A couple nights ago, at the Buffalo Science Museum, about 75-100 community members heard from the NYSDOT about their concepts to address a small portion of the Kensington Expressway to return some lost connectivity on either side of the concrete canyon. The area of focus runs south of East Ferry Street to Best Street, beyond the original termination point of Humboldt Parkway. While an increase in the original Humboldt Parkway length was appreciated, pretty much nothing else about the proposal was getting strong support by the community.
The Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) has been the driving force behind finding a solution to the Kensington problem and have been meeting regularly for close to 20 years in some form or another. You can see most of the presentation and community reaction in this video from their Facebook page by clicking here. I cannot stress enough that the people involved in ROCC and the involved elected officials have been patient and very active in dealing with this Sisyphean task.
Below is my take, very much centered on Daniel Burnham’s often used quote, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”
With Burnham’s words in mind, let’s dive into making some big plans with an outlook far beyond that discussed by the NYSDOT. Buffalonians, and Americans in general, do not tend look to beyond a few years into the future. We’ve stopped investing in legacy, longevity, and long term impact in favor of a culture centered on instant gratification. This project has been discussed for nearly two decades, if not longer. If it takes two more decades to get this right, then so be it.
I’m a full proponent of the “fill it in” option so you know where I’m coming from before we get too far along. Most in attendance felt the same way as confirmed by the roar of cheers and clapping when anyone mentioned filling it in. NYSDOT and other applicable agencies need to be looking at a larger approach for addressing regional transportation that centers on the full removal of the Kensington Expressway.
I have further elaborations below, but my general take is that anything short of a true restoration of Humboldt Parkway is unacceptable. Commuters will find other routes and if we’re not the “Get anywhere in 20 minutes” City that is not the end of the world. The added traffic on long neglected radial streets and commercial thoroughfares would likely seen new life breathed into struggling strips.
How About a No Expressway Dry Run? – In either of the two concepts the DOT floated, the Kensington Expressway will have to be partially shut down during construction. At this time, there was no information for how long that would be or how it would be accomplished. Let’s assume two years and that traffic would be diverted to grade and people would be encouraged to take alternate routes.
The no/low cost solution to figuring out where traffic would go and how people would commute is just to shut the Kensington down for a few weeks and see what happens. This should be in conjunction with a heavy media campaign alerting people well in advance and providing alternate routes along with estimated travel time increase times in advance of the dry run shut down.
Couple that with some heavy duty data collection about traffic flow on radials and other alternate routes before, during, and after the shutdown. From there, we would all have a pretty good idea of how people are getting downtown without the Expressway and confirmation that Carmaggedon is a myth.
NYSDOT Concept 4 & 5 – The two of the six concepts the DOT focused on involve a cap over the expressway from East Ferry to Best. In Concept 4, we get a “half cap” between those two streets with a few openings for air flow to avoid a ventilation building in the full cap version, which would ruin the terminating vista of the Science Museum. Concept 5 is a full cap between those two streets with the ventilation building plopped down. Neither concept had meaningful trees, just grassed areas and low shrubbery. When pressed on the issue, the DOT pointed to the trees they were adding back, which were only in front of homes in the traditional small spot between the street and sidewalk. Not much of a return to Olmsted’s intent. These two concepts would cost $300 million and $580 million, respectively.
NYSDOT Concept 6 – One of the concepts floated was a “Boulevard” option, which hopeful audience members assumed was a restoration option that had been taken off the table. Upon further inquiry, it turned out the boulevard option was filling in the expressway, but bringing the same traffic to grade without a Parkway. As it stands, the DOT does not have a Parkway restoration concept.
The Inner Loop in Rochester – As a point of reference, portions of the Inner Loop in Rochester have been filled in to reconnect downtown to bordering neighborhoods that were cut off for decades. The project has been so successful that new buildings starting springing up in place of the highway shortly after the filling. As a cost comparison, filling this two-thirds of a mile stretch only cost $22 million and was funded largely by Federal money. More on that project here.
NYSDOT did not provide or likely have the costs associated with filling in the Kensington, but it would almost certainly be much cheaper than the $300 million Concept 4. The combined cost of filling in the Kensington with overhauling other long neglected streets for getting into the City is a solution that has not been considered here.
Traffic Doesn’t Have to be Bad – The primary function of the DOT is to move cars, that much is indisputable. The cap options means business as usual, but what if we did fill it in, where would the traffic go? This exact topic has been discussed in a variety of places over the years, which you can read about here. Short answer, a lot of it just disappears and the rest is dispersed to other streets that are largely underused and can handle the additional cars.
Positive Impact on Commercial Streets – In the scenario where commuters find other means of getting in and out of the city, commercial streets like Fillmore, Genesee, Broadway, etc. could all see new signs of life and investment. Putting traffic back on these streets, specifically the radials, is not going to create Carmaggedon, but likely could have meaningful economic impact that the NYSDOT is not presently considering for a fill in option.
Relevant from a 2010 Artvoice article is the following: “Sixty-two years ago, William Gallancy, an associate engineer with New York State’s Department of Public Works, told a standing-room-only crowd at St. James Evangelical and Reformed Church on High Street that the Kensington Expressway was the best solution to East Buffalo’s problems. Traffic congestion on the neighborhood’s thoroughfares was bad and getting worse, he explained. “Gallancy said 70,000 vehicles a day cram that section’s main arteries—Main, Kensington, Genesee, Bailey and Walden,” according to a Buffalo News account of the meeting. “And, he added, the growth of suburbs and congestion of traffic continues to increase at a tremendous rate.”
Ironically, the DOT mentioned the Kensington on average carries 70,000 vehicles daily. Now imagine people using the gift that Joseph Ellicott gave us with the radial streets and other routes. Traffic on these streets doesn’t have to be bad, in fact it can be a huge boon. More traffic in commercial corridors increases the convenience of people stopping for things they need in their daily course of living. The cap option just allows the same cars to bypass the commercial districts the Kensington helped to ruin.
Commuters Must Pay the True Cost – Assuming the majority of users are commuters coming into the City for work in the morning and leaving for their suburban homes in the evening, they are not paying the true cost of the expressway and everything that goes along with it. People have been and continue to die from upper respiratory illness along Humboldt Parkway and within the communities straddling either side of the expressway.
Addressing the expressway goes beyond just the aesthetics. This expressway a poster child of injustice and systematic racism that has never ceased to impact a minority community to the benefit of more affluent commuters.
My good friend Chrissy Lincoln had a great idea about literally paying the true cost in a way. If users of the Kensington Expressway were charged $5.00 per trip in a similar fashion to the Grand Island bridge toll, suddenly I think we would all see how quickly commuters could find alternative routes.
Meaningful Support from Local Leaders – Credit where credit is due, Crystal Peoples-Stokes has been on this since day one and I have the utmost respect for her continued involvement. Senator Tim Kennedy has been on board and well and is pushing for solutions as well. However, at events and meetings I have attended, leaders at the City level have been largely absent. The removal and infill of the Inner Loop in Rochester and the removal of I-81 in Syracuse had state level support, but local leaders stepped up to the plate in those other cities in ways that our people in City Hall have not.
Genesee Street vs Kensington – Have you ever taken the Kensington from the core of downtown to the Airport? Better yet, have you done the same thing on Genesee Street, which follows pretty much the exact same trajectory? If you did, you would know that on a good day the Genesee Street option is an extra five minutes. On a bad day it is an extra 10 to 15 minutes. That is just one several radial streets that could be used to distribute Kensington traffic as they did before.
Impact on Downtown – Those who have decried the fill it in option almost always cite keeping downtown alive. Downtown has been hallowed out for parking in large part because of the easy commute that the Kensington Expressway provides. As many great strides as there have been in Downtown revitalization, it still has a long way to go. If anything, there could be an uptick in development projects at surface parking lots to cater to people who cannot stand the extra time on their commute and could be the tipping point for some who have long thought about making the move downtown.
All photos of the NYSDOT display boards courtesy of Chrissy Lincoln