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Scajaquada Design Competition: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. And Gone.

I knew I should’ve had my bookie take odds on this. Sure enough, just days after the new process to rethink the 198 was announced, calls were made to create a design competition for the highway. After recent design competitions for the Skyway and DL&W Greenway, it seemed almost inevitable that Buffalo would become enamored of design competitions and want to use them everywhere. When your shiny new tool is a hammer, you start to see every problem as a nail.

In a sense this is understandable, as the Skyway competition did elicit some ideas that the community should probably have been looking at already. A notable example among many being that one of the submissions showed the 190 transitioning from an elevated expressway to a parkway downtown. As Architect Eric Dolph, a professor in Buffalo State College’s design program told me, in 2001 the AIA R/UDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team) conducted a downtown Buffalo charrette that included a recommendation to convert the 190 downtown to a parkway. To me, that has vastly more importance to downtown than anything we may or many not do with the Skyway.

But the Skyway competition also generated a lot of noise, and some truly awful ideas. It saw the reappearance of the CNU plan to create, essentially, a new city on the Outer Harbor – the kind of planning Congressman Brian Higgins rightly inveighed against at a press conference on the Outer Harbor a half decade ago. While perhaps helpful in focusing on the need to rethink our overbuilt modernist motor-vehicle-centric transportation infrastructure downtown, the design competition was also more of a beauty contest. Thankfully, local officials at the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council (GBNRTC) and other locals involved in the competition like Dean Robert Shibley of the UB School of Architecture and Planning should be able to take the raw material and use it to develop better plans.

Image Credit: Colin Dabkowski

Even the competition winner, City of Lights, which included some ideas of merit, was also problematic in many ways. It showed Marine Drive Apartments converted to a mixed-use typology, which would be a monumental improvement over the monolithic, single-use, people warehouses that are there now. But without laying the groundwork and getting buy-in for such a change that could be accomplished through a planning process, the concept raised hackles at Marine Drive, requiring the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) to issue assurances that no such plans were imminent.

City of Lights also showed extensive new mixed-use development in the strip of land on the Outer Harbor between the Route 5 embankment and the City Ship Canal. This is an idea that surfaces from time to time that has been widely discredited by most Outer Harbor advocacy and planning, which has recognized that the highest and best use for that strip of land is ecological and recreational connectivity – land and water – between the region’s most important urban nature preserves, Tifft and Times Beach. (Even the fatally flawed ECHDC Outer Harbor planning recognized this, largely thanks to their subcontractor SCAPE Studios, one of America’s top ecological landscape architecture firms.)

And after City of Lights’ concept for disconnecting the Skyway won first prize, County Executive Mark Poloncarz directly, and Congressman Brian Higgins indirectly, called for reviving plans for the South Towns Connector, a project that could open another land use can of worms.

And on Wednesday, the fallout from the design competition intensified when the issue spilled over into a county executive debate held in the southtowns, where taking the Skyway into the city has been part of life for generations. According to WBEN, “Poloncarz said he laughed at the design that came out from the governor’s administration.” According to WBFO, “Poloncarz said there is no point planning the demolition until there is a plan for the traffic.” And further,

When I saw the designs that came out of the governor’s office, I said, “Really, you are going to take down the Skyway and keep it still up?” Because one of the things that the Skyway currently does is keep us from actually developing the waterfront. If you’re going to take down the Skyway, take the whole thing down.

Clearly, the competition was intended to generate excitement and buzz around the Skyway issue. And clearly, it did, but not as intended.

As Buffalo News Metro Columnist Sean Kirst put it well in his ambivalent column, “The notion ignited a ferocious digital reaction, touched off by a pragmatic Buffalo sensibility.” Ferocious reactions ranged from downtown developers raising concerns at a Buffalo Place meeting to readers of the Buffalo News responding (here) to Sean Kirst’s column.

“It won’t be near $600 million,” [Higgins] said, while practically dismissing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent creative competition that resulted in the ‘City of Lights’ concept for partial demolition, a new ‘Skypark,’ new bridges and roads, and other improvements.”

But in perhaps the most extraordinary judgment on the design competition, Congressman Higgins himself seemed to suggest he may be disregarding the winning design, and that the real work was just now getting started. According to the Buffalo News, “‘It won’t be near $600 million,’ [Higgins] said, while practically dismissing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent creative competition that resulted in the ‘City of Lights’ concept for partial demolition, a new ‘Skypark,’ new bridges and roads, and other improvements.”

In other words, the Skyway design competition, in and of itself, was a glitzy beauty contest – lots of sound and fury signifying nothing, really. Yet it cost taxpayers six figures to generate results that, for the most part, didn’t strike me as substantially better than those you might find in an architecture or planning studio class.

So why would we want to repeat that? Especially when recent years have provided us with much better planning models?

Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.

A case study in good planning was the work that the UB School of Architecture and Planning used to evaluate options for remaking the Humboldt Parkway section of the 33. That process built on the work community advocates had been doing for over a decade, and included economic analysis of alternatives by the UB Regional Institute (UBRI), and modeling by the UB Center for Computational Research. The results were so thorough and compelling that they led the Governor to pledge six million dollars to take the next steps of environmental review and engineering to get the project to the point where it could be put out to bid. I played a small role in the process as a volunteer and wrote about it here.

Image: UB Regional Institute

And the recent process to remake Lasalle Park – essentially, giving it its first real design worthy of that name – should also serve as a guide. Overseen by UBRI with funding from the Wilson Foundation, the effort was perhaps the best example I’ve seen locally of community stakeholders working in close cooperation with design professionals to produce an extraordinary result. And the results so far have been extraordinary: a design that I might call neo-Olmstedian in inspiration, deeply informed by the site and by the community. The design firm has also remained in a long-term relationship with UBRI and the steering committee, as opposed to the Skyway design competition, which was more like an episode of The Dating Game.

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

– Dwight David Eisenhower

It’s no coincidence that these two recent case studies in good planning had the involvement of UBRI. AT a 2015 forum about the future of the 198, Dean of the UB School of Architecture and Planning used former US President and General Dwight David Eisenhower’s famous quote, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” Although UBRI has been involved in developing some outstanding plans, they arrive at those only after overseeing outstanding planning efforts.

Why is that so important? Most often, after a good planning process, the ultimate plan or design almost suggests itself. In that sense, the Skyway design competition did things backward: it put plans first, and planning second.

That’s not what we want to do with the 198. And thankfully, that’s not what the new planning process (which I’ll be writing about in more detail) is set up to do. Unless, of course, we mess it up by inserting politics.

That said, down the road (so to speak) perhaps there could be a role for a design competition in a few areas where some out-of-the-box thinking may be needed. It could be especially helpful in dealing with the thorny middle part of the 198 corridor, where at Delaware Avenue and between Delaware Avenue and Lincoln Parkway there may be several options that need to be explored, and options that may not have occurred to anyone yet.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

But wait, there’s more!

The new call for a design competition for the 198 is also tied to an effort to raise the speed limit. In fact, it would seem to dovetail with former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra’s own campaign on that issue, also launched recently.

In calling on the Governor to raise the speed limit on the 198, one of those involved actually suggested that the roadway may be more dangerous at 30 MPH. But while no evidence was presented to support that assertion, there would seem to be plenty of facts to the contrary. Appearing around the same time was an op-ed by Justin Booth, executive director of GOBike Buffalo and co-chair of the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition dispelling that notion with some statistics:

Image: GoBike Buffalo

As the late, great US Senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Seeing this, a cynic might say, “Well then, why not put a 30 MPH limit on all the expressways in the city?” Well, but the 198 is a special case. For one, it traverses the city’s largest park just feet away from park users. It also has an extremely hazardous at-grade intersection with Parkside Drive. Right at the entrance to the city’s largest park. At a location where pedestrians need to cross. Also, unlike the other expressways in the city, the 198 is generally not traveled end-to-end; rather, it functions more as a collector road. In the middle of a city. In the middle of a cultural landscape.

But beyond that, the lower speed limit sent and continues to send an important message: this expressway’s days are numbered. It displaced an Olmsted parkway, intrudes on an Olmsted park, and disfigures a once-picturesque creek valley. It’s going to change for the better, and is not going back to what it was.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

– Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The tortoise and the hare

While the Skyway design competition may have engendered as many jeers as cheers, all is certainly not lost. The ideas from all the submissions are in the care of GBNRTC and the evaluation panel will continue to give them sober consideration and roll them into the best overall plan they can develop. Still, as said above, that makes the process seem backward.

So far we’ve avoided that mistake with the 198. GBNRTC is already taking the reins, and instead of having to sprint out of the gate with a hyped-up beauty contest, it is taking the slow, careful steps of putting together a steering committee to help it evaluation options, and developing a process to get input from outside experts and community stakeholders. That right there is the slower, more methodical approach of doing the right homework, marshaling the necessary facts, consulting outside experts and local stakeholders, and going wherever that takes you. It is also as much about land use planning and urban planning as it is about designing things to build.

That “tortoise” approach may not be as glamorous, and it may goad the “hares” into showing up at the starting line dressed in spandex, scoffing and boasting that they’ll get to the finish line before the tortoise even gets started. But, as always, the smart money is on the tortoise.

Decades ago, Stanford University conducted a famous, long-term experiment on delayed gratification. Toddlers who were able to resist the impulse to have a treat right now, knowing that would entitle them to a greater treat later, proved to be more successful in meeting life’s challenges as they grew up. By insisting on design competitions and raising the speed limit, we risk being the toddlers who want what we want right now, rather than the ones willing to delay gratification by a bit to get something better in the future.

The fatal flaw of the 198 from the beginning is that speed trumped good planning and design. In remaking the 198, let’s not remake that same mistake.

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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