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Olmstedian Scajaquada: Taking the Low Road

Note: This is the third in a series.

If the DOT’s plans for remaking the Scajaquada Expressway have given you a sinking feeling, you may be on the right track. As I pointed out in my first post of the series, one of the original park design concepts of Olmsted and Vaux was to put transverse roads in sunken ways through their parks. That might not completely screen out the visual, auditory, and olfactory impact of the road, but it did so enough that the cooperative mind of the park user could complete the illusion. After all, as Olmsted and Vaux showed America, the same city-dwelling park user, despite knowing in their mind they weren’t taking a walk through the countryside, would find the illusion of such enough to meet their need for recreation and nature.

In that sense, the 198 through Delaware Park is the City of No Illusions’ Road of No Illusions. Unhidden and unscreened, it intrudes sensorially far outside its footprint. It creates a zone of alienated space on either side and, like a dragon guarding its treasure, lies coiled in wait, hissing smoke, flames, and noxious gasses, daring the park user to come near and try to reclaim that space. Take one step off the ring road and you’re in its territory – who knows might happen to you there? None of us will ever forget what happened to a sweet little boy who wasn’t safe even within the cordon.

Kindness Garden

So in remaking the park section of the Scajaquada Expressway along Olmstedian lines, there is no question about what to do: sink the road. It’s not about what, but about how. Let’s look at specific options for the Meadow and Hoyt Lake sections of the park, and a unique option for reuniting them.

The Meadow

The last piece in this series left off at Agassiz Circle, Olmsted’s intended gateway to the Meadow section of what he called simply, The Park. The Meadow section of the 198 began on the heels of the construction of the Humboldt Parkway underpass at Main Street. In a historical irony, the project was named (or perhaps more appropriately, code-named) the “Humboldt Parkway Extension”. It connected Delaware Avenue and Agassiz Circle. As things turned out, it proved key to making the expressway a fait accompli.

Stealing a page from that playbook, we’ll see if we can extend our remake west from Agassiz. Perhaps it can prove key this time, too.

Transverse Road A

The design solution here seems to be pretty clear: continue the roadway, sunken under Agassiz Circle, along the Meadow as a sunken transverse road. The first post in this series dealt with this and, in response, a reader emailed wondering how much it would cost to simply sink the expressway four feet through the park, and landscape the heck out of it? And indeed, a cost estimate for that would be an excellent starting point for discussion. Because then, like story of Abraham bargaining with God for the lives in Sodom and Gomorrah, we could ask: if we can do four feet, then what about six feet? If we can do six feet, what about eight? That range of depths is all it took to sink the transverse roads through Central Park. And for that matter, the original Erie Canal was only four feet deep, and the Enlarged Erie just seven. That’s right: a four-feet deep ditch was enough to make Buffalo Buffalo and New York the Empire State.

Think about that for a moment: where else these days do you hear about the Erie Canal and making New York the Empire State and building Buffalo? Governor Cuomo. At every speech, every groundbreaking, every ribbon cutting, he talks about those things, casting his lot with past governors like Dewitt Clinton and FDR. So can it really be true that this governor’s people are saying that we, the people of the Empire State, inheritor of those legacies, can’t do more with the 198 than tarting it up? What state do Sam Hoyt and the administrators of the DOT live in, and what governor do they represent, to say that they can’t even dig a trench four feet deep, a half-mile long? Not this state. Not this governor.

Transverse Road 6

As discussed already, sinking the road past the Meadow, with some bridges over it, would make a critical different in terms of mitigating the impacts of the road on park users, and allow them to reclaim territory lost to them for generations. Currently, the Ring Road functions as a psychological cordon – step outside of it, and you are in Expresswayland, subject to the hazards and terrors encountered by the Fellowship of the Ring upon leaving The Shire. There is still a sobering reminder there of how those hazards are not imaginary, but real.

Roadside memorial

On the other side of DOT’s DMZ, the strip of land between the expressway and the cemetery is just as no-go, because it is essentially inaccessible. I found my way to it, and discovered an area that, with a green-bordered, sunken road on one side, and the peaceful greenery of the cemetery on the other, could provide park-goers with a contemplative walk that is, quite literally, off the beaten path. That could even be extended in the future, to be part of a path around the entire cemetery. Currently, the area outside the cemetery fence along Delaware and Delavan Avenues doesn’t even have sidewalks, depriving residents of a walk with cemetery views except along a poorly maintained section of Main Street sidewalk.

Land along cemetery

I don’t know how far down bedrock is along the Meadow, and the roadbed would be an excavation, not a quarry, but the project could yield limestone bedrock of the same type used in constructing some features in the park that now need repair, such as the zoo walls. Also, it may be possible to use stone excavated on site for constructing a few pedestrian bridges over the sunken roadway. Use of stone from the site would be environmentally friendly as well as reflect the stone structures elsewhere in the park.

Note that the transverse roads through Central Park in New York City, as I described include gentle curves and variations in elevation. Presumably this was done, at least in part, to provide variation and visual interest for transverse road users. In the modern world, it also serves as a form of traffic calming. Since the existing expressway through the park already includes curves and elevation changes, perhaps the current footprint could be used as-is. In a setting where archaeology might turn up artifacts, it may be helpful to be able to do the project on already-disturbed ground. A possible exception might be near the Point of the Meadow, where the expressway encroaches on a curve of the original carriage drive around the meadow. But as you can see in this photo of that location, the road footprint could be moved south onto an extensive area of ground that was already disturbed and regraded to construct the southeast on/off ramps.

Regraded ground

And speaking of disturbing additional ground an parkland near the Meadow: this proposal likely keeps or even shrinks the footprint of the roadway. The DOT proposal, by adding things like sidewalks and bike paths, actually increases it.

Delaware Barns

Some maintenance facilities in Central Park are located along the transverse roads. That gives them one foot on city streets, so they are accessible for “business” purposes (such as deliveries of equipment and supplies from full-size delivery trucks), and one foot in the park for smaller in-the-park operations and maintenance vehicles. That could be significant for the maintenance facilities in Delaware Park. If the 198 were to be lowered and treated like a transverse road in Central Park, the “Delaware Barns” (also once known as “Fort Delano”) would still have access from the transverse road. There could also be bridge linking across the sunken transverse road providing better access to the park than exists now for park operations and maintenance vehicles based at the “barns.” The bridge could also provide access for park users to the facilities, which could be upgraded (they have nowhere to go but up) to provide services and amenities for park users.

Maintenance facility

The Lake

Between Delaware Avenue and Lincoln Parkway, the expressway occupies the high ground above Hoyt Lake. Its construction obliterated the old carriage drive that ran through the same corridor. The only remnant is a former carriage “concourse” (a pulloff area from a carriage drive that could double as an overlook) where the McMillan Monument is today. The carriage drive connected across the stone bridge from the “Point of the Meadow” – the westernmost point of the carriage drive around the Meadow – to Lincoln Parkway. As to the east of the stone bridge, the expressway here turns the land along both sides into no-go zones. This is especially unfortunate along the south side, which has beautiful views of the wooded slope and lake below that are seldom seen.

McMillan Monument

It would be tempting here to recommend the same reconfiguration: a sunken transverse roadway with pedestrian bridges over top. But this section is significantly different. Because it involved removal of the carriage drive, the expressway there impacted not just the park experience, but the very function of the park. Because the carriage road there could be, and should be, restored, it is worth considering sinking and covering the roadway. That would allow the carriage road to be restored on top, perhaps used as a high-capacity path for jogging and baby strolling as much of the carriage drive around the Meadow is today. In fact, reclaiming that entire strip of land from the expressway could allow all the original modal paths to be restored, including the bridle path that diagonally climbs the bank from lake level.

This may sound expensive, but it is only 2,000 feet from Delaware Avenue to Lincoln Parkway. Because it would be below ground, it could probably be done with prefab tunnel sections. It also helps that this is the least-used section of the entire 198, with just over 30,000 cars a day. So perhaps the underground section could be two lanes rather than four, as I discuss below, which would significantly save on costs.

Lincoln Parkway area

Lincoln Parkway is a wildcard, and is at the point where even a covered roadway would need to begin coming to the surface to cross the creek. Perhaps the best solution would be to have these three road segments – sunken/covered roadway, Lincoln Parkway north, and Lincoln Parkway south – sunken as much as possible, so that they can be bridged over to provide connectivity for the park pathways. But as great as it would be to reconnect Lincoln Parkway straight through again, the northern section already connects with Nottingham Terrace. Traffic counts show that the current tiny on-ramp from the northern section of Lincoln Parkway to the 198 is little used. Perhaps the best option would reconnect the northern and southern sections for bicycle and pedestrian – and perhaps even equestrian – traffic while keeping them disconnected for auto traffic. That option is shown in the accompanying diagram.

The Numbers

In terms of road and street design, a critical consideration is lanes. The entire 198 west of Agassiz Circle has four lanes. But if we’re going to convert it into something akin to the transverse roads through Central Park, does it really need all those lanes? Not being a traffic engineer, all I can do is try to find rules of thumb. They don’t give a definitive answer, but some possible insight. One of the most-referenced sites for traffic engineering information is by Mike Spack, who has a consulting firm in the midwest. Some of his rules of thumb for ADT (Average Daily Traffic) capacity are here:

Given that the Meadow and Hoyt Lake sections of the 198 carry 39K and 33K cars per day, based on 2015 numbers (perhaps fewer, now), this data suggests the four-lane expressway is currently over capacity (72K cars per day) by a factor of two. It also suggests that a four-lane road – as opposed to a four-lane expressway – can just about accommodate the current traffic volume, which is probably why the DOT has been willing to reconfigure the 198.

But an important design question is whether the downgrading could go beyond that, to a grade-separated, two-lane road – essentially, a two-lane expressway? That would minimize intrusion and land use, and simplify design. I couldn’t find a definitive answer, but some clues are tantalizing. In the chart, notice how capacity increases by a factor of about 2.3 from roads of four and six lanes to freeways of four and six lanes (from 31K to 72K and 44K to 108K). While the same factor may not apply to cases of two lanes, based on the capacity of a two-lane road (16K), using that factor would give a capacity of 37K for a two-lane, grade-separated road. That would just about accommodate the current traffic on the 198 through the entire park. It would be more than enough to handle the traffic on the Hoyt Lake section, which has the lightest use of the entire expressway.

What can’t be overlooked in the discussion about lanes is whether other uses and users would be accommodated along what will hopefully be a sunken – perhaps partially covered – transverse road through the park. Should sidewalks be included, like the transverse roads through Central Park? Those are necessary there, as the transverse roads link very dense urban street grids on either side of the park. But that is not the case here. And what about bike lanes? Would cyclists want to use this transverse road alongside cars, or prefer to use existing paths through the park? If only motor vehicles would be using the transverse road, it could function more like a grade-separated highway and would have a higher traffic capacity with fewer lanes – perhaps as few as two.

On the other hand, the Meadow section might have to remain four lanes regardless, because of the need for truck access to the maintenance facilities on one side of the road and the radio tower site on the other side.

The Bridge

Having talked about the 198 along the Meadow and above Hoyt Lake, what about the critical connection between? That location has drawn perhaps more interest than any other in the fifteen years of discussions about remaking the expressway, especially in the park. With emphasis on “drawn,” as there have been drawings of at least a half dozen different options.

SCC Proposal

The best of them all, by far, is the proposal announced exactly two months ago by the Scajaquada Cultural Coalition. It would accomplish what should be considered an essential objective of remaking the 198: getting it off the stone bridge. As the Olmsted Conservancy has said so well, the bridge has always been the essential link tying the two “halves” of the park together. From the east, the Point of the Meadow brings all park users toward the bridge. From the west, paths along the north of the lake converge with those along the south and east of the lake at the bridge. But since the expressway seized control of the bridge, the two hemispheres of the park have had to function separately, like a brain with a severed corpus callosum. For the life of most Buffalonians, they have been deprived of experiencing, in its wholeness, one of the most beautiful gifts the city’s leaders ever gave to future generations. Changing that should be a top priority of everyone, and the community should not accept any plan for the 198 that does not get it off the bridge.

The SCC proposal (you can also read more about it here), would move the road off the bridge and bring it down from the high ground to an at-grade intersection with Delaware Avenue. West of Delaware, where the road climbs back up to the high ground, it would pass under a land bridge carrying park users overhead. The combination of sinking and undergrounding the road through the park that I discuss here would not only be compatible with their proposal, but even complement it by lowering the road closer to the level of Delaware Avenue on either side. And by not relying on the existing slope to bring the road down to the level of Delaware Avenue, the proposed at-grade intersection wouldn’t have to be located as far south of the bridge.

Land bridge portal

But creating a new, separate land bridge, while not un-Olmstedian, might be an awkward fit at that location. An even better approach, borrowing from that idea, may be to use the stone bridge itself as the land bridge. As I mentioned in the first piece of this series, the bridges Olmsted and Vaux created over the transverse roads in Central Park are, in a sense, land bridges. They put not just a bridge and a path over the road, but essentially a chunk of park. You can see from old photos that the original bridge over Delaware Avenue did that, too. The current bridge, built in the 1930s as a WPA project, as great as it is, does not.

Delaware Bridge

But if we widened the bridge itself, perhaps by two to three times its current width, it might be possible to put the road and the at-grade intersection with Delaware Avenue underneath and completely out of sight of park users. The key to this would be to move or reconstruct the south facade of the bridge, with its arched portals, further south to maintain the original appearance of the bridge. But the “interior” of the bridge, past the portals, would actually be larger and more open to accommodate the two roads, the intersection, and the turning lanes. Over top would be a reunited – and expanded – park.

Land bridge

A key to this is that the current bridge is made of steel-reinforced concrete with a stone facade, unlike the original bridge that was made entirely of stone. It may be possible to keep the stone portals and facades while using concrete and steel on the inside to create an entirely covered intersection. It is actually very common for bridges that appear to be arched to have rectangular interior spaces behind facades of arched portals.

Delaware Avenue bridge WPA

The land bridge over the intersection would alleviate concerns raised about the visual impact on the park of a single, large at-grade intersection at Delaware Avenue. Those concerns are understandable, given the intrusiveness of the existing at-grade intersection of Delaware Avenue and Nottingham Terrace, which now functions as part of the current interchange. (Note that both my proposal and the SCC proposal should allow to be significantly downsized.) The sunken road on the Meadow side would plug into the interior of the land bridge at a portal on the eastern side that would look not unlike one of the arched park bridges it presumably passed under on its sunken route past the Meadow. On the lake side, the road would plug in via a similar portal if sunken. If covered, the interior of the land bridge would also be the eastern entrance to that covered section.

Fillmore-Northland intersection

Covered intersections are not common, but also not unheard of. As elevated railways and expressways were built over city streets, some of those city streets found themselves intersecting entirely under cover. Buffalo has intersections that are completely covered, for example under the 190 downtown, and even one under the Belt Line. None of them are particularly attractive, but they weren’t designed to be. One that carries not simply a road or railroad, but Delaware Park itself, overhead would need to be more nicely designed. In fact, design would be key to it working or not. A good 3-D model (beyond my capabilities) would help get a handle on that. Any modelers out there?

If shown workable, this option would be less intrusive on the park than an exposed intersection and a new land bridge. It would also re-establish what has been missing since the original single-arch bridge was replaced with the current two-arch bridge: a land bridge carrying Delaware Park over Delaware Avenue.

The Creek

This installment, and this segment of the expressway, both end at the creek. From the creek crossing west, the expressway occupies the footprint of Scajaquada Creek, and the next couple of installments will be about that. The last installment talked about how to restore the damage done by the expressway to a neighborhood. This installment was about restoring the damage done to the park. The rest of the expressway damaged the creek, and we need to talk about restoring that, too. In fact, in my view – and I’m not alone – the most important imperative in remaking the expressway is to get it off the creek. Entirely. The DOT’s current plan does essentially nothing in that regard, which is one of its primary failings and one of the primary reasons it is just not good enough.

Lion bridge

I’m bringing this up here to explain why the 198, downgraded to Scajaquada Drive, needs to cross the stone arch bridge at Hoyt Lake, which is what the original carriage drive did. Only by crossing the creek there can the current 198 bridge over the creek, its infrastructure, and its approaches be removed. Along with the removal of the 198 from the creek, the 198 bridge must be removed, as well. If you look at the issue closely, from a variety of angles – the reason I’m writing these posts – you come to realize that removing the 198 from the creek footprint – which means also removing the 198 bridge over the creek – is the only acceptable scenario.

There is currently interest in refurbishing the Lincoln Parkway bridge – even adding the lions back. This proposal would both create the need and provide the opportunity to do so. The bridge handles a fair amount of traffic now, but this proposal would bring more across it. That would make it helpful to have footpath connections under the road on either end of the bridge, if that could be done without impacting the historic character of the bridge. Similarly, if there is a need to widen the bridge, or even elevate it to make it more welcoming to canoes and kayaks, this project would be the time to do it. This would be the time to think those things through.

Just south of that bridge, my proposal for the 198 through the park ends with a small circle or roundabout at Lincoln Parkway and Iroquois Drive. We’ll pick things up there to talk about the western end.

Next: Scajaquada Drive.

Olmstedian Scajaquada series so far:

Separation of Ways

 Sister Circles

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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