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Olmstedian Scajaquada: Cultural District South

Note: this is the seventh in a series.

The recent New York Times story about the Scajaquada Expressway has this to say about our cultural district:

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Buffalo History Museum are less than half a mile apart, on opposite sides of the Scajaquada. Looking across the expanse of pavement and speeding traffic, however, the distance seems insurmountable.

As it happens, the smallest segment of the Scajaquada corridor, from Elmwood Avenue to Lincoln Parkway, is perhaps the largest in significance, because it passes through the heart of Buffalo’s cultural district. Design considerations for remaking the expressway corridor there are dominated by the cultural institutions immediately north and south, and the lake’s North Bay, which we now call Mirror Lake. All of which are severely encroached upon by the 198.

Reflecting the sad bifurcation of the cultural district by the 198, I’ll look at south and north halves separately.

Where We’re Going We Don’t Need This Road

There is perhaps no other spot where the need to subtract the 198 entirely from the landscape is more prominent than at Mirror Lake. To cross Scajaquada Creek, the DOT created an entirely new bridge – a highway bridge, not a park bridge. This highway bridge and highway interchange are in the middle of one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the region. Mirror Lake, now cut off from the rest of the park, was once one of the most striking parts of the park, with neoclassical buildings on two sides and a path all the way around.

North Bay, original plan

Interestingly, over a century ago, the area around what was then called the North Bay was substantially transformed from its original plan (see illustration) by the addition of the neoclassical buildings associated with the Pan-Am Expo. Olmsted’s firm, by then run by his successors, protested these intrusions, but to no avail.

In a way, Olmsted-designed landscapes around the nation became the victim of their designer’s success with the Colombian Exposition of 1893. That event is generally credited as launching the City Beautiful movement. Monuments and monumental buildings were placed on prominent axes and amid naturalized settings. Olmsted set the Beaux-Arts buildings of the White City amid a profusion of nature and water features that reflected the architecture, effectively doubling the visual size of prominent buildings and monuments.

In Buffalo, the City Beautiful movement made it’s big splash a decade later with the Pan-Am Exposition. The Pan-Am created our cultural district, locating two institutions in neoclassical buildings where they would reflect in the waters of the North Bay – the reason it’s now called Mirror Lake – and the lake now called Hoyt Lake. Long after the Pan-Am closed, and the artificial lagoons to the north were filled in, and the exposition site converted to housing, these buildings would remain as features set amid Buffalo’s premier green space, reflecting in the waters. Today, we couldn’t imagine Buffalo without these buildings. They contribute immensely to our civic identity.

Most importantly, these buildings were sited and designed by architects, some of the building variety, some of the landscape variety. So, aside from their violation of Olmsted’s structure-light, nature-heavy park plan, those buildings do enhance their surroundings.

In jarring contrast is the 198, which was not designed so much as engineered. It does not enhance its surroundings. Because of its intrusive crossing of the creek, its destruction of Mirror Lake, its displacement of the creek, and its route, it simply can’t be improved. West of Lincoln Parkway, the 198 needs to be entirely removed. Keeping the western portion of the 198 in place simply cannot be justified, given that it only serves around 40,000 cars per day. As I showed earlier in the series, the traffic in the western end of the corridor could be accommodated by the street grid. Any traffic not soaked up by the street grid could be accommodated by the parallel Iroquois Drive.

Iroquois Drive removed

Interestingly, though, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has made noises in the last year about removing Iroquois Drive. In a public meeting last year about the expansion, project architect Shohei Shigematsu showed an image of the gallery with Iroquois Drive greened out. It’s not clear just how serious he and his team – and client – were about that recommendation, or whether it was more of a design exercise. It was a fun moment in the presentation – generating some applause from the audience – and may have been more a nod to one of the central goals of the expansion project, which is to avoid having a net impact on the park.

It’s an apt time to be talking about this, because I believe there is a design solution there would not only remove the 198 entirely, but also remove most of the visual impact of Iroquois Drive just north of the gallery.

Land Bridge

This best-of-both-worlds solution combines a couple of key concepts discussed earlier in the series – a combination of cut and cover. Some of Iroquois Drive would be sunken and a land bridge built over top. For the first time, the land bridge would allow the gallery to reach across and establish a link with the creek.

The land bridge could be built without affecting the many stunning oak trees south of Iroquois Drive. North of Iroquois Drive, some trees would be affected, but most of them are of species like horse chestnut and locust. For decades, they have been in a no-man’s-land where they have not been well maintained. Removal of the 198 would involve extensive disruption and re-landscaping of that area anyway.

Land bridge

Under the land bridge would be critical access to the planned underground parking and new loading docks the gallery wants to create. The land bridge would conceal all the ramps needed for access and egress, with their elevation changes and twists and turns. From the outside, Iroquois Drive, now Scajaquada Drive, would simply be a four-lane road, with the two outer lanes for those entering and exiting the underground parking and loading docks, and the center two lanes for through traffic.

The east end of the Iroquois Drive wouldn’t need to be sunken, per se, just simply kept at the same level as Lincoln Parkway. The west end, near Elmwood, would only need to be sunken slightly to go under the land bridge. The outside lanes, for accessing the underground parking, could be sunken more severely, if necessary. The idea would be to avoid creating such a slope as to be hazardous in the winter or extreme rain events.

It would be difficult for bicycle and pedestrian traffic to go under the land bridge, so they would have to go up onto the land bridge or along the creek, either of which would be a nicer experience than passing through a tunnel.

Terrace

Morraine Farm terrace after construction

The northern edge of the land bridge could include a landscape feature not invented by Olmsted, but used in many of his most important sites: a terrace. A terrace has a visual push-pull effect of “pulling” a more distant part of the landscape visually closer, and “pushing” the occupant of the terrace out into the landscape. A “terraceract,” a fan of A Wrinkle in Time might describe the seemingly magic effect on spatial distances. Examples in Olmsted’s work include Central Park – where visitors reaching the end of the mall are visually “terraced” into the central landscape features of the park, the Lake and the Ramble – Prospect Park, and Biltmore estate.

But perhaps the most relevant example is Moraine Farm in Beverly, north of Boston. There, Olmsted created a terrace between the house and nearby Wenham Lake that has been described as “pushing” the house and grounds “out toward” the lake. From most vantage points on the terrace, the lake would seem to be just on the other side of a low wall that is key to the visual effect.

Moraine Farm terrace today

Today, at Moraine Farm, you can still see the visual effect of the lake appearing to be just on the other side of the wall. Similarly, here, a terrace at the northern edge of the land bridge would make the restored Scajaquada Creek and the newly expressway-free landscape around Mirror Lake appear to be just on the other side of a low wall.

Visual effect from Moraine Farm terrace

Also at Moraine Farm, on the slope between the terrace and Wenham Lake, Olmsted put plantings with walkways winding between. The same thing could be done here between the northern edge of the land bridge and the newly expressway-free creek.

Especially relevant to the Albright-Knox and the expansion project, the terrace area would provide additional space to display outdoor sculpture, perhaps amid allées and copses of trees. It could also include play-oriented sculpture and landscape elements.

Terrace landscape examples

In presentations about the Albright-Knox expansion plans, the distinctions between park space vs. gallery space sometimes seem to be a kind of zero-sum arithmetic – as if doing one thing requires taking away from the other. But by taking, not an either-or but a both-and approach, the land bridge and terrace would present the opportunity to create spaces that contribute jointly to the gallery, to the park, and to the community.

Shared Facilities

The underground parking mentioned above is part of the initial proposal for the Albright-Knox expansion, and would be located between the original gallery building and Elmwood Avenue. The expansion proposal also includes a new loading dock accessed from the north. These proposals are right on. But could we take advantage of removing the expressway to do them even better? Yes, by treating them as district-wide resources. Let’s look at how that could work.

Loading dock OMA

Structured parking is expensive to build an maintain. And building structured parking isn’t the primary mission of a cultural institution. It would also be inefficient and potentially redundant for each institution to have to grapple with such infrastructure needs on their own. The entire cultural district would benefit from common planning for parking and transportation – including transit, biking, and walking.

Common planning could even go beyond infrastructure. Joint planning and even joint management of things like streetscape, signage, branding, identity, marketing and promotion of the district, joint events, and shared facilities like structured parking could enhance the district while allowing each cultural institution to focus on what it does best. How could that be done?

Underground parking OMA

Fortunately, a great example and model is just a few miles away. The Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) is made up of several constituent institutions, each with its own specialty in research and health care. BNMC, rather than each institution individually, addresses parking needs, designs common streetscape elements, develops district signage and branding, promotes alternative transportation, and hosts food trucks and farmers’ markets. The arrangement allows each institution to “stick to the knitting.” BNMC even went a step further, establishing an innovation center and co-working space that none of the individual institutions alone would have undertaken.

A “Buffalo-Niagara Cultural Campus” could meet similar common needs for Buffalo’s cluster of culturals, such as developing a fine-grained master plan for the district, addressing parking, improving transit, streetscape, and joint marketing and promotion of the district as a destination. Especially relevant to this series, such an entity could also provide a common, authoritative, amplified voice on issues such as reconfiguring the Scajaquada Expressway and cleaning up Scajaquada Creek.

How could such an entity help with the gallery’s need for underground parking? One example would involve creating shared underground parking that would serve not just the Albright-Knox but also the Buffalo State Performing Arts Center at Rockwell Hall and even the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center. Conceivably, the parking could be built under the front lawns of both the Albright-Knox and Rockwell Hall, and even linked underneath Elmwood Avenue, as shown in the illustration.

Shared underground parking

The parking could have enough capacity for daily visitation at all three institutions plus a major evening or weekend event at any one of them. It could also include underground loading docks for both the Albright-Knox and Rockwell Hall, and because of the connection under Elmwood all of the docks could be pressed into service for a large show or performance at either institution.

Beyond parking, the shared facility could also be an intermodal hub, making the cultural district substantially more transit-friendly, by connecting to transit shelters on the surface for both metro buses and campus shuttles. Transit users would be able to use paired shelters to get to either institution and to either northbound or southbound buses with an all-weather connection under Elmwood.

Bicycle parking, of course, should also be in the mix. Millennium Park in Chicago has a cycling center including underground bike parking, so why not our Delaware Park and cultural district – especially being next door to a college and on two major bike paths? We recently posted about underground bike parking in The Netherlands.

Millennium Park Cycle Center

Because during most business days the shared parking would be substantially used by those associated with Buffalo State, its construction could perhaps be funded entirely or in part by the Dormitory Authority. In addition to visitors, Buffalo State faculty, staff, and students who are willing to pay for sheltered parking would be a reliable source of income to cover debt service, operations, and maintenance.

Income from underground parking could also help create and maintain an artistic landscape above ground, designed holistically on both sides of the street to enhance the cultural district with a mixture of nature, landscape, and art that would get people actively engaged with what is currently almost entirely unused space.

Money

While we’re on the subject of money – a great place to wrap up – a key benefit to this proposal to eliminate the expressway west of Lincoln Parkway and use Iroquois Drive instead is that the DOT would be paying for the project. So it’s good that the Albright-Knox has had thoughts of replacing Iroquois Drive with green space. But if we remove the 198 and sink Iroquois Drive under a land bridge as part of the expressway reconfiguration, then the gallery can achieve that end without having to shoulder the cost burden. For that reason alone, the gallery may want to take a closer look at this option.

Next: Cultural District North.

Olmstedian Scajaquada series so far:

Separation of Ways

Sister Circles

Taking the Low Road

Scajaquada Circle

Brother Lakes

Scajaquada Fens

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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