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ROCC to DOT: Put a Lid On It, Already!

Despite its decades of experience moving automobiles around, when it comes to remaking urban expressways our DOT can’t seem to organize a one-car parade. As I wrote here, the DOT’s decade-and-a-half effort to rethink the 198 corridor garnered such bad reviews that they finally threw up their hands and turned the effort over to our regional transportation planning agency, where perhaps it should have been in the first place.

But on the long-sought effort to restore Humboldt Parkway over top of the trench of the Kensington Expressway, I thought there was no way they could get it wrong. Essentially, the shot was already lined up for them, and all they needed to do was pull the trigger. As I wrote here, the community, via its advocacy effort, the Restore Our Community Coalition, has been patiently yet relentlessly taking all the right steps for over two decades.

Source: ROCC

I saw the effort up close several years ago when I was asked by two UB architecture professors to be involved in the study that seemed to show conclusively that decking the expressway was not only the right approach, but economically viable. Based on that study, $6M was secured in the state budget for the engineering and environmental work necessary to get the project “shovel-ready.” In announcing that funding, when Governor Cuomo was asked how the state would pay for the project, he said that the state would bond for it. Although I heard subsequent grumbling about how long the DOT was taking to do the work, I assumed this was on track.

That is, until the DOT’s November 13 public meeting, which was problematic from beginning to end. First off, in their presentation, DOT kept showing renderings and site plans of partial decking options that completely missed the mark of what the community – and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy – has been asking for the beginning: a deck that carries a restored Humboldt Parkway on top.

Source: Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy

In fact, the full restoration (with a deep enough deck for full-sized trees) was the one option the DOT did not have renderings of. That’s a fatal flaw. Folks in the community know what they lost, so they know what they want back. But for those outside the community to support that option, they have to see it to fully understand and appreciate it. That’s exactly and precisely why we create renderings. With $6M to play with, how is it that DOT didn’t have those?

Second, when the DOT showed the slide with the giant ventilator building looking like nothing more than a factory – right down to the giant smokestacks – smack-dab in the middle of the parkway there was an audible gasp in the room. How could the DOT not grasp the Urban Planning 101 idea that the Buffalo Museum of Science was designed to be a terminal view for the parkway, and that the original entrance stairs were put at a level as to provide a view down the parkway from the front doors of the museum? All that would be blocked by the ventilator building. It made me wonder if this was some kind of “poison pill” the DOT was including to turn people against the full deck?

While that may sound paranoid, riddle me this: if the DOT knew such a structure would be required, why didn’t they mention that much earlier in the process – like during the UB study? After all, students were involved in that work, and there was latitude for creativity. The students could have developed alternatives such as placing the building on the part of the deck just south of the restored parkway, or incorporating it into a large public artwork, or breaking up the function into a few locations that could be incorporated into new-build construction along the parkway. Or something – anything other than what they showed.

And how likely is it really that such a large ventilation structure will actually be necessary? In the decade it will take to get anything built the transition to electric vehicles will be underway in earnest, meaning that by the end of the project tailpipe emissions will have dropped and will be dropping year-over-year. In the end, a smaller structure may suffice, and one more devoted to providing fresh air in the tunnel than exhausting tailpipe emissions.

And then came the cost estimates, and to get the full story required reading between the lines – lines of numbers. What was interesting was how the DOT was trying to find ways to get the federal government to pay for as much of the project as possible. That seemed to involve making as much of the project as possible about repairing the decaying trench walls. And that seemed to be the reason that they were trying to highlight options short of creating a full deck (something that wouldn’t qualify for federal aid under current guidelines) such as this weird cantilever option that no one ever asked for, ever.

Yet when the governor announced the funding for the current design work, he never mentioned the project being contingent on federal aid in any way. Again, asked how the project would be paid for, he said the state would bond for it. But now, the DOT seems to be suggesting the state may be walking back from that commitment. What gives?

But one of the most problematic aspects of the meeting was the way public comments were handled. Either the DOT doesn’t have best practices for that, or wasn’t following them. When it was time for comments, the first thing said was there was a limited amount of time, so speakers were asked to keep their comments brief. I had been planning to speak in favor of the full deck option, but when I heard time was limited I felt it best to hold back so that people in the community most directly affected could be heard.

But that’s not what happened. Whether by design or not, it led to the loudest, most strident voices predominating, some seeming to compete to deliver applause lines. Also, the system of passing around microphones quickly became chaotic. It would have been entirely appropriate for the DOT to have announced at the beginning that anyone wanting to speak comments into the public record could line up at two microphones at the front, giving their name and address (or zip code). Not only would that have been more orderly and fair, it would have yielded some important information: those who spoke against decking the expressway were from outside of the community directly affected. I knew that because I recognized the speakers, but the DOT had no way of knowing.

ROCC Responds

So that’s may take. But the person you really need to hear from is Karen Stanley, Executive Director of the Restore Our Community Coalition. In the first week of December, her reaction to the November public meeting was the cover story of The Challenger Community News.

With her kind permission, here it is in its entirety (I’m honored to be quoted):

By Karen Stanley | For Restore Our Community Coalition

On November 13, over 80 community residents and neighboring institution representatives were on hand at the Buffalo Museum of Science to see the New York State Department of Transportation proposed redesign options for the Kensington Expressway. This meeting was three years in the making, since April 2016 when Governor Cuomo announced that $6 Million in state funding would pay for an Environmental Impact Statement and Construction planning for a re-establishment of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Humboldt Parkway.

Source: ROCC

The stage for the 2016 funding had been set by feasibility studies funded by $2 million in the 2010 state budget. Led by University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning and the UB Regional Institute, the study articulated the goals of the Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) and provided data regarding potential project costs, with the added bonus that such a massive construction project would create over 900 jobs during the course of construction (expected to be 5 years).

The Restore Our Community Coalition rejects the DOT’s “fill in” design, which they say “would do nothing to provide a less poisonous environment for residents along the Expressway.” However, despite ROCC presentations to local, state and federal elected officials, no funding was identified until in 2016, when then Assemblywoman (now Majority Leader) Crystal Peoples-Stokes interceded with Governor Cuomo to set aside money for the planning stages of this project. In late 2016 and early 2017, members of ROCC met with NYS DOT engineers to further discuss and develop ideas for a project to “Put The PARK Back in Humboldt PARKway.”

ROCC with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Assembly Majority Leaders Crystal Peoples-Stokes  Source: ROCC

What the DOT presented to the community during the November 13 meeting at the Buffalo Museum of Science was a major disappointment.

The Coalition’s preferred redesign would feature a green deck over a portion of route 33. One option merely added surface dressing to the existing overpasses. Another option offered a partial tunnel approach that would have required an enormous tunnel operations building, that would be an absolute insult to the neighboring homes. The purpose of the building would be to house the air cleaning equipment for the tunnel.

One community advocate, who had given input for the 2013 University at Buffalo School of Architecture and planning and the UB Regional Institute study, noted “that giant ventilation building in the middle of the parkway was so ridiculous that it made me wonder if it was a poison pill.”

The Restore Our Community Coalition had met several times with DOT representatives in 2017, and most significantly, co-drafted a purpose and needs statement that would guide the project design.   However, that design was denied by the Federal DOT in Fall of 2018.

Ultimately, the DOT did what they do best – plan for a low-cost fix to the crumbling overpasses on the Kensington Expressway, falling far short of the concept to RESTORE Humboldt Parkway.

Having been an advocate for the restoration of Humboldt Parkway for over 20 years, Stephanie Barber Geter tried to be optimistic. “People should see it as an issue that we’ve worked on a long time and it’s going to take a little longer, but we’re going to get it done,” Barber Geter said.  Her  organization was firm in their expectations for a restorative project. ROCC had their own handout to explain the community vision.

Stephanie Barber Geter tried to be optimistic. “People should see it as an issue that we’ve worked on a long time and it’s going to take a little longer, but we’re going to get it done.”

Here is an excerpt from the ROCC plan:

The Kensington Expressway has caused decades of environmentally-induced illnesses of nearby residents and severe economic decline of entire neighborhoods. In order to restore our community, the redesign of Humboldt Parkway MUST:

  1. Provide a reasonable and feasible mitigation for reconnecting divided neighborhoods.
  2. Recognize the importance of the corridor as a multi-modal regional transportation link.
  3. Mitigate health impacts due to poor air quality and noise pollution.
  4. Re-establish the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed, tree-lined parkway.
  5. Re-establish the Frederick Law Olmsted firm-designated park acreage.
  6. Improve pedestrian and bicycle mobility.
  7. Enhance the compatibility of the corridor with the surrounding neighborhood character, while not precluding the ability for the 39-acre restoration of Humboldt Parkway between Delaware Park and Martin Luther King Jr.

There seemed to be another contingent of people at the meeting. These people do not live in the area, and they do not bear the environmental and health burdens of cancer and respiratory illness that plague families living near the Expressway. These people seemed to be excited about the idea of “filling in” the Expressway and forcing traffic back to the Ellicott-designed radial grid that offers several surface roads as pathways to downtown. But that is not the preference of the immediate community, for a “fill in” would do nothing to provide a less poisonous environment for residents along the Expressway.

By the end of the meeting, there was a feeling of déjà vu, as the public comment section of the meeting was rushed, and people were left feeling that the Kensington project will go the way of the Scajaquada project, which is nowhere. ROCC has not given up, but we acknowledge there is still a long way to go.

On Deck: Rod Watson

About the comments at the meeting that Karen Stanley mentions at the end of her piece, Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson delved into that further a week later with a column aptly titled, “The quest for ‘everything’ endangers Kensington Expressway tunnel plan.”

Watson is spot-on from beginning to end. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

During a public meeting in November in the Buffalo Museum of Science, critics dismissed state Department of Transportation Department concepts focused on a roughly 1-mile stretch of the Kensington from Ferry to Best streets as not far-reaching enough. They called for looking at everything from an end-to-end remake from downtown to the I-190, to turning the whole thing into slow-traffic boulevard more focused on people than cars while finding other ways to get suburbanites downtown.

The push for a more comprehensive look came despite the exhortations of Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes.  She kept trying to bring the discussion back to producing a “real plan” that does something now for the community most affected by the Kensington while recognizing that “we can’t pursue everybody’s idea.”

“I just don’t want us to not get anything because we want everything at the same time,” said the Buffalo Democrat… . “We need to walk away with something.”

And here’s an excerpt from the end:

Meanwhile, there are still the calls for everything from turning the Kensington into a boulevard, to running light rail down the middle, to re-imagining the whole Kensington-Scajaquada Expressway corridor.

“All of those are great ideas, and they’re worth looking at,” [ROCC Chairwoman Stephanie Barber] Geter said. “But right now we’re not looking at any of that …. That’s not where we are.”

Similarly, Peoples-Stokes noted it would be unfair to the Restore Our Community Coalition to try to load every other group’s agenda onto the neighborhood’s most immediate concerns. But that could be what happens.

On the one hand, this could be a phased project with everyone remaining on board in a process that first meets the demands of the neighborhood, before taking up the broader push for “people over cars.” Or it could devolve into the typical Buffalo squabble that pits one interest against another in a way that nothing gets done and the money ends up in some other city. As Geter noted, “this community has a habit of talking itself out of stuff.”

Stay tuned.

Lead image source: UB study. Thank you to Karen Stanley of ROCC for permission to publish her piece that originally appeared in The Challenger Community News on December 4.

Written by 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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