elevated linear park. Some cities have even held design competitions in order to brainstorm ideas for reusing/repurposing outdated transportation infrastructure. The Solar Park South International design competition sought proposals focusing on reuse of the soon-to-be decommissioned Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway located in Calabria, Italy. Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto commissioned a 2010 design ideas initiative for reuse of the section of the expressway known as Gardiner East.
Like all of these cities, Buffalo has the potential to support a repurposed Skyway. Use of the highway’s off-ramps during past Buffalo Winterfest festivals as sled riding hills demonstrated how easy and simple reuse can be. For the past few years, Quebec City’s Dufferin Highway underpass served as the site for a free Cirque du Soleil performance during the summer months and hosted the Big Air FIS World Cup during the winters. Similarly, for one day each summer, Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway are closed to motor vehicle traffic and opened to bicyclists for a charity event known as Becel Heart & Stroke Ride for Heart.
Taking a cue from Toronto, GoBike Buffalo is organizing a bicycle ride on the Skyway in June. The Department of Transportation has agreed to close automobile access to the road for the event. Watch GoBike Buffalo’s website for more information.More temporary activities like this could attract public interest and support, especially if they occur year round. Leadership and organization may be needed to convince officials and planners that the public is supportive. Much can be learned from how projects like this gained momentum in other cities. In most cases, supporters of reuse were proactive for their cause instead of reactive. They formed advocacy groups responsible for educating, promoting, fundraising, and eventually implementing the work for their cause. In some cases, it took many years. The High Line was constructed and managed by a private non-profit organization, much like the Martin House Complex, and received funding from many sources. Gaining public as well as government support proved to be key in all of the cases examined. The Buffalo Skyway has the potential to be one the city’s best assets, but it is up to the citizens of the city to decide if realizing its potential is worth the effort.
The Skyway Revisited Project was part of the Inclusive Design Research Group’s Spring 2013 Studio at the School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo. This graduate design studio is offered by faculty at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center). The IDeA Center is internationally known for advancing design that benefits all people. Dr. Steinfeld, a Distinguished SUNY Professor, is the founding Director of the Center. More information can be found at www.idea.ap.buffalo.edu.
Following are larger image versions of the lead projects in this post… click to enlarge: