In February 2016, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy received a call from the office of a state legislator with a history of support for efforts to downgrade the Scajaquada Expressway. That night there would be a public meeting at Buffalo State where New York’s new Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner, Matt Driscoll, would announce DOT’s plan to remake the park-scarring highway. Driscoll was well-regarded in governmental and environmental circles for his work in Onondaga County, especially with upgrading stormwater infrastructure. He had a get-it-done reputation, and the Governor, who also likes getting things done, had charged Driscoll to get results on a couple of stalled, high-profile Upstate projects: the I-81 corridor in downtown Syracuse, and the Scajaquada Expressway in Buffalo. The plan Driscoll would announce that night was what Buffalo would be getting, the Conservancy was told. It was better than the DOT’s previous proposal, and it would be on a fast track. They needed to accept it, be happy with it, and say good things about it.
But Monday, a year and a half later, any such spirit of capitulation was nowhere in evidence.
Backed in a press conference by longtime foes of the DOT’s weak-tea Scajaquada plans, and a host of new coalition partners from cultural institutions inhabiting Buffalo’s rich Olmstedian park and parkway matrix, the Olmsted Conservancy put the obstructionist label squarely on the DOT’s back. DOT, they said, still hasn’t responded to overwhelmingly unfavorable public comment given early this year, nor has it responded to the Western Scajaquada Coalition’s proposal for the western end of the corridor, into which the community invested a considerable amount of effort, nor calls from elected officals at the state and federal levels.
They compared the situation to Canalside of a decade ago, when State officials held up implementation of a good plan developed by the community for years by repeatedly doubling down on a flawed approach. Over and over the State would return to the table with a new color of lipstick on the same pig, only to have the community point out that it was still a pig, and ask the State yet again to stop obstructing a better plan. At Canalside and, more recently, the Outer Harbor, when the State finally got out of the way, the results drew rave reviews and were strongly embraced by the community. Yet every time, it seems, the State has to learn the same lesson afresh.
Perhaps recognizing that, opponents aren’t giving up on engaging the DOT. On Monday they presented a new consensus plan for a phased approach to the corridor, and an important new proposal for solving a thorny design challenge.
The new proposal – quietly released in May – was in many ways the heart of Monday’s announcement. It seems far superior to the latest DOT plan. Monday BOPC Executive Director Stephanie Crockatt decried that plan for creating “two massive intersections” and continuing the highway’s hijacking of the stone arch bridge over Delaware. The Conservancy wants that back for park use because it is the most critical link between the lake and meadow sections of the park, which are currently isolated from each other.
The new proposal takes an important creative leap by routing the expressway south of the stone-arch bridge and creating an at-grade intersection with Delaware. It eliminates both the current and proposed on- and off-ramps, allowing for restoration of the “heel” of the Hoyt Lake “boot” that was filled in by highway construction. Atop the stone-arch bridge, the proposal would restore a park path over Delaware, which would continue atop a new “land bridge” over a rerouted expressway, now downgraded to a boulevard in that area. It could also be partially or completely sunken in that area, helping further restore the visual and physical links between the sections of the park.
While this is a new idea, and would create a new bridge in the park where there has never been one before, it is based on principles taken from the very first park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux: Central Park. Central park has several city roads that traverse the park, but because they are sunken and park paths pass over them on bridges with vegetation on either side, they are minimally intrusive by design.
About the renderings shown Monday, Stephanie Crockatt told me that Olmsted produced them in-house. Further, she told me:
They are conceptual in theme to provide a picture of possibility, and a vision for restoration. This is one design solution, and there may be others to consider. We intend to have other graphics, perhaps video, or 3-D drawings created and made available as this discussion continues.
Despite the design challenge at Delaware Avenue, the coalition suggested that the middle section of the corridor – including Delaware – actually be the first to be tackled. That is because it is the only part of the corridor so far – after over a dozen years of on-again, off-again efforts – that has a consensus design that the DOT could build.
The eastern section, from Parkside to the former Humboldt Parkway, clearly needs more discussion. Representatives from the Restore Our Community Coalition were present Monday, and pointed out that there is a study currently underway of design alternatives for restoring a section of Humboldt Parkway. Also, the community is nowhere near anything resembling a consensus on what to do at the Main Street/Kensington/Humboldt intersection. Perhaps, given the complications and tangled threads there, it may be worth considering bringing everything back to the surface and creating a large, DC-like circle there.
The western section, from Lincoln Parkway to Niagara Street, would seem almost obvious: turn Iroquois Drive into “Scajaquada Drive” and then eliminate the expressway. In that scenario, Scajaquada Drive would cross the creek on the stone-arch Lincoln Parkway bridge. West of Grant Street, it would need to be threaded through some old industrial blocks, perhaps using a combination of Dart Street and Fernwood Avenue. It could then plug into the intersection of Niagara Street and Tonawanda Street at the location of an existing expressway on-ramp. That intersection, now harrowing to pedestrians and vehicles alike, would then become four-way and vastly improved for all transportation modes. All that is easy to say, more work is needed to develop a consensus around an approach and do the related planning. The Western Scajaquada Coalition is already working on this, but much more needs to be done.
The other news Monday is the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition – perhaps playing bad cop to the cultural coalition’s good cop – revealed it recently took a shot across DOT’s bow with a legal letter (PDF). The letter cites the “public trust doctrine” and related legal precedent, as well as substantial opposition to the DOT’s draft EIS for the project, as bases for future legal action, should that ultimately prove necessary.
Yet much more than brandishing a stick, Monday’s action was overwhelmingly about holding out a hand, and pointing out a better path forward. Will the DOT take them? That was one of several unanswered questions of the day.
I put the question about DOT to Stephanie Crockatt, who told me:
Information coming from DOT’s announced planning schedules (from various meetings) and from what we’ve heard through back channels, is that the DOT is preparing to submit their Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) to the Federal Highway Authority for approval at any time. We have also heard that they may put through their design plans and documents at roughly the same time, in keeping with their announced schedule for construction. This affords no public input opportunity to discuss design. Plus BOPCs public comments that were solicited and sent in, from back in February, have not received a DOT reply.
Regarding timeframes, Assemblyman Sean Ryan’s office told me that DOT’s announced timelines for this project “have been a moving target,” and don’t know when something new will be announced.
Also, what about the culturals along the corridor who weren’t present Monday, like the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center, and the Buffalo Zoo? In addition to the Olmsted Conservancy, Monday’s press release (PDF) specifically identified the Buffalo History Museum, the Darwin Martin House, the Buffalo Museum of Science, Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Riverkeeper, Delaware Soccer, the Restore our Community Coalition, the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition, and Preservation Buffalo-Niagara as coalition partners for the cultural corridor. But Crockatt told me that the coalition has met with all of the other stakeholders in the corridor about their design alternative and said they all expressed a “desire to see the corridor come together collectively.” Further:
All of them have been very positive in their responses. With all due respect and sensitivity some receive a great deal of funding from the State or are State institutions, and some are preferring just to converge as a full group for a strategic and comprehensive discussion, without the publicity. Everyone is on board that we need to come together to discuss the design impacts of the corridor before a final solution is drafted and ground is broken.
Also, some of the culturals, like the Albright-Knox, lent their presence to the press conference but were not listed in the press release.
And what about public officials? As WGRZ’s Claudine Ewing asked at the press conference, where is the City? She later caught up with Mayor Byron Brown, who essentially punted, telling her that, aside from his personal views as “Byron Brown, homeowner,” who lives not far from Humboldt Parkway, “Byron Brown, Mayor, thinks it’s very important for the public to have its say, and for stakeholders to have their say, and so we are recommending that stakeholders send any concerns, any ideas, to the Department of Transportation and the federal government.”
At the state level, I received the following statement from Assemblyman Sean Ryan’s office:
I commend the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy for putting forward this creative plan for Delaware Park, and the many community stakeholders who joined to lend their support. I have been a strong advocate for creating a more pedestrian-friendly Scajaquada Corridor, and this plan helps to achieve the community vision for the project. Poor decision making from the 1950’s created the mistake we are dealing with today. This plan helps to correct the mistakes of the past, and I look forward to discussing this with all the community stakeholders.
And another critical question, for me at least, is what effect will the 2018 gubernatorial election have on this project? One the one hand, we have a governor who likes to tout accomplishments, especially in situations (Peace Bridge, Niagara Falls, Tappan Zee Bridge, etc.) where action has been stalled in the past. Remaking the Scajaquada Corridor would fall into that category. So being able to point to forward movement would be great for election-year optics.
On the other hand, what wouldn’t be good for election-year optics would be doubling down on a project that is widely opposed, embroiled in lawsuits, and perhaps even sparking public protests.
However, there are indications that may be exactly what’s in store. Sam Hoyt, Regaional President of Empire State Development, and one of the Governor’s principal point people in Western New York, defended DOT to the Buffalo News:
This is a process that’s been dragging on for a long time,” Hoyt said.
I think that there is a desire to see it come to a conclusion.
There have been many public meetings and many stakeholder meetings, and the implication that the public hasn’t had an opportunity to comment is just simply not true. I think DOT has gone to great lengths to engage the public and individual stakeholder organizations, and shown a consistent willingness to compromise,” Hoyt said.
That doubling down, while perhaps not a surprise to the coalition, must still have come as a disappointment. Many still remember how Sam’s father, Assemblyman Bill Hoyt, in whose honor Hoyt Lake was renamed, successfully opposed the DOT on several urban highway issues while serving on Buffalo’s Common Council and in the Assembly. And that included issues with the Parkside/expressway intersection, where Monday’s press conference was held. And given Sam’s own track record as Assemblyman, there could be little doubt that, was he still in that role, he would be not only supporting the coalition, and wagging his finger at the DOT, but perhaps even taking the lead on this issue among local elected officials.
In that sense, the Scajaquada Expressway in 2017 is not unlike the situation with the Outer Harbor in 2014. In that last gubernatorial election cycle, some public officials were hoping to be able to have something lined up for the Governor to announce or even break ground on in that election year. But when the development-heavy plan ran into a buzz saw of opposition, the same optics worked in reverse: the last thing the Governor would want in an election year, as one local elected official told me, would be to drive down Fuhrmann Boulevard to a press event with protesters holding signs along the way.
And this issue may face similar election-year dynamics as it plays out. In the end, the Governor and his local advisors may recognize the wisdom in celebrating a widely supported great step forward vs. the bad optics of doubling down on an outdated approach that will be widely opposed. We’ll see.