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Olmstedian Scajaquada: Brother Lakes

Note: This is the Fifth In a Series.

If we remove the west end of the 198, what would the restored landscape look like? In the last installment, we looked at the feasibility of removal, and hopefully made that case. This post and the next will look at options for restoring the landscape along the creek west and east of Grant Street, along with a Scajaquada Drive. As throughout the series, we’ll look to Olmstedian principles and landscapes for inspiration and what the good folks at the UB School of Architecture and Planning call “precedent studies.”

The last installment hinted that how Scajaquada Drive would proceed east of Fernwood Avenue would depend on land use decisions. Between West Avenue and Grant Street, that comes down to: blue or green?

On the blue side, the last installment showed the former Scajaquada widewaters on a century-old map, and here I’m showing that superimposed on the current landscape. From this, you can see how a restored widewaters would spread out over the post-industrial landscape around the western end of the 198. The map image would appear to be fairly accurate, as the visible remnants of the old industrial rail spur line up with the ones from the historic map. Also, the unique angled rear facades of two old industrial buildings off Tonawanda Street correspond with the curve of the widewaters, on the shore of which they must have been originally built.

Yet other concepts for restoring the creek corridor post-expressway do not propose restoring the widewaters, but rather keeping the creek corridor where it is, and enhancing it with green space alongside. One example, showing very ample green, was posted by Buffalo Rising’s Steel last year. The Western Scajaquada Coalition’s concept, also released last year, would also keep the creek where it is, enhancing the riparian corridor with green space, nature, paths, and bridges.

Whether the creek between Grant Street and West Avenue is restored as a channel or the wide body of water it was historically would clearly affect the routing of a Scajaquada Drive between those streets. But aside from that design consideration, which is the best decision in terms of land use? Green or blue?

Go Blue, Not Green

Color me blue. I say restore the widewaters, and name the restored water body Letchworth Lake. (Of course, there would be plenty of green, too.)

 

 

Why Letchworth? The malleable iron company that William Pryor Letchworth of Letchworth Park fame owned was known as Pratt and Letchworth, and was located on land between the widewaters and Tonawanda Street. The buildings from the company are all demolished in 2005. Letchworth Street, now an extension of Rockwell Road, on the east side of the widewaters, was also named for him. I couldn’t determine if his company was involved with any of the filling of the widewaters, but one reference mentions that the company kept some unused land behind the plant along the water essentially as a park for employees. The image above (from Buffalo Architecture and History) of the Tonawanda Street side of the plant also shows an area kept, apparently, as a park for employees.

Intriguingly, I also found reference online to the company shipping via docks on the widewaters behind the plant. When the Erie Canal and Black Rock Channel were built, the creek then emptied into them, rather than directly into the river. Essentially, the widewaters became a kind of harbor on the canal system. That means the industrialization of the widewaters could have begun even before the railroad era. And in the railroad era, like the industrial section of Niagara Street to the south (and other places around the city like the Old First Ward and South Buffalo), the ability to ship using a combination of water and rail was undoubtedly behind the heavy concentration of industry there.

William Pryor Letchworth is not buried in his eponymous state park, but in Forest Lawn Cemetery, just a stone’s throw from the Scajaquada Expressway. But the setting is park-like. In both color and texture, his gravestone reflects the stately red oak that has stood over it for generations, keeping watch over the man who kept watch over nature. Who better to honor?

Restoring the widewaters, and naming the water body for Letchworth, would create an intriguing dual symmetry. Not only would there be lakes of comparable size flanking the east and west sides of the big northward bend in the creek, but they would both be named for saviors of Letchworth State Park. Mr. Letchworth restored a Genesee Gorge landscape that had been devastated by industrialized lumbering and milling. Assemblyman Bill Hoyt, for whom Hoyt Lake is named, led the charge to protect that landscape, when the US Army Corps wanted to use the Mt. Morris Dam for hydro-power. Fittingly, an overlook at the dam was dedicated to Hoyt after he passed away in 1998.

 

 

In many ways, these would be brother lakes. They would be comparable in size, and, like Hoyt Lake, Letchworth Lake should also have a footpath around it, which would be very popular for walking and running. Given the size of the lake – nearly a half-mile long and roughly a thousand feet wide at its widest – the footpath would likely be about the same length, between a mile and a mile and a half. The longest views along the lake would be from the curve in the West Avenue bridge and from the Grant Street bridge. Because of the encroachments on Hoyt Lake over the years, removing bays and nooks and crannies, Letchworth Lake, if restored in the historic shape of the widewaters, could actually have a more varied and natural shoreline than its brother in the park.

The two lakes would flank the northern bend of the creek around the Buffalo State College campus, but they wouldn’t be a mirror reflection. Hoyt Lake is oriented more west by northwest, and its brother would be more north by northeast. Still, the pairing would invite comparisons and analogies, like a kind of landscape Rorschach Test. Some might see pigtails, others headphones. The politically minded might see a gerrymandered congressional district, or even Ross Perot’s ears.

A Landscape Searching for an Analogy

A Field Trip to Boston

While Letchworth Lake wouldn’t be set amid a park per se, like Hoyt Lake, it would be Olmstedian in the sense of being very much like Jamaica Pond in Boston, an element of Olmsted’s famous Emerald Necklace. Jamaica Pond isn’t just a lovely place, it is also heavily used for recreational activities such as boating, fishing, and even sailing. The footpath around the pond, about one and a half miles long, is very popular for walking and jogging. Rather than being in a park, it has a couple of parks on its banks, including facilities for active recreation like ball fields. It is set in the residential neighborhood of Jamiaica Plain and, in places, has homes across the street from it. It is a primary amenity for the neighborhood and a college a block away.

 

 

Letchworth Lake could be our Jamaica Pond. But as important as it is as a precedent for a land use decision, getting back to the purpose of this series we also need to take a look at the way it is connected to the other elements of Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Olmsted connected most of the elements of the Necklace, including Jamaica Pond, by a series of drives which take their names from the key elements. The Jamaicaway, as Olmsted named it, both skirts the pond, providing scenic views and access to this recreational asset, and also functions as a neighborhood street. While remaining distinctively Olmstedian, it has also become a major commuting route. It accommodates 37K cars per day on its four lanes. As you may recall from the previous installment, that’s only slightly less traffic than the western end of the 198 currently handles.

 

 

In addition to what the Jamaicaway links along its length, across its width is the transition from residential neighborhood to recreational lake. One on side are residential homes and a sidewalk, and on the other is a green border, a multi-use path, and then the green space around the lake. The popular footpath is close to the lake shore.

This may also be the best layout for Scajaquada Drive along a restored widewaters.

 

Making the Drive

With that lesson from Boston in mind, the diagram here shows one possible routing for Scajaquada Drive along Letchworth Lake. Between the drive and the lake should be nothing but nature, paths, and recreational facilities – including, perhaps, boathouses.

If, in creating the lake, the widewaters are restored to their original extent, the lake will come close to the residential streets to the east, as Jamaica Pond does to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. So Scajaquada Drive may, of necessity if nothing else, need to utilize a reconfigured neighborhood street or two. The streets in question presently have houses on only one side anyway, because across the street is industrial land. But because of the blighting effect of the industry, many of those streets have few houses, many dilapidated. This is especially so for Dart Street, across from the trucking company and auto impound.

A couple of spots along the route could prove especially challenging, particularly at the auto impound where Scajaquada Drive would need to have a connection to Letchworth Street/Rockwell Road. To have enough space to create a circle or roundabout rather than a “T” intersection would require the easternmost auto impound building to be removed.

And at Grant Street, the best connection might be a circle (Bengal Circle?), but the best location isn’t clear. Wherever is chosen for the road, the multi-use pathway on the water side might best be routed underneath the south end of the Grant Street bridge.

In terms of how this proposal would affect land use around the restored widewaters, there are a few things to point out that haven’t yet been mentioned.

At the end of Fernwood Avenue is a trucking company occupying all the creekside land northeast to the auto impound. To restore the widewaters, it would have to relocate. Amazingly, it appears to be the only private business that would absolutely have to be relocated to restore the widewaters. It could relocate almost anywhere, and if the expressway goes away it might decide the time is right to relocate, anyway.

And then there’s the place everyone loves to hate: the auto impound. People call the buildings eyesores (ironically, as seen from the eyesore expressway), but if you look at them closely, they have a great deal of character, including elaborate steel roof trusses. Some of the buildings would be in the way of restoring the widewaters, and at least one could be in the way of creating a good connection between Scajaquada Drive and Letchworth Street/Rockwell Road, as mentioned above. But since the buildings are just sheet metal over steel frames, it might be possible to dismantle some or all of them to reuse around the lake for boathouses (especially if there will be sailing on the lake), maintenance facilities, or even sheltered recreation buildings. Rehabbed, they would be more visually appealing than the pole-barn type structures typically put up for such purposes.

And whether or not the auto impound buildings are your cup of tea, they are part of the industrial heritage of the western end of the creek, and so should be reused if a use can be found for them either in place or nearby. There is already interest on the part of the city and the community in relocating the auto impound, so a project to restore the widewaters would only move those considerations along.

Near the auto impound, restoring the widewaters to its original footprint would impact some of the Buffalo State maintenance buildings and parking lots. Those are all, frankly, ugly, but since they were built in an industrial area it didn’t matter at the time. Creating a recreational lake and landscape next to them would certainly change that, but the area nearby is starting to change, anyway. It may well be that the college is already looking at what to do with those aging eyesores. As with the auto impound, a project like this would only move those considerations along.

At the northeast end of the footprint of the former widewaters, there are a couple of commercial properties that could affect whether the full footprint could be restored. At Tops Plaza, a portion of the parking lot is built on the footprint, including the gas pumps that were recently installed. But until the plaza is substantially redeveloped to de-suburbanize it, it is unlikely the full footprint of the widewaters could be restored there. On the other hand, perhaps the prospect of the restoration could act as a spur to redevelop the plaza property, especially with the prospect of it becoming – literally – lakefront property. And especially if the cost of the widewaters restoration itself is being borne by someone else as part of a transportation project.

Similarly, just across the creek is Niemiec Builders Supply, at the northern end of Dart Street. The business and the family are longtime Black Rock anchors. I once heard someone refer to the business as “Buffalo’s best kept secret.” (Shhh!) So while no one would want them to move, perhaps the prospect of the expressway’s removal and the transition away from industrial uses on northern Dart Street would make the Niemiecs entertain a relocation offer. One of the recreation areas around the lake could be named for them.

On the western side of the restored widewaters, it doesn’t appear that any buildings would have to be demolished to restore the widewaters. Most if not all of the buildings that remain appear to pre-date the 1914 map of the widewaters used as a reference here. That certainly makes things easier physically and politically.

And a special note about the Tee-to-Green site, which has garnered many posts (examples here and here) and comments over the years. In creating the overlay, I was surprised to find that very little of the site would be needed to restore the widewaters. What that means is that the site could provide a significant public park and recreation area along Letchworth Lake, along with additional habitat creation. In the years since the Ambassador Bridge Company of Detroit (ABCD) has owned the property, a substantial habitat has developed there. The removal of the expressway and restoration of the widewaters may reduce ABCD’s interest in holding the property to the point where they could become a willing seller. In addition to access for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and sailing, the property would have room for playing fields and active recreation.

In addition to providing scenic, natural, and recreational resources, the restoration of the widewaters, made possible by the replacement of the expressway by a surface drive, should provide a substantial boost to the Dart-Danforth Neighborhood just to the east. Although appearing down on its luck, the neighborhood actually has some great assets within walking distance: Grant Street, some retail on Forest (although in need of a boost), the Asarese-Matters Community Center, several churches, the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, Buffalo State, and several culturals nearby. Dragged down for decades by a sagging, post-industrial landscape next door, this neighborhood could be reinvigorated by the transition from a brownfield neighbor to a blue-water neighbor.

That may be the best reason of all to make this happen.

Next: Scajaquada Fens.

Olmstedian Scajaquada series so far:

 

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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