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The Big Picture: A Plan for Buffalo

Earlier this month, Jeff Z. Klein posted on Campaign for Greater Buffalo’s vision for the partial removal of the Skyway, which would help to reconnect the waterfront with downtown. 

Now, Tim Tielman, whose concept for a “Cloudwalk” captivated the imaginations of waterfront enthusiasts, has posted an even broader “big picture plan” for the land that would be freed up with the removal of the exit ramps that have disrupted the flow of the neighborhood. According to Tielman, the process of creating this freeway system destroyed 292 acres of homes and businesses.

If this mishmash of roadway was removed, a new mixed-use neighborhood would create an enhanced destination and a strong sense of place, instead of a vapid no man’s land.

The DOT is currently working on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Skyway removal.

Sadly, we have forsaken sensitive historic infrastructure in lieu of the automobile. Now, we have a chance to partially right some of those wrongs, if we look at the big picture instead of a series of “one offs” that offer little continuity. The good thing is that we know where we came from, which means that we can put together a roadmap to help guide us back to greatness, if we so desire.

Joseph Ellicott’s job was to design human habitats. His plans were based on two things: human behavior and the physical environment of a place.

When it comes to getting a plan of this nature rolling, there are a couple of issues to contend with. First, people have forgotten what was once there, so they don’t tend to miss it… or even think about it. Then, public representatives don’t typically get behind plans that are not their own, or generated by people within their immediate circles. They also don’t typically change their minds once they have formulated their own opinions, no matter if it’s for the greater good of the city. That means that we are apt to get stuck with limited scopes, from elected officials that ultimately dictate what they think is best for us. That train of thought has left us with a city filled with shortsighted, mismatched projects that are completely unrelated to one another, each branded by the mark of an official from a bygone era.

All buildings facing or adjacent to what was “St. Anthony’s Park,” except St. Anthony’s Church itself—the mother church of Buffalo’s Italians—were destroyed for the Waterfront Urban Renewal Area and Skyway circulation improvements.

As buildings were torn down and green spaces were destroyed, there was a promise for “something better” that never occurred. Instead we were left with unimaginative ruins that destroyed entire communities. The value of this land has been largely discounted, but there is a growing call from people like Tielman and other urbanists to reconsider the “worth” of this dismantled landscape.

What if we could recreate the long lost elements? What if we could reconnect parcels of downtown via a parkway promenade?

The stretch of The Terrace between Church Street and Genesee was called “Two Park” – The resuscitated Two Park is shown here, conceived as a platform for periodic civic events, and day-to-day use as a public promenade with opportunities for casual seating, eating and drinking, and pick-up basketball.
The promenade block preserves the only historic remnant of The Terrace: a low stone wall which en- closed central areas of both “Two Park” and “St. Anthony’s Park” to north. The walls were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted | St. Anthony’s Square—the entire right-of-way of the former Terrace— can be reclaimed for public use. A large pavilion at Genesee Street can host periodic and special events that require shelter.

In European cities, people tend to gather around the market square piazzas. Architect Charlie Gordon had the right idea, which his concept proposal for Niagara Square, not far from Tielman’s footprint. An even bigger, more united plan, perhaps?

Buffalo still has excellent “bones” to recreate similar public spaces that could become the building blocks of neighborhoods. These are the types of neighborhoods where people want to live. They are close to the waterfront, public transportation, and other unique amenities. Instead of driving everywhere, residents could walk to baseball games, bike down Elmwood Avenue, or simply enjoy a neighborhood park setting similar to how Joseph Ellicott initially envisioned people interacting with the downtown core. 

Or we could wash our hands of the historic urban renewal tragedies and continue to inch along as we have been doing for decades. What would you rather have?

The block of the Terrace be- tween Seneca and the former Evans Street is the most grievously damaged of all the blocks occupied by the Skyway since 1954.
The reconstruction of Buffalo’s original public park—The Terrace, a three-block long section of the Erie Canal and Canal Street, and the addition of potentially hundreds of apartments would be self- justifying even without the manifold benefits of proper integration into the larger downtown fabric.

From the creation of a transport hub to the excavation and rewatering of the Prime Slip, from Prime Street to Marine Drive, there is a “big picture” that must be considered. In his “big picture portfolio,” Tielman has examined and reconsidered every aspect of these forsaken neighborhoods, giving us better insight into the monumental losses that we have suffered, while demonstrating the potential of a unified path moving forward.

The view from Erie Street and the top of the railroad tunnel shows the opportunities that lie within the given parameters. The building on the right is the same mass and material as the former Revere House hotel, and lies entirely on city-owned land. A section of Marine Drive parking lot lies beyond it. In the distance is a hotel on Main Street.
This view to the west illustrates the run of Canal Street between Pearl and Erie. To be fully supportive of downtown it is best reimagined as a residential street closed to motor traffic. It is probable that the original Medina Sandstone paving blocks, curbing, and gutters are intact under a thin layers of asphalt and gravel. Daylighting the stone street and preserving it in situ should be a priority. Nothing could convey the history and character of the street better.

Tielman has not only considered the historic relevance of the neighborhoods, he has also offered up ways to “freshen up” the approach to recreating significant developments, knowing that we can never possibly bring back what we have lost. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try our hardest to build a semblance of what was originally there.

Among the infrastructure and rehabilitation works  proposed:

  • The long-overdue reconstruction of the Union Block, site of Dug’s Dive, the documented stop on the Underground Railroad once operated by William “Uncle Dug” Douglass. The Union Block in its last days was also an Italian tenement (so called on maps of the day).
  • The systematic archaeological excavation, preservation, and rewatering of the main section of the Prime Slip, a private canal filled in by the Civil War and in which sits a pier of the Skyway.
  • The restoration of the Canal District streets to their exact historic locations, with historically accurate paving.
  • The restoration of Canal Street and the Erie Canal between Pearl and Erie Streets.
  • The retention and adaptation of all of the Skyway from the north bank of the Buffalo River to Tifft Street as the Cloudwalk (detailed in an earlier proposal of February
  • The restoration of the DL&W train shed and a multi-use viaduct to connect it with the Cloudwalk ,Central Wharf, and the Cobblestone Historic District (also detailed in February)
  • The reconstruction of Terrace Park, including Terrace Station.
  • Construction of a local bus hub on The Terrace and under the Thruway viaduct between Pearl and Washington streets
  • Re-platting all state lands into much smaller lots than typically planned in Urban Renewal projects and closer in spirit to those of Joseph Ellicott’s survey of 1803-4, with a goal of individual ownership.

The scope of the Big Picture may seem vast, but it is small compared to what Buffalo lost in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Tielman, Executive Director of the Campaign. “It is 12 acres of well over 200 that were totally destroyed in combined highway and urban renewal projects on the waterfront. Buffalo has been in an induced coma since. It’s urban malpractice. We now have the knowledge, means, and motivation to correct this massive social and economic injustice. We must start now and leverage this historic opportunity.”

The Cloudwalk would be active transport link (walking, pedaling, wheelchair) and observation deck. It transforms a noisy, blighting piece of infrastructure into a civic and mobility asset. It provides close-ups of General Mills grain elevator, which architectural historian Reyner Banham called “the most influential structure ever put up in North America,” as well as unparalleled, unhurried, and other- wise unattainable views of Buffalo’s grain elevators, a globally unique cultural landscape.

Tielman’s plan also includes linking all of the new streets and waterways to The Buffalo Cloudwalk – a project concept that we posted on back in February. The “Cloudwalk” would connect to the DL&W, and The Riverline (coming soon). It would also connect the Inner and Outer Harbors in ways that would be monumental.

“We must restore our heritage sites to restore our economy and social equity. That begins with insuring that the Environmental Review is thorough and unbiased,” said Richard Berger, a Campaign boardmember and lead attorney in the federal case in the year 2000 which resulted in the reversal of an earlier state project that would have excavated the entire canal district for a ship basin, and a later attempt to put a Bass Pro megastore on Central Wharf.

In the end, the most important thing is that we consider the potential of numerous plans, not just the one/s that are presented by those who “know best.” Over the years we have come to realize the importance of community input on various projects. Still, that public process does not always apply, as we have seen with numerous failed projects. This could mean that there might be new ideas presented that we have not even considered, or hybrid projects formulated by a series of think tanks. Whatever the outcome, let’s hope that when it is all said and done, we can feel good about the process that took place. Maybe it’s finally time to come up with a master plan?

The time is now, to ask our public leaders (as well as the Department of transportation) to consider what is best for Buffalo.

The Big Picture incorporates a number of opportunities that could change the prospects of the city. Canyon Research Southwest, a real estate analytics firm, estimates that development on the reclaimed land as proposed (mostly 3-4 story residential) in the Big Picture would yield over $82, 630, 000 in real estate and sales taxes over a 20-year period. Spin-off benefits beyond the Skyway reclamation area were not calculated. This suggests the enormous lost opportunity cost since the Skyway opened in 1955, and the ongoing lost revenues if the Skyway is not removed.

The Big Picture Plan can be downloaded at

Lead image: The restoration of Buffalo’s first public park—The Terrace— as well as the run of the original Erie Canal between Pearl Street and Erie Street and the parallel famed Canal Street, and the Prime Slip, another historic canal which is possibly an archaeological motherlode.

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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