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Auto Impound: A Community Proposal

Tonight Buffalo State will show three development proposals submitted for their auto impound RFP. What they won’t be showing is a fourth proposal, submitted by the community, not developers. But we will, along with some background.

But first, over the weekend Jonathan Epstein of the Buffalo News had this overview of Buffalo State’s auto impound initiative, including details of how to participate in tonight’s meeting and submit comments. While video of the meeting will be live-streamed (here) and posted after, to participate live you must register here. Buffalo State’s website for the auto impound process is here.

Epstein followed that this morning with a preview showing the three development proposals that will be presented tonight by Colby, McGuire, and Uniland.

Here is Buffalo State’s postcard (inset), with more information about tonight’s meeting:

About the community submission, a few notes. First, this is not a development proposal per se, with renderings and square footages and financing plans. All those things and more were required under the terms of the RFP, and this submission doesn’t have them. That’s the reason given by Buffalo State for not including it in tonight’s presentation. How is it that a proposal was submitted that didn’t meet the developer-centric requirements of the RFP? Permission was secured with the help of the office of Congressman Brian Higgins, ever the community champion.

Instead of a specific development proposal, this proposal suggests a land use strategy that could yield far better outcomes for the community, Buffalo State, and developers than a short-term focus on development on the auto impound site itself. From the cover letter submitted with the proposal:

…the highest and best use for the auto impound properties themselves is not new development but as part of an effort to restore the original footprint of the wide Scajaquada harbor. Restoring the original footprint of the harbor would not only recreate a historic landscape that played a pivotal role in the War of 1812, but would provide substantial ecological benefits and a significant new recreational asset for both town and gown.

Existing auto impound site, with the buildings on 166 Dart Street now removed except for the masonry administrative offices shown in outline. Base image supplied by Buffalo State College.

The wide “Scajaquada harbor” referenced here is discussed extensively in the article “The Scajaquada That Was and Wasn’t” we posted last year. And as pointed out in this article from 2017, the Scajaquada harbor west of Grant Street was of a similar size to the present Hoyt Lake. Now that the industry is gone west of Grant Street, restoring the Scajaquada harbor over time is a much better long-term land use strategy than any short-term economic churn that might result from developing on the historic footprint of the creek.

This alternative proposal makes the case that proper land-use planning – properly done in advance, rather than after-the-fact – would make it clear that restoring the harbor to its original footprint over time, to the greatest extent possible, in cooperation with willing landowners, would actually create the greatest benefit for everyone:

  • Environmental benefits from the removal of industrial fill and waste;
  • Ecological benefits from the creation of extensive, new aquatic and riparian habitat and the restoration of ecosystem services provided by a future ecologically functional landscape – as opposed to the current ecologically dysfunctional one;
  • Recreational benefits from watersports and landside recreation, both passive (hiking, biking) and active (shown in the proposal at the Tee-to-Green site);
  • Psychological benefits from re-establishing nature in an urban matrix;
  • Quality-of-life benefits for nearby residents from establishing new parkland;
  • Civic pride benefits from, essentially, extending Delaware Park westward to the Niagara River;
  • And, yes, extensive development benefits, because – as the development of North Buffalo showed a century and a half ago – parkland boosts the value of adjacent land for development.

And last but certainly not least, benefits for Buffalo State College from:

  • Creating an attractive and active new urban edge for the college campus and serve as a town-gown bridge across Grant Street;
  • Making Buffalo State campus a waterfront campus for the first time since the 198 was built;
  • Give the campus a window on the Great Lakes, as the Scajaquada harbor is directly connected to the Black Rock Channel and the Niagara River;
  • Providing the opportunity for student study and projects involving the environment and ecology directly adjacent to campus; and
  • Nurturing a closer relationship with its west side neighbors.
UB students with Professor Kerry Traynor on the old railroad bridge over Scajaquada Creek adjacent to the auto impound site.

To undertake that land-use planning, the community submission suggests the UB Regional Institute (UBRI), headed by Dean Robert Shibley. For one, the UB has already been involved with research and study along the Scajaquada corridor. Faculty and students have been involved in some of Buffalo’s most important planning initiatives of recent decades, including Green Code, One Region Forward, Ralph Wilson Centennial Park, and several other initiatives. That has resulted in tested, well-recognized, locally unique expertise in community and stakeholder engagement. They also have experience with best-practice analysis of the potential economic return of various scenarios and, through the Center for Computational Research, the ability to do detailed 3-D modeling that I believe would be essential to visualizing the best outcomes of various land-use and development scenarios in the auto impound area. All of this work could perhaps be done in partnership with Buffalo State College’s own planning and GIS faculty.

Using the old railroad spur and bridge, with a lease or easement agreement with the property owner, would link the Jesse Kregal Pathway to Buffalo State College, the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, and the neighborhood east of the creek.

Taking the time to do good land-use planning wouldn’t necessarily impede progress on the site. To the contrary, the site lends itself to a number of interim uses on a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” basis that could almost immediately make it a community asset. Chief among those would be using the old railroad spur and bridge (pictured), with a lease or easement agreement with the property owner, to link the Jesse Kregal Pathway to Buffalo State College and the neighborhood east of the creek. Other near-term uses could include active and passive recreation, kayak access to the creek, and upgrading habitat and ecology along the Scajaquada corridor.

A final note about the community submission: the original idea was to partner with a community organization that has design professionals on staff, but in the end that wasn’t possible, so with a limited amount of time the submission was very brief with crude graphics, although they were reviewed by an experienced architect in terms of the soundness of the concept.

Now, without further ado, is the RFP submission from the community, titled Drawing a Line in the Land: A Land-Use-Planning-First Approach to the Auto Impound Site.

Introduction

The site of the City of Buffalo auto impound is a very unusual and very special site. It is partly located on the footprint of the former wide Scajaquada floodplain and harbor, an early Buffalo industrial hub directly connected by water to the Erie Canal and Great Lakes. Pivotal battles in the War of 1812 were fought nearby, and perhaps even on the site itself.

A map drawn by hand by Peter Porter in 1813 of military sites in Black Rock during the war show the US Navy Yard and another site associated with fitting out ships of Commodore Perry’s fleet that won the Battle of Lake Erie. The two sites (labeled 20 and 21 in the image below) appear to bracket the area now occupied by the auto impound. The cannon battery in between (labeled 3 in the image) appears to be on the present auto impound site.

Newspaper accounts also mention a burial mound of war dead at the foot of Letchworth Street, possibly on the footprint of the current auto impound property.

In planning the future of the site, it is essential to place it in its historic and ecological context.

Map of War of 1812 sites in Black Rock drawn by Peter B. Porter. According to Porter’s notes, Sites 20 & 21 were involved with refitting ships used in Commodore Perry’s fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie. The two sites appear to be on the north and south margins of the present auto impound site. The cannon battery protecting them (Site 3) also appears to be on the present auto impound site. Image credit: Peter B. Porter Papers, C80-1, KK-22. Collection of The Buffalo History Museum

The historic context

The auto impound site is located on the now-filled floodplain near the mouth of a creek draining 39 square miles and subject to occasional flash-flooding.

Several battles in the War of 1812 were fought in the area including the critical Battle of Scajaquada Creek Bridge. War dead on both sides were buried near where they fell. Newspaper accounts mention a burial mound at the foot of Letchworth Street, and it is believed there are other burials in the vicinity of the auto impound.

The Erie Canal, directly connected to Scajaquada Creek, turned the floodplain into a harbor accessible to canal boats. By the end of the Civil War, the harbor was ringed with industry that could ship products anywhere via water transportation. When rail transportation eclipsed water, industry found the harbor more valuable for expansion and began to fill it in, until it became the narrow, impaired creek channel we know today. Even that was encroached on to build the 198.

Historic 19th-century footprint of the Scajaquada harbor west of Grant Street overlaid on modern satellite map.

The ecological and landscape context

The original Scajaquada harbor was a naturally Olmstedian water body, with a sinuous shoreline and bays and nooks and headlands – even an island. Those were all features Olmsted would have to create artificially in the Delaware Park lake. As I discussed in a this recent Buffalo Rising article, if the Scajaquada harbor had not already been industrialized, it almost certainly would have been incorporated into the Buffalo park system. Now that the west end of the Scajaquada is no longer industrial, we have the opportunity to restore the harbor as a significant recreational asset.

Because a restored Scajaquada harbor would create a direct link between the Niagara River corridor and the western edge of SUNY Buffalo State campus, it would give the college a window on the Great Lakes.

If the 198 were removed and creek restoration was undertaken west of Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo State College would become the “waterfront campus” that many have talked of, surrounded by water on three sides.

As I showed in this recent Buffalo Rising article, in the 1890s Delaware Park was extended west to Grant Street along the Scajaquada Creek valley, but that extension was obliterated by construction of the 198. If the western part of the 198 were removed entirely, as many advocate, the park could once again be extended west. But now the park could be extended not just to Grant Street, but restoration of the Scajaquada harbor as a recreational asset would allow the park to be extended all the way west to Niagara Street.

If the western part of the 198 were removed and the park were extended westward past Grant Street, Buffalo State College would be not just an “urban engaged” campus but an “Olmsted engaged” campus, surrounded by a landscaped belt on all four sides.

If the western part of the 198 were removed and the park were extended west along Scajaquada Creek to include a restored Scajaquada harbor with a recreational green belt around it, then the entire remade 198 corridor could become a series of connected landscapes analogous to the famed Emerald Necklace in Boston.

The blue line and the green line. Footprint of original Scajaquada harbor for eventual restoration and the proposed green buffer for habitat, ecology, scenery, and recreation. The green line incorporates the Tee-to-Green site as a location for active recreation such as ball fields. Note that the lines are dotted in the few places where there are currently structures on private property.

Drawing lines on the map

Land-use planning for the site would include drawing several important lines on the map, identifying what should and shouldn’t happen where. Those lines would include:

  • The blue line (see cover and Diagram 1), showing the footprint of the Scajaquada harbor, initially using old maps an atlases, but confirmed with subsurface testing, some of which has already been done in environmental studies.
  • The green line (see Diagram 1), showing a green buffer of, say, 100′ to 150′ where possible, for ecology and recreational space.
  • A black line (see Diagram 2) suggesting where a “Scajaquada Drive” might go to carry some of the traffic displaced from the removed 198, connecting Iroquois Drive and Rockwell Road west to the Niagara Street/Tonawanda Street intersection. Another change to consider making to the street grid: reconfigure the west end of Rockwell Road to align with the rest, and even consider extending it west to the restored harbor, for reasons discussed below.
  • Brown lines (see Diagrams 3 and 4) showing where new development would make the most sense. See below for what that development could look like.

It is important to note that restoring the Scajaquada harbor ringed with a green buffer would not only create a substantial recreational asset, help clean up the creek, and provide new habitat, but provide environmental benefits that could directly aid Buffalo State College and the new development in this proposal. Because the restored harbor could include wetlands along the shore, it could help filter stormwater runoff from campus and new development nearby. It could also be the site for a substantial geothermal installation, that could provide heating and cooling for new development and perhaps part of Buffalo State campus.

Diagram 2: The black line. Proposed “Scajaquada Drive” to take the place of the removed western end of the 198 expressway, connecting Iroquois Drive and Rockwell Road to the Niagara Street/Tonawanda Street intersection.

Creating an “urban engaged” Grant Street

Although this RFP is for the auto impound site, a land-use-planning-first approach would suggest that, rather than development on the site, creek restoration and creation of a new recreational landscape there could catalyze development on nearby sites, including other land owned and controlled by the college, that would become even more valuable. What could and should that look like?

The opportunity is to urbanize the Grant Street edge of campus (see Diagrams 3 and 4). That would include creating a multi-story, mixed-use street wall and public realm from Jessemine south to Campus Walk. Adding to the urbanism, along this stretch of Grant Street would be three pedestrian-friendly crossings: at Rockwell Road, on the alignment of the bay that would extend southeast from the restored harbor, at Bengal Walk, and another between Letchworth Street and Bengal Walk. This combination of street wall, increased human occupancy, increased foot traffic, and the series of pedestrian-friendly intersections would serve to give the area a very urban feel and also calm traffic by design. The pedestrian nature of the area could be further enhanced by creation of a transit hub that would be served by metro buses as well as campus shuttles, that could be connected below ground to provide service – and sheltered waiting – to both sides of Grant Street. The transit hub, especially if incorporated into new buildings, could also make the entire effort qualify as transit-oriented development.

A cluster of mixed-use development in that area would bring new residents and office tenants to help assure foot traffic throughout the day. It could include enough storefront retail to provide “eyes on the street” but not to create a major competitor to existing retail districts on Amherst Street or further south on Grant Street. New residents would bring new customers to both those districts, which are in walking distance.

It may be possible for dense development along the western edge of campus to share utilities with the college, providing the benefits of district/cooperative utility arrangements.

Given the proximity to assets such as cultural institutions, parkland, and the new recreational lake, development of this urbanized district on the western edge of campus should prove very desirable. So much so, that establishment of a BID (business-improvement district) or TIF (tax-increment financing) district should be considered to capture a portion of the value of the new development to help fund operation and maintenance of the new recreational asset that would contribute to making the development so attractive. Those funds could be managed through a neighborhood CDC, as suggested below.

Diagram 3: The brown line, scenario 1. New, multi-story, mixed-use development along Grant Street shown in brown, along with several crosswalks to create an urbanized, pedestrian-friendly environment.

Bringing along the rest of the neighborhood

Outside the blue line, green line, black line, and brown line is the existing neighborhood. It is important that this project affect the neighborhood by bolstering it, not destroying it. It is important that this project improves the quality of life in the neighborhood without promoting displacement of current residents. One way to do this is to give the neighborhood a real seat at the table in a stakeholder role in developing the land use plan. Toward that end, this proposal suggests involving the UB Regional Institute in the land use plan, as they have a proven track record of strong stakeholder engagement in such planning work.

Second, this proposal suggests establishing a community development corporation (CDC) for the neighborhood west of Rees Street and north of Forest Avenue. The CDC would:

  • Provide a powerful voice of the community on planning and community development matters involving the neighborhood;
  • Work to create types of housing that are not market-driven, such as workforce housing and senior housing, to help keep residents from being priced out, or aging out, of the neighborhood;
  • Provide rehabilitation grants and loans to upgrade existing housing, helping residents stay put;
  • Operate and maintain the new green space and recreational space, and the boat rental concession on the restored harbor, perhaps using funds from a BID or TIF, as discussed above;
  • Work with the community to develop additional fine-grained plans for the neighborhood to build on the general land-use plan discussed above, then work toward implementation of those plans;
  • Serve as a “developer of last resort” for necessary projects that don’t attract developer interest;
  • Serve as a platform for student and faculty service projects in the neighborhood west of campus.
Diagram 4: The brown line, scenario 2. This is a modification of scenario 1 to include the re-alignment of Rockwell Road to provide a continual visual axis and direct walking link between Delaware Park on the east end and the new proposed recreational landscape on the west end. This scenario also provides more opportunity for development, but would require obtaining properties along Letchworth Street from willing sellers.

College facilities: taking the path of greater resistance

For decades Buffalo State College has looked to the west for location of facilities that would be an awkward fit for the eastern, more urbane edge of campus – such as surface parking lots, maintenance buildings, and large-footprint sports facilities. That was the path of least resistance when the western edge of campus was bordered by a gritty industrial corridor along an elevated highway and hidden creek. Now that the industry is gone, with the highway perhaps to follow, and the potential for the Scajaquada harbor to be restored, the opportunity is to re-evaluate the college’s relationship with its western edge through the land-use planning effort recommended in this proposal.

Also, as the campus expanded in the 1960s, and more people affiliated with the college moved to the suburbs, and fewer used transit, the path of least resistance was to expand surface parking. Now, the opportunity is to facilitate alternate means of getting to campus, and encourage faculty and staff to live nearby by taking this opportunity to build new multi-unit housing along Grant Street and improve the existing housing stock in the neighborhood. It also may be time to look at developing new campus facilities on existing surface parking lots rather than by continuing to expand westward. This proposal also suggests doing away with some surface parking west of Grant Street to allow for restoration of the Scajaquada Harbor and some to allow construction of the new urban edge along Grant Street.

Doing away with surface parking may require construction of some structured parking, perhaps even including underground parking under some of the large expanses of landscape on the east and south sides of campus. Structured parking in those areas could also be shared with the cultural institutions bordering campus in those areas including the Richardson-Olmsted Complex. Putting athletic fields on top of underground parking could also be considered.

It also may be time to start looking at building up rather than out by building new facilities, where possible, in high-rise buildings with stacked program volumes flexible enough to facilitate reconfiguration as programs evolve in the future, as other land-locked urban campuses have done.

To accommodate these more capital-intensive strategies needed to allow growth and improvement on a “landscape locked” campus, it may be necessary for the State University Construction Fund or the Dormitory Authority to adopt a more generous funding formula for projects on “urban engaged” campuses like Buffalo State. If so, Buffalo’s state legislative delegation might pursue those changes.

Lead image: auto impound RFP site visit, October, 2019

Get connected: Buffalo State’s website for the auto impound process

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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