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Olmstedian Scajaquada: Scajaquada Fens

Note: this is the sixth in a series.

A famous anecdote of Olmsted’s selection of the site of Buffalo’s principal park is related in Dr. Frank Kowsky’s indispensable book on Olmsted in Western New York. On a tour of potential park sites, when Olmsted glimpsed what is now The Meadow in Delaware Park he said, “Here is your park almost ready-made.” Despite Olmsted’s reputation as a designer of landscapes, he also had a reputation for leaving alone what already worked.

Historic Scajaquada Drive Alone

That may explain why Olmsted, other than using Scajaquada Creek to create a lake in Delaware Park, largely left the creek alone. Nearby, he also designed the grounds of the State Asylum for the Insane, in collaboration with the designer of the buildings, H. H. Richardson, which originally included a working farm extending all the way north to the creek, where Buffalo State College is today. Yet west of Elmwood Avenue, his design did nothing with the creek. Years later, an updated plan for The Park did put a Scajaquada Drive along the south bank of the creek between Elmwood and Grant, as mentioned earlier in the series. Other than that, the creek was left alone. Why?

The answer, I think, is because that section of the creek already functioned as a natural, scenic, and recreational resource, and hadn’t yet been devastated by all manner of ills the later 20th Century would impose on it. At the time it worked, which was perhaps why park designers saw no need to enhance it. Just after the Civil War, when Buffalo’s parks were being planned, there was little development around the creek. The hardscape, sewer overflows, pollution, encroachments, and channelization that afflict its watershed today were unimagined. Upstream, on Buffalo’s East Side, the creek meandered through a floodplain. It had not yet been converted to the underground Scajaquada Drain, which now channelizes floodwaters into the lower creek, as we saw this year.

Scajaquada flooding July 2017. Image credit: Al Vaughters
Scajaquada mess. Image credit: Investigative Post

But in the 20th Century, sprawling towns upstream discharging waste into the creek, and industries discharging a spectrum of pollutants created the kinds of effects that Environmental Reporter Dan Telvock of Investigative Post has described in reports like “The Scajaquada Is a Crippled Creek.” Conditions got so bad they necessitated the creation of a separate tunnel to bypass Hoyt Lake. (I recently learned that locals call the island at the mouth of that bypass “Poop Island,” or “West Cheektowaga.”) All of those impacts combined to devastate the lower creek. And they were only made worse by the construction of the 198, which turned the creek between Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street into a storm sewer.

Clearly, removing the expressway from Scajaquada Creek is necessary – but not sufficient. But since Olmsted and his successors found no need to do anything with the creek downstream from Delaware Park other than put a drive alongside, they left us with no local historic precedent to draw on. They had the luxury of leaving the creek alone, but we don’t. It needs an extreme environmental makeover. Between Elmwood and Grant – just downstream of the mouth of the Hoyt Lake bypass tunnel and just upstream of the proposed recreational lake – the creek needs to be restored in a way that allows it to help itself clean itself. Part sponge to help soak up floodwaters, and part filter. And restored with more in-water and near-water habitat than it had originally, to help make up for what the watershed has lost. What would that look like?

Like the previous installment in this series, we can look to Boston’s Emerald Necklace. There, Olmsted created one of its most beloved features by restoring to health a crippled creek.

Back Bay Fens

In the 1870s, in rapidly expanding Boston, many of the afflictions that plagued Scajaquada Creek in the 20th century had already devastated that city’s Muddy River. Boston turned to Olmsted for help, and what Olmsted did there provides important lessons for how to address our creek – if we can remove the expressway.

The resulting Back Bay Fens and Riverway are perhaps the most noted links in Olmsted’s famous Emerald Necklace. Less a park than a landscape, the Fens are a combined natural and man-made system for managing sewage and stormwater. In fact, Olmsted wouldn’t let Boston call the project a “park,” so he hit upon the name “Fens,” an ancient term for marshlands. The project also provided an opportunity to do stream restoration that Olmsted and Vaux had wanted to do other places, but couldn’t.

Although the Fens seem utterly natural, that is an illusion, not unlike the illusion that Central Park preserved part of the pre-civilization landscape of Manhattan. They are an entirely built landscape. Below ground, the Fens also incorporates a large bypass conduit that also played an important role in cleaning up the river. In modern terms, we would call it a mix of green infrastructure and greywater infrastructure. And as much as organizations in Buffalo like Waterkeeper want to shift that green-grey mix toward green infrastructure, the lesson for the western Scajaquada corridor may be that removing the expressway creates an opportunity to install conduits that would contribute to the cleaning up of the lower creek.

Olmstedian island

Yet despite the project’s substantial engineering component, Olmsted wanted the Fens to look natural, with a natural riparian edge. According to Charles Beveridge, the great Olmsted scholar,

In order to create a soft, vegetated edge…he had to solve two problems: how to provide adequate space to hold floodwaters and still have room left for natural growth, and how to protect a natural shoreline from erosion by surf during storms. His solution was to make gradually shelving banks and to construct wide islands only slightly above the usual water level. These would be planted with high-growing cattails, sedge, and other marsh vegetation.

This created a lush landscape that was rich ecologically, visually, and recreationally. Such a landscape would provide ecosystem services such as cleaning water, and also several kinds of in-water and near-water habitat. It would be a kind of paradise for exploring by canoe and kayak. On the land side, despite being an extensively natural landscape, the Fens also incorporate paths, drives, and bridges (more about those below).

Canoe on Muddy River

Scajaquada Fens

As amazing and famous as Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens are, perhaps the most astounding thing about them is that they accomplish their multiple missions – scenic, recreational, ecological, and sanitary – in such a small space. From side to side, the section of the Muddy River valley where the Fens are located is only about 500 feet across.

Here in Buffalo, if the 198 were removed between Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street, along with some other landfill that has been added over the years, the valley of Scajaquada Creek would be about the same width across. Remarkably, in terms of length, the distance along the creek between Elmwood and Grant is also about the same as the segment of the Muddy River valley occupied by the Boston Fens.

Removing the expressway between Elmwood and Grant, then, would allow for the Scajaquada Creek valley to be converted into a kind of Scajaquada Fens, with a unique design but many of the characteristics and design features that have made Boston’s Fens the iconic landscape in that city’s Emerald Necklace.

Scajaquada Creek from the Elmwood Bridge, historic image.

This would be very different from restoring the creek to its original width as open water. While that would be a reasonable design decision, as you can see from a historic image, that would also create little visual interest, and also less riparian edge. The riparian edge and shallows and wetlands are among the most productive habitats, especially for fish, many types of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

So restoring the creek between Elmwood and Grant, like for the section west of Grant discussed in the previous installment, would come down to a question of: green or blue? Water or greenery? West of Grant I came down on the side of blue. So here, why do I come down on the side of green?

Primarily, because creating a Scajaquada Fens would maximize the contribution of that section of the creek to remediating the water quality issues that have impacted the creek in recent decades, issues that didn’t exist a century ago but are now acute. It would also maximize the contribution of that section in creating new habitat to offset habitat that has been lost along the creek and throughout the city. It would also maximize the visual appeal and recreational offerings there.

Its twists and turns and lush vegetation would also create a paradise for slow-paced canoeing and kayaking. Because of the low bridges near its mouth, and the finger dam, Scajaquada Creek is currently not used by motorized boats, and that should remain true. The Fens would also create a critical buffer zone between the new recreational lake proposed in the previous installment – which could have intensive uses such as rowing and sailing – and the picturesque Hoyt Lake.

Olmsted’s Fens, designed to provide flood control and water quality services, were an early recognition that nature can provide services of value. Today, we might categorize the Fens as a kind of “green infrastructure.” But it is important to note that not all of it was green: Olmsted built sewers alongside the Fens. In the same way, although Waterkeeper and their partners in improving the Scajaquada watershed rightly emphasize green infrastructure solutions, the removal of the expressway might create the opportunity to upgrade the sewer and stormwater infrastructure along the creek. Eliminating some or all of the half-dozen or so CSOs (combined sewer overflows) along the western section, along with green infrastructure like the Fens and – of course – improvements upstream in the suburban towns would drastically improve water quality in the lower creek.

Yet the Scajaquada Fens would be not just a creek restoration, or even just an extension of Delaware Park westward, but nothing less than the creation of the first new Olmstedian landscape in Buffalo in over a century.

The master of paradox, G. K. Chesterton, once said, “Fens, like deserts, are large things very apt to be mislaid.” In a way that is true of Olmsted’s Fens which, like other elements of the Emerald Necklace, have been severely encroached on since their creation, as if their original intent was mislaid. What that means for Buffalo is that we could create a Fens that are more Olmstedian than the Back Bay Fens are today – at the very least, richer and more natural.

We could and we should.

Waterfront Campus

College on Back Bay Fens

An interesting historic footnote about Olmsted’s Fens is that he expected they would attract residential development, like the Back Bay neighborhood. What happened instead is that the location became a magnet for educational and cultural institutions, a couple dozen in all. In that respect, the western Scajaquada corridor in Buffalo, with three colleges and a collection of culturals, is similar.


Removing the expressway between Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street would involve converting Iroquois Drive into Scajaquada Drive. As I described earlier in the series, if the traffic that currently enters the 198 from the 190 were to be dispersed into the street grid available nearby, a two-lane Scajaquada Drive should be able to handle what’s left. Importantly, using Scajaquada Drive, college-bound traffic would be able to access the campus directly, rather than having to exit onto Elmwood or Grant first, which creates congestion on those streets (as I also described in that earlier installment).

Redundant asphalt

Currently, Iroquois Drive functions as a service road, for campus service vehicles and as alternate access to some campus parking lots. The service road and the expressway together form an unbreakable cordon of redundant strips of asphalt that both hide the creek and keep away anyone who might notice it. Recently, I walked along Iroquois Drive during afternoon rush hour, and found almost no traffic on it, and surprisingly little traffic on the adjacent expressway. It was astonishing to see such a waste not only financially, but of a natural resource. This ugliness has caused the college to turn its back on the creek, and see the creek, to the extent anyone is aware of it at all, as the backside of campus.


The northnern edge of campus could look our onto a lush Olmstedian landscape rather than a barren asphalt wasteland

What a contrast to Boston, where educational and cultural institutions proudly cluster around the Fens and other nearby links in the Emerald Necklace. With the expressway removed and the creek transformed into a rich natural and recreational asset, Buffalo State College could similarly be a waterfront campus. It would not only boost the quality of campus life, but also be a selling point to prospective students and faculty. With the restored creek, and a lake on either end of Rockwell Road, the college would have scenic and recreational water on three sides.

With the restored creek, and a lake on either end of Rockwell Road, the college would have scenic and recreational water on three sides.

On top of that, with the Richardson-Olmsted Complex bordering the campus to the south, Buffalo State College could boast of being the only college or university to be surrounded on all sides by Olmstedian landscapes. That might inspire the college to boost the quality of the campus landscape itself, or even offer a degree in landscape architecture, something you cannot currently get at any Buffalo school.

A West Side Highway grade crossing

How would folks cross Scajaquada Drive between campus and the Fens? In Boston, there are striped crossings with “Yield to Pedestrians” signs across the Fenway, the drive that runs alongside the Fens, between the institutions one one side and the Fens on the other. That seems to work in part because the park-like landscape there, with well-used paths on either side, serves as a kind of traffic calming. In lower Manhattan, city denizens wanting to visit Hudson River Park cross the West Side Highway at signalized grade crossings. One of those two approaches, or a combination, should work.

Making Buffalo State a waterfront campus would forever change the idea of the northern side of campus being the ‘backside.’

Making Buffalo State a waterfront campus would forever change the idea of the northern side of campus being the “backside.” A more northerly orientation would benefit Black Rock by potentially adding a “collegetown” flavor. But only if gown and town can mix. And that can only happen if people can connect across this new landscape between the waterfront neighborhood and the waterfront campus.

Crossing Over

A hallmark of Olmsted’s design for the Boston Fens is multiple levels, from street level where the drives – the Fenway and the Riverway – run alongside, down to water level, with some terraces levels in between. Aside from their primary flood control purpose, the various levels create an ideal setting for a curving set of paths following the contours and nooks and crannies of the landscape. Some of the best photos showing this are by Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, who is no stranger to Buffalo.

Charles Birnbaum photos Image credit: Charles Birnbaum, The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The twisting watercourses and levels also necessitated a variety of bridges that are a signature of the Fens. As in Central and Prospect Parks, they are a beloved and often-photographed feature. Olmstedian bridges, at a variety of levels and faced with local limestone, could also become a hallmark of a Scajaquada Fens.

On some of the bridges, Olmsted had help from his friend and Brookline neighbor, architect H.H. Richardson. Of course, one of the first collaborations between those two legendary designers was just south of Scajaquada Creek in Buffalo: the Richardson-Olmsted Complex. The bridges they created for the Fens featured the rustic boulder construction also found in other collaborations between the two men, such as for the Ames family in North Easton, Massachusetts. One of those bridges, the Agassiz Bridge, is pictured here.

Agassiz bridge

Because lower-level bridges would only need to let canoes and kayaks under, they could be designed with multiple arches like the Agassiz Bridge. Or, if over a small water channel, they could be a single arch like this one:

Single-span low-level arch

Larger bridges could also link paths at a higher level, perhaps even an auto road crossing from rim to rim. This is what the Longfellow Bridge (pictured) does in Boston. It’s single span is long enough for a water channel and water-level footpaths to run underneath.

Longfellow Bridge

In creating a Scajaquada Fens there is at least one spot where a bridge would need to go entirely across the landscape from rim to rim: Nottingham Terrace. As discussed in an earlier installment, as a critical east-west link in the street grid of the western 198 corridor, it would still need to connect with the Scajaquada Drive that replaces the Scajaquada Expressway. In spots where road bridges needed to entirely cross the Back Bay Fens, Olmsted designed the bending watercourse to line up so that the crossing road would be mostly on land with only a short span over water. That could be the case for Nottingham Terrace.

There are a couple of other spots where crossings of the Fens might be warranted.

A New Black Rock Greenway

One location that may merit a crossing is where the former industrial rail spur crossed the creek. It crossed on a trestle near the location of the present finger dam. A crossing at that location would create the opportunity for a greenway along the rail spur linking the Scajaquada Corridor with Amherst Street retail, Black Rock neighborhood streets, and the new adaptive reuse projects on Grote Street and along the Belt Line.

New Black Rock Greenway

As you can see from the diagram, a greenway along the rail spur would pass through the intersection of Amherst Street and Bridgeman Street by the entrance to Wegmans, one of the most important nodes on the street. Just north of Amherst Street, a group home was built on a section of the former railroad right-of-way. Perhaps with some relocation assistance, its important mission could be accommodated somewhere else nearby, perhaps as part of one of the adaptive reuse projects currently underway.

Along this greenway, the great old brick industrial building at 1 Howell Street would suddenly find itself as essentially waterfront property, with great adaptive reuse potential. Recreational users of the creek corridor might want to use the greenway to meander up to Amherst Street to grab a bite to eat or have an ice cream, boosting the commercial strip.

One Howell Street

Since the ownership of the former railbed is apparently broken up, putting it back together for a greenway would take some effort, that would probably be most effective with Black Rock stakeholders in the lead. But it would be a valuable community asset and recreational connection between the neighborhood and the Scajaquada corridor.

A crossing for this greenway could also address issues with the present finger dam. Presumably the creek restoration would involve removal, reconfiguration, or replacement of the finger dam. At the very least, there needs to be a canoe carry around it. Perhaps whatever needs to be done with the finger dam could be incorporated into the bridge carrying this greenway across the Fens.

Wegmans Village?

The Western Scajaquada Corridor plan unveiled last year includes proposed auto bridges over the creek from south to north in the vicinity of Buffalo State College. The rationale was to try to establish mid-block connections between the school and Amherst Street, to create the kind of additional route options associated with a street grid that are not currently present there. While I’m not convinced that’s necessary, one thing I do feel strongly about is that extending any of the Black Rock residential streets south across the creek is a bad idea. Those short, dead-end streets are currently used by neighborhood children as play areas. Occasionally, a block resident will drive down the street, very slowly, and the children will stand aside. Turning such a street into a through-street would be a disservice to the residents, and shouldn’t be done unless absolutely necessary.

…it could even lead to the creation of a ‘Wegmans Village.’

That said, if it proves desirable to have such a through street, perhaps the single best option would be to extend Bridgeman Street south. That would not only create a direct connection to Wegmans, it could even lead to the creation of a “Wegmans Village.” Essentially, the Wegmans property could be improved into a kind of mini “lifestyle center,” with a walkable and landscaped internal street grid with storefronts facing those streets. The diagram below shows one possible configuration, including additional infill to fill the gaps along Amherst Street.

It would be important to include businesses that aren’t already found in the neighborhood or not likely to locate on a traditional urban commercial street. The idea would be to create something not to compete with existing businesses nearby, but serve as a destination and magnet drawing more and different types of shoppers to the neighborhood. Then, with improved landscape, streetscape, and recreational connectivity, encourage those shoppers to linger and explore what the entire neighborhood has to offer.

Wegmans Village

This would also be about creating a sense of place around the Amherst-Bridgeman intersection, to build it into something more than just “that light where you turn in to Wegmans.” It could also create bicycle and pedestrian connections into the surrounding neighborhood, and to the new Black Rock Greenway and the Scajaquada (Jesse Kregal) Pathway.

To create something like this, Wegmans would have to display a level cooperation with the community that was lacking in the planning of the liquor store on the premises. It would also take a level of commitment to urbanism that has been lacking in their projects, even in cities. But the creation of the Fens, the new greenway, and a bridge linking the store directly to Buffalo State would add enough to the potential of the site to perhaps get Wegmans willing to think outside of the big box – perhaps even including some structured parking, underground parking, and even mixed use with residential upstairs needed to make it work.

With underground parking, the current parking lot could become a ‘village square.’

With underground parking, the current parking lot could become a “village square.” The example of that I’ve shown in the diagram includes a shallow water feature that could be fed by solar-powered pumps with water from the creek that then could flow back into the creek and Fens via a picturesque stream and ravine that could perhaps even re-enter the creek at a small waterfall. The water feature could be used for ice skating in the winter – something that would be enjoyed by the entire neighborhood.

Earlier, it was mentioned that making Buffalo State a more northward oriented campus could benefit Black Rock if people could easily cross back and forth. A Bridgeman Street crossing would be a key town-gown connection between the waterfront campus and the waterfront neighborhood.


McKinley High School horticulture students learning about the new landscape being created at their school as part of the Joint Schools Reconstruction Project. Image credit: Joy Kuebler, Landscape Architecture

Finally, nestled up against Scajaquada Creek along Elmwood Avenue is McKinley High School, home to one of the only horticulture and landscape programs in Western New York. The Scajaquada Fens would provide the program with a living laboratory at their back door. The students could not only contribute to the planting and maintenance of the Fens, but could gain hands-on experience with creek restoration, habitat types, invasive species management, and landscape aesthetics. Some might be inspired to consider careers in landscape architecture and ecology.

Creating the Scajaquada Fens would not only be about restoring a creek and creating a beautiful natural landscape, but also about inspiring a generation of young Buffalonians to dedicate themselves to protecting and enhancing the landscape and ecology of Our Fair City – and world.

Olmstedian Scajaquada series so far:

Separation of Ways

 Sister Circles

Taking the Low Road

 Scajaquada Circle

Brother Lakes

Next: Cultural District

Written by 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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