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From planning to planting, The Northeast Greenway Initiative charts a bold vision for Buffalo’s next urban rail trail

Buffalo, NY – On any given day you’ll see throngs of bikers, joggers, and dog walkers out enjoying the approximately one-mile North Buffalo Rail Trail. Completed in 2016, the project has been met with overwhelming praise and approval from area residents. Now, thanks to the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.Legacy Funds administered by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the University District Community Development Association (UDCDA) has embarked on the Northeast Greenway Initiative, a year-long planning, research, and community engagement process to look at what it would take to extend the North Buffalo Rail Trail across Main Street.

The Northeast Greenway would connect the North Buffalo Rail Trail, whose southern terminus is currently the LaSalle Metro Station park and ride lot, to an existing multi-use path that runs parallel to William L. Gaiter Parkway between Kensington Avenue and East Delavan Avenue. This connection would see the conversion of an overgrown 1-mile stretch of DL&W/Erie Rail Road corridor between Main Street and Kensington Avenue now owned by the City of Buffalo into a multi-use walking and biking path – the first to be built on Buffalo’s East Side. 

The Greenway will serve multiple purposes including: public recreation space, a transit connector, a wildlife corridor, and a safe and accessible route that would connect business corridors such as Main Street, Bailey Avenue, Hertel Avenue and Kenmore Avenue to four neighborhoods, four schools, and four parks. The Greenway is also a critical urban connection in a much larger integrated greenway system that has been envisioned by rail trail advocates from across the region. This also comes hot on the heels of an announcement by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation in a historic investment of $50 million in trails in the WNY region.

The UDCDA is teaming up with community partners like The Tool Library to take a “plan by doing” approach to improving the Greenway corridor through small scale investments like tree plantings, rain gardens, public art, and interpretive signage. This past Saturday, November 2nd, more than 30 students, residents, and community volunteers helped plant 50 shade trees along the William L. Gaiter multi-use path between Kensington Avenue and the Kensington Expressway. A corridor with little to no tree canopy, the UDCDA hopes investments like these will add to the walkability and usability of existing pieces of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure like the path.

More than 30 volunteers planted 50 new shade trees along William L. Gaiter Parkway on Buffalo’s East Side. This planting was part of The Tool Library’s ReTree the District initiative, which has planted more than 1,300 trees around the community since 2014.

The Northeast Greenway Initiative is grounded both in a need and a desire by residents for this kind of public investment. Based on the UDCDA’s 2017 “Community Needs Assessment”, residents shared that public greenspace and recreation space are an essential need to improve the quality of life in University District. The Greenway provides an opportunity for community members to re-imagine legacy infrastructure like rail corridors as multi-use trails and bike paths that reconnect neighborhoods, improve public health, restore and reconnect natural habitats, and provide easier access to educational and employment assets across the city and region. 

“What we heard in surveys, conversations, and the needs assessment was that people loved the rail trail as a neighborhood amenity, but that it needed to go further and connect more,” said Stephanie Bucalo, Community Development Coordinator at the University District Community Development Association

An existing multi-use walking and biking path extends 1 mile along William L. Gaiter Parkway between Kensington Avenue and East Delavan Avenue and connects major employers, including Safetec, AMR, and OSC.

And it’s not just residents in Buffalo that are seeing the value in multi-use trails. These types of public investments have also been popular around the region. The Tonawanda Rails-to-Trails project, now extending more than 4 miles from Kenmore Avenue to Fillmore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda, has been hugely popular since first opening as well. This mirrors similar investments made in the Town of Pendleton to connect the Erie Canal Trail Path and the continuing progress with the Shoreline Trail in Lackawanna, Blasdell, and Hamburg.

“The North Buffalo and Tonawanda rail trail system that opened in 2016 not just opened a transportation alternative to those either unable or choosing not to drive but it also opened up the hearts of those who live and commute along the facility. Seeing your neighbors moving along the trail going from point A to point B for a myriad of reasons, reflects how we can effectively begin to reduce our vehicle miles traveled for greater percentages of our days in our auto-oriented society.” Jim Jones, Retired Town Engineer, Town of Tonawanda.

The UDCDA joins a growing number of local organizations advocating for the value that trails and multi-use paths can bring to communities. The Western New York Land Conservancy has been working on re-imaging the DL&W corridor in the Old First Ward into a nature trail and greenway, connecting Canalside to the Buffalo River. Meanwhile, the Erie-Cattaraugus Rail Trail scored a major victory in 2018 after signing a 49 year land lease with the Buffalo-Pittsburgh Railroad for use of a 27-mile long abandoned stretch of rail corridor running from the Town of Orchard Park to the Town of Ashford. 

Benefits of rail trails have been widely studied and documented and include: 

  • Increases physical activity and reduces chronic diseases like obesity 
  • Improves cardiovascular and respiratory health 
  • Relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety 
  • Provides transportation options 
  • Creates low or no-cost recreation opportunities 
  • Attracts new businesses and commercial growth 
  • Boosts spending at local businesses 
  • Increases nearby property values 
  • Increases tax revenues 
  • Reduces the impact of extreme weather by absorbing water runoff, purifying the air, and contributing to greater biodiversity. 
  • Creates wildlife corridors and provides safe natural habitats for flora and fauna 
  • Connects existing greenspaces (i.e. parks, trails, community gardens, etc.)

The UDCDA hopes to capture some of these localized benefits through a research fellowship offered to a graduate planning student from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. Allison Smith, a first year MUP candidate is working closely with the Community Development team at the UDCDA to measure and understand the social, physiological, and economic impacts of the existing Rail Trail on area residents. The UDCDA is also working with a graduate planning studio under the direction of Prof. Ellen Parker this semester. Students have been busy creating alternative design schema and trying to develop innovative solutions to some of the Northeast Greenway’s most challenging questions (How can we move pedestrians and bicyclists across Main Street quickly and safely? How can we connect assets like schools and parks?)

“As Master of Urban Planning students at the University at Buffalo, we are working on developing a plan for the Northeast Greenway rail-to-trail. The William L. Gaiter Parkway tree planting reactivated the historic corridor, beginning the process of taking our studio’s vision from paper to reality. We’re excited to be working with the UDCDA to bridge the gap and extend the rails-to-trails from Tonawanda all the way to Buffalo’s East Side.” – Northeast Greenway Studio, University at Buffalo

Pre-planning and community partnerships around these types of transportation interventions are critical to ensuring that these investments benefit the broadest set of users, especially in those neighborhoods disproportionately affected by segregation, poverty, and the fallout from deindustrialization. Residents must help create a roadmap for how these major infrastructure investments can not only address environmental issues, but also long standing social justice issues.

The Community Development Team at the UDCDA is set to continue connecting with the communities surrounding the proposed trail, and will do so through neighborhood and park service events, canvassing, block club meetings, and through an online survey.

To learn more, sign up for a presentation, take our survey, or volunteer for a service event, please visit www.udcda.org/ngi


Contact: Stephanie Bucalo, 716-832-1010×210; s.bucalo@udcda.org

Drone Photography Credit: Jim Cielinski

The Northeast Greenway Initiative is made possible by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Legacy Funds administered by the  Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

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Written by Darren Cotton

Darren Cotton

Darren Cotton works as Director of Community Development & Planning at the University District Community Development Association (UDCDA). His work primarily focuses on housing rehabilitation, small business development, and community capacity building in the neighborhood's surrounding the University at Buffalo's South Campus. Prior to this, Darren served as an Associate Planner at the UB Regional Institute working on a regional sustainability initiative, the remediation of industrial brownfields, and an overhaul of Buffalo's zoning code. As a graduate student at UB, Darren founded the University Heights Tool Library in response to his experience renting from an absentee landlord. With a Bachelor's Degree in International Studies and Linguistics and a Master's Degree in Urban Planning all from UB, Darren works to bridge the gap between research, policy, and grassroots activism and is a firm believer that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

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