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Cry “Olmsted!” and Let Slip the Dogs of Planning

Churchill is widely credited with saying something like, “Americans will always do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possibility.”

He could have been talking about Buffalo and the 198.

Fortunately, it appears we’re about to do the right thing – actual planning – but only after a decade and a half of exhausting every other possibility.

For those tuning in late, the DOT spent nearly fifteen years – and six or seven figures – on an on-again-off-again effort to redress the ever-problematic 198. That effort was fatally flawed from the beginning by not addressing the entire corridor and being limited in design scope to recommending marginal improvements within the highway right-of-way. At its height, that planning produced an alternative that the community might have gone for at the time, but it was taken off the table by the DOT. After that, the DOT was never able to regain the confidence of the community that the efforts would ever result in something that would get widespread buy-in.

After the tragic death of Maksym Sugorovskiy while out with his family in Delaware Park, our take-charge, get-it-done governor imposed a lower speed limit and tasked DOT to produce the best possible plan from to improve the highway based on its work to date. He handed the ball to his new DOT Commissioner Matt Driscoll, another take-charge, get-it-done leader from Onondaga County.

Driscoll came to town rollin’ deep, presenting a plan he told us was the best we were going to get. It was take it or leave it, he told us: we could take it (the plan) or the DOT would leave it (the 198) like it is. For a time it seemed Driscoll would make good on his “highway or the highway” threat, but in a remarkable campaign that surprised even advocates, the community turned the tables.

It was a smart campaign that was very careful to not oppose the governor, but actually ask for the governor’s help to stop the plan being foisted by his own DOT. It’s a campaign that definitely deserves to be a model. And the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy deserves huge props for putting their organization so fully behind said campaign, and withstanding the inevitable blowback.

In a way, it bore resemblance to the recent battle over ECHDC’s development-heavy approach to the Outer Harbor. (When are we going to learn?) And like that issue, the years-long stalemate between the people and their government – despite its frustrations and outrages – had a silver lining: the delay allowed the community at large to get smarter about planning and see several other important developments in the meantime.

In terms of for-instances, in recent years Waterkeeper has begun to shift priorities from the Buffalo River, where the cleanup is winding down, to the Scajaquada Creek corridor – the city’s other gravely impacted waterway. Already, Waterkeeper has worked with SUNY ESF on several landscape architecture studio classes to study how to improve several sites along the creek.

But perhaps the most important development is that the community got more engaged, energized, and organized around the 198 issue. Along the way, it stopped waiting for the DOT to do the thinking and started doing some of its own. The Western Scajaquada Coalition developed a concept that attempted to answer, for the first time, the question of what the community could gain if the 198 were entirely removed west of Elmwood Avenue. The Olmsted Conservancy developed a concept to show how a redo of the 198 could achieve one of their central aims for Delaware Park: getting back, for park users, the bridge that serves as a kind of corpus callosum uniting the two halves. And here on Buffalo Rising, frustrated with the DOT’s failure to do real corridor planning, I’ve been publishing a planning analysis in the “Olmstedian Scajaquada” series.

These efforts have definitely moved the needle on people’s thinking and expectations for remaking the 198 corridor. As recently as 2015 people talked tentatively about removing some or all of the 198, as in this piece by Rise Collaborative. Now, anyone taking a serious look at the issue recognizes that as something that needs to be part of the solution. Seeing the elevated section of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls demolished this year makes clear such things can happen – even here in western New York. De-concreting is now a concrete reality here.

 

^ Timberrrrr!! Down goes the elevated portion of the Parkway Formerly Known as the Robert Moses in Niagara Falls. Video courtesy of Pat Whalen, Director, Niagara Global Tourism Institute

And putting wind beneath the wings of the cause has been the normalization of urban expressway removals and extreme makeovers such as decking and capping. In recent years, such projects have become much more common around the country, to the point of becoming a separate area of planning practice. In CNU’s annual “Freeways Without Futures” list, recently updated for 2019, there are more projects than ever to remake urban expressway corridors. Notably, it includes two Buffalo expressways: the 33 and the 198.

In Minnesota, that state’s progressive DOT teamed up with the Metropolitan Design Center of the University of Minnesota (why doesn’t Buffalo have a design center?) to create a guide to various types of expressway caps, which the Urban Land Institute has been helping adapt to interested communities.

Unlike states like Minnesota, New York’s DOT has been behind the curve on urban expressway remakes, but now seems to be catching up. As City and State New York wrote last month, highway removal strategies are now becoming the norm around the state, from the Niagara River to the Hudson.

So now, more than ever, we know we can do this. The question now is what do we want to do and how do we get it right this time?

Fortunately, at long last, we seem to have the right process.

Respect the process

The new round of planning for the 198 corridor is not without its skeptics – this is Buffalo, after all. Some see it as a case of trying to put new wine into old wine skins. Likewise some, as I discussed in this recent article, are champing at the bit to skip over the planning and jump ahead to a plan. Yet that backward approach has proven problematic in the case of the Skyway design competition, with additional fallout in recent days.

But the new 198 effort is not your father’s transportation planning. It will not be overseen by DOT officials marinated in civil engineering and fixated on moving vehicles from Point A to Point B. No: as revolutionary as the idea might seem for western New York, this transportation planning will actually be overseen by the region’s one organization uniquely dedicated to transportation planning, the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council (GBNRTC). In fact, GBNRTC is federally mandated to be the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). As such, it receives federal transportation funding to actually do transportation planning. GBNRTC was at the center of the recent, noteworthy One Region Forward regional planning initiative. One only wonders why it took so long to put this planning in their hands except to consider that, in line with Churchill’s quote, it took some time to exhaust all the other alternatives first.

 

What will the new planning effort look like? GBNRTC has said it will bring in outside experts in highway removal and reconfiguration, which makes sense given that everywhere else is doing it better than we are. (NARRATOR: “Actually, Buffalo hasn’t done it at all yet.”) Hopefully that will include at least one landscape architect, perhaps one from Boston where the Rose Kennedy Greenway replaced an urban expressway and where Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace may provide an important inspiration for the remake of the 198 (see next section below).

To oversee the process, GBNRTC plans to create a steering committee, although it remains unclear whether that will be an “uber” steering committee or perhaps a few committees focused on areas or aspects of remaking the 198.

Aiding GBNRTC in this effort will be traffic modeling tools that are among the most advanced available. So much so, in fact, that they not only generate numeric results but create visual simulations. As a 2010 GBNRTC newsletter described it,

It’s generated by a TransModeler version of an advanced technology known as “three-dimensional micro-simulation,” as integrated with the regional TransCAD travel model. It has the potential for dynamic representation of complex traffic and congestion issues and alternative ways of dealing with them.

If that’s not enough to geek out on, read more here. It won’t hurt that GBNRTC has already used these tools to test earlier proposals to remake the 198. Which illustrates another point: GBNTRC won’t have to come at the 198 issue from scratch, because it will have access to all the existing work already done by the DOT.

But that existing, color-inside-the-lines work done by DOT will be of limited help for the kind of corridor-wide analysis that we need. The right planning approach will be as much about land-use planning and urban planning as transportation planning. That approach would be needed to address questions such as:

  • Would removing the expressway in the cultural district really help reconnect the north and south pieces of that district the way that many claim it would, and just how would that work?
  • Would recreating Humboldt Parkway on the eastern end of the corridor – which might require expensive decking over – create enough value in reconnecting the adjoining neighborhoods to make it worthwhile?
  • Would creating a new circle at Main Street (as described here) really serve to rationalize surface street traffic there and restore walkability and a sense of place to the degree that it would be worth the costs involved?
  • If the western portion of the expressway were removed entirely, how much creek restoration could be realistically done and how would that look? And to what degree would it allow Buffalo State College to become a “waterfront campus,” as many have suggested?

To answer such questions will require other kinds of planning tools such as renderings, 3-D modeling, qualitative analysis, and economic analysis. As it happens, these are all tools the UB Regional Institute (UBRI) brought to bear for its comprehensive analysis (discussed in the section “A better approach” in this piece) of options for decking the 33. That suggests that UBRI, if engaged, could provide invaluable help with the new 198 planning. So how about we engage them?

UBRI also has a well-earned reputation locally as the gold standard for community and stakeholder engagement in planning. This was demonstrated yet again with the recent success of the Lasalle Park planning. Notably, that work included several site visits with stakeholders to other notable park projects such as the High Line in Manhattan and Millennium Park in Chicago. The importance of site visits and fieldwork was recently reinforced at the UB School of Architecture and Planning in a symposium and exhibit about one of their most famous faculty members ever, Reyner Banham, who was a big believer in it.

Lasalle Park planning team visiting Chicago. Image: UB Regional Institute

It’s not possible to overstate the importance of site visits to this planning process. I’ve been astonished how few people – even among hard-core advocates for remaking the 198 corridor – have actually seen the entire length of the corridor except from inside a car. And I’ve long been astonished how many people think you can do planning mainly from Google Maps and Google Street View. No! It’s essential in planning any kind of site or resource to get to know it on the ground, through site visits and field work.

And like the Lasalle Park planners, I believe it will be essential to visit other projects in other cities. Boston should be one of those cities, to see the Rose Kennedy Greenway that was created when the “Big Dig” put the notorious Central Artery underground. But especially to visit Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, a linear series of Olmstedian landscapes connected by drives and paths and a waterway about the size of Scajaquada Creek.

More about that in the last section.

A shot of Bob Moses goes down as smooth as asphalt on a hot day.

Distilling the essence of the Scajaquada Corridor

Making fine spirits is a long – sometimes generational – multi-phase process that starts with planting seeds and harvesting raw materials. Along the way everything is done carefully, with an eye toward the final product: an exquisite beverage made to be savored and meant to complement life’s great moments.

We can undertake the process of remaking the 198 in the same way, distilling down to the final essence of what we know we could create: an extraordinary corridor made to be enjoyed and meant to complement the life of our great city. While we’re still far from that point, over the past decade and a half – and especially in the last few years – we have accumulated a substantial amount of raw material. What kind? Engagement, advocacy, study, analysis, and even preliminary concepts. But above all we have the beginnings of a mindset shift, which is more important than many realize. Combined with this new planning process, it means the opportunity to transform not just the 198 expressway but the entire 198 corridor into something great, not just utilitarian.

What can we distill from the raw ingredients we’ve accumulated? Some fundamental truths about the Scajaquada Corridor that we need to recognize. Wherever possible, I’ve tried to suss these out and identify them in my “Olmstedian Scajaquada” series. They are:

  • The 33 isn’t going away, at least anytime soon. Parts may be decked over, but the traffic will still be there. The half of Buffalo west of Main Street accesses the 33 in two places: downtown and via the 198. That reality affects how you rethink the 198, especially on the eastern end.
  • Where the 198 corridor accesses The 33, there are no other alternative routes to the 198, because there is no other east-west street grid nearby. Why? Because of the “green barrier” formed by Forest Lawn Cemetery and Delaware Park. This is important because, in conversations about urban expressway removal, many will glibly say that if you just remove the highway the street grid will soak up the traffic. “Like a sponge,” they say. “It happens every time,” they say. In general, I agree. But on the eastern end of the 198 corridor, the reality is that there is no street-grid sponge.
  • With similar glibness, many have decried the plan to deck the 33, saying “just fill it in and restore the parkway,” and many will likely say the same about the eastern end of The 198. But almost certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to restore the Humboldt Parkway section of the 198 by simply filling in the trench and recreating the planted median. With 75,000 cars a day, with no other route available, it may not be possible to restore the parkway there without decking.
  • West of Elmwood Avenue (I would say west of Lincoln Parkway), it seems clear there is simply no need for the 198. Iroquois Drive begins at Lincoln Parkway and extends west to Grant Street. From there, a western extension to the Niagara/Tonawanda intersection, along with the existing surface streets, could easily accommodate the relatively small traffic volume currently using the western end of the 198.
  • Removing the western 198 creates the opportunity to turn Buffalo State College into a waterfront campus, that is also better connected to Black Rock and the Upper West Side. What that waterfront could look like and how those connections could be made is one of the most important questions facing everyone involved in planning the future of the 198 corridor. I’ve already shown some ideas for what that might look like between Elmwood and Grant (here) and west of Grant Street (here). So have others, like the Black Rock-Riverside Alliance (here).
  • On the very west end of the 198, it meets the 190. Oh, yeah – the 190. In terms of urban highways, Buffalo has been looking at the 33, the Skyway, and the 198. But so far, not the 190. This would be a great time to start thinking about how the 190 might be reconfigured, especially in the vicinity of the 198. Initially, something like an architecture or planning studio class could look at some alternatives, advance some concepts, and generate some visuals for community evaluation.
  • However, because there are no plans for the 190 to be reconfigured anytime soon, real-world planning for the 198 corridor will need to consider how traffic on the 190 will access the neighborhoods and institutions along a reconfigured 198 corridor – at least, until something different happens with the 190. I considered one option here that could work, but would need the kind of traffic engineering analysis that the new planning process will make available.

Moving to another room in the distillery – Please don’t touch that switch! Thank you! – let’s combine the distillates above with a few basic premises about remaking the 198 corridor, namely:

  • East of Parkside Drive, we restore Humboldt Parkway (decked or otherwise), as discussed here,
  • From Parkside Drive to Delaware Avenue, we use the Olmstedian solution of a sunken, transverse road, as discussed here, and
  • West of Elmwood Avenue/Lincoln Parkway, we remove the 198 entirely and use Iroquois Drive (which could be extended west of Grant Street), as discussed here and here.

Upon mixing these ingredients, the broad outlines for remaking the 198 begin to come into focus. But there’s a missing piece: what to do between Delaware Avenue and Lincoln Parkway. That could come down to a question of design and money, with various options like land bridges and tunnels already being suggested (here and here) and perhaps other ideas waiting to be hatched.

Of course, because of its centrality to the park and park experience, it would be ideal to remake the park section of the 198 first. But in many ways it’s also the most essential section to get right. So if it turns out that a consensus approach can be reached for the ends before the middle, then starting work on the ends while still designing the middle might be a reasonable approach.

At this point then, while it will take time before the final product is aged and bottled and labeled, the liquor is already taking on a characteristic taste and color. The taste? Olmstedian. The color? Green, of course.

If you’ll follow me into the tasting room – Watch your step! Thank you! – you can sample some spirits from Boston that will whet your appetite for what our final product here could be like.

Buffalo’s Emerald Necklace

Image: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

After several years of slow distilling – analysis and study and exploration – what can we say about the 198 corridor at the highest level? One thing for certain: there is simply no better precedent, comparison, and analog than Boston’s famed Emerald Necklace. Like that great linear landscape – America’s first greenway – which wasn’t entirely designed by Olmsted but connected by Olmsted into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, the 198 corridor is a set of connected landscapes that are, once were, or could be of an Olmstedian quality. So remaking the 198 corridor – not just the 198 expressway – could give Buffalo an “Emerald Crescent”: a new Olmstedian feature we could enjoy and take pride in.

It should be noted that embracing this analogy doesn’t exclude cars and doesn’t preclude traffic. From the beginning, Boston’s Emerald Necklace was connected by a series of drives which are, in fact, the threads tying everything together, from Commonwealth Avenue to the Fenway to the Riverway to the Jamaicaway to the Arborway. Many of those threads now carry auto traffic. If you haven’t seen Boston’s Emerald Necklace and Rose Kennedy Greenway, the video below is a great (brief) introduction:

 

^ From City Walk, take a journey through the Emerald Necklace and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, some of New England’s most remarkable urban spaces.

What this means for Buffalo’s Scajaquada Corridor is that while we don’t want a visible, surface expressway running through it, we can create a beautiful and enjoyable landscape that still provides appropriate provisions for cars from end to end. Removing the expressway west of Lincoln Parkway and repurposing Iroquois Drive as part of a “Scajaquada Drive” is one example of how we could do that. Restoring Humboldt Parkway east of Agassiz Circle by decking over the expressway-level traffic volumes there is another.

And, of course, other modes (including transit) need to be in the mix. A restored Humboldt Parkway east of Agassiz Circle and a low-speed, two-lane Scajaquada Drive west of it could include bike lanes, honoring the “complete streets” approach that many have rightly advocated. On top of that, the restored and newly created landscapes that this project could make possible would naturally include extensive new pathways for those on foot and on bike to enjoy. And of course, it would not only retain the Jesse Kregal Pathway but greatly enhance the landscape through which is passes.

But perhaps above all – and essential to making the rest possible – the new planning process needs to not only recognize but embrace the fact that remaking the 198 corridor will not be a single project and could take the better part of two decades to complete. Creating the 198, from its beginnings as an auto tunnel for Humboldt Parkway under Main Street, took the better part of two decades. It seems reasonable to think it may take just as long to undo the extensive damage it did.

It is much more important to do this right rather than fast, so almost certainly it will have to be done in phases. It’s not going to be a one-and-done with a single groundbreaking and a single ribbon cutting. By the last phase of remaking the 198, elected officials whose names we may not know today will be breaking the sod and cutting the ribbons, but the ones who started us down the correct path should always be invited, too – and honored for their foresight.

What is the 198 to be or not to be? That is now the question. Recently, Colin Dabkowski (until recently, of the Buffalo News) illustrated that question elegantly with this flyover of the current 198, created with information from Google Earth:

 

This shows us clearly where we’re at. Now, what we need are similar flyovers representing various concepts for remaking the Scajaquada corridor to show us where we can go from here.

New York State’s attempt to fix the 198 by releasing the Kraken didn’t work. Now, it’s time to unleash the planners.

Lead image: 2019 Skyride, Scajaquada portion, provided courtesy of GoBike Buffalo.

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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