On June 30th 2022, NYSDOT revealed its latest proposal for the billion dollar tunnel it wishes to construct for a small section of the Kensington Expressway.
I have been disappointed by a general lack of public discussion about this massive taxpayer investment into an expressway regarded by many as a colossal blunder from its very inception.
In hopes of stimulating an exchange of ideas, I will share some of my own thoughts on the proposals here. I have no pretense of presenting an objective report. I have very definite opinions on this matter. I can only hope to prompt needed discussion before some very consequential decisions are to be made.
I was born and spent the first twenty-one years of my life on Humboldt Parkway (lead image). My family bore personal witness to the wholesale destruction of the tree-lined medians in which we played as children. We watched in horror as one of the world’s grandest streets was turned into the dangerously unsafe and unhealthy “car sewer’ it is today.
I have discussed all this in my most recent article on Humboldt Parkway as part of the Great Streets Make for Great Cities series that I have been developing in conjunction with Buffalo Rising, here. In that article I attempted to show that my own conviction that highways have no place within city boundaries was a conviction shared by some of the very earliest supporters and shapers of the interstate highway system we have today.
I have to give credit to NYSDOT this time for finally setting up a special website for feedback, here. Most admirably they have provided a downloadable Audio Power Point of the project. It is upon that Power Point which I will base my criticisms. While I will occasionally refer to individual slide numbers, I will try to write my comments in a manner that will be understandable to those unfamiliar with the Power Point presentation.
NYSDOT begins their Power Point presentation with a statement of the project purposes (slides #6 and #7). While first to be mentioned is the unification of a divided community, the emphasis quickly shifts to maintenance of the corridor and traffic flow within it.
Never once does the name “Olmsted” appear in the project objectives.
Most noteworthy to me is that never once does the name “Olmsted” appear in the project objectives or, for that matter, anywhere in the entire document. The loss of a significant element of our shared Olmsted heritage, the annihilation of which the Kensington Expressway bears sole responsibility, is never directly addressed. Instead NYSDOT chooses to rely on such convenient verbiage as a desire to create the “character” of the original Humboldt Parkway. Needless to say “character” is a word open to wide interpretation especially by the agency that masterminded the demise of Olmsted’s elegant Humboldt Parkway in the first place.
A list of ten possible scenarios for approaching the problem is next to be presented (slides #8 and #9). All but two are automatically eliminated without further elaboration because they do not meet NYSDOT’s objectives. No surprise, the one scenario that I and so many others favor is put off the table and not to be discussed. I refer to traffic dispersal and gradual phased elimination of the 33 followed by the complete restoration of Olmsted’s historic Humboldt Parkway.
The only two scenarios which NYSDOT has approved as worthy of their consideration are next to be addressed (slides#10-#14). Aerial and section views of each are provided.
Before moving on to a discussion of the individual scenarios, it is worth noting that, in spite of repeated promotion among supporters that the cap would stretch from East Ferry to Best Street, aerial images for both chosen scenarios show the cover ending instead at Dodge Street. The area from Best to Dodge would appear to be given over to a gradual walled descent of the roadway into the tunnel entrance. This is significant because this area lies directly adjacent to MLK Park denying land connection at a particularly strategic point. Advantageously for NYSDOT, both aerial views are cutoff on the right side of the images. This deprives us from appraisal of a similar walled descent of the road which would, undoubtedly, be required at the East Ferry tunnel entrance as well.
The first scenario (Concept #5) is craftily given the elusive appellation “Victorian Gardens.” The aerial image as well as the section view indicate a treeless central lawn flanked by some kind of very low plantings on each side and in circular areas at the center of each median subdivision. It also indicates a series of air vents running along the entire length of the central pathway. Although these vents are described as necessary for “fresh air intake” into the tunnel, there is no explanation as to what prevents poisonous tunnel fumes from spilling out in the opposite direction to the air above.
The second scenario (Concept #6) has no designated appellation but is obviously the one that is intended to resemble the “character” of Humboldt Parkway. The section view, however, indicates the “dinkified” trees that in my article I warned the tunnel structure would necessitate. “Dinkification” of the trees deprives us of one of the most defining “characteristics” of an Olmsted parkway, namely its great shade trees. Luckily, we still have such trees in our unmolested Westside parkways (Bidwell, Chapin and Lincoln). There we can still experience the exhilaration of nineteenth century grandeur that was hallmark to Olmsted’s Grand Manner Design for Buffalo. It was such large stately shade trees that dignified Humboldt Parkway and caused it to be widely admired as one of the most beautiful streets in the world. In my article I offer quotes from important urban designers expressing their admiration. I even include a quote from Eduard Andre an important landscape architect who worked with Alphand and Haussmann on the design of Paris, a city often described as the most beautiful city in the world.
To add insult to injury NYSDOT also proposes the erection of five different 16 foot tall mechanical air ventilation contraptions down the center of the medians. Just imagine how demoralizing it would be were similar 16 foot tall structures to deface Olmsted’s Lincoln Parkway.
The great innovation that Olmsted introduced in Buffalo was not the individual parks themselves but his novel idea of connecting one park with another through long horizontal “park-like” structures he called parkways. The largest and grandest of all these was Humboldt Parkway. It once ran from the Delaware Park entrance at Agassiz Circle – UNINTERRUPTED – for miles all the way to the present day site of the Science Museum in what we now call MLK Park.
Any hopes of reestablishing the magnificence of that UNINTERRUPTED flow will now come to an abrupt halt with a deep drop at East Ferry Street to the teeming traffic of a major expressway below. An expressway that, newly strengthened and enhanced, will now be guaranteed to continue plaguing this city for decades to come.
Once this disastrous project has become a fait accompli any hope of restoring our treasured historic heritage might as well be put to bed forever. The only way the UNITERRUPTED parkway could be reassembled through this newly created East Ferry Street gap would be to refill the tunnel with dirt again. Fat chance of that happening after five years of construction and an investment of one billion dollars! As for prospects of capping the rest of Humboldt Parkway so as to be level with this new construction, the cost of covering that amount of space would be unfathomable. That is without even taking into consideration the complications and added expense of dealing with the Scajaquada Creek buried just beneath the surface at Northland Avenue.
The raised steps of the Science Museum are intended to provide a platform from which we are afforded a dramatic view of the overwhelming spectacle that was Olmsted’s crowning achievement.
At the other end of this insulting perversion of Olmsted’s masterwork we find the parkway comes to an unexplained termination at Riley Street, two and a half blocks from its rightful termination at the steps of the Science Museum. The raised steps of the Science Museum are intended to provide a platform from which we are afforded a dramatic view of the overwhelming spectacle that was Olmsted’s crowning achievement. I disagree with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy in their support for preservation of the 33. Nevertheless, in regard to the proper parkway termination at the Science Museum, they had it correct in their 2009 concept drawing.
This decision to suddenly terminate their impoverished imitation at Riley Street instead of the Science Museum provides yet another example of NYSDOT’s myopic preoccupation with traffic flow. In all fairness, that is the mission which the agency’s skilled traffic engineers have been trained to address. For that reason, with NYSDOT, it will never be a case of considering aesthetics and figuring out a sensitive way to handle traffic through or around them. Rather they will begin with traffic flow, and as for aesthetics, it’s too bad.
The final aspect of this project that I will touch upon is the matter of air ventilation and/or air filtration (slides #15-#20). The matter is far too complicated for me to cover in explicit detail. I can only offer a few notable observations.
There are two ventilation options offered for the project (Option #1 and Option #2).
Option #1 offers considerably less yearly maintenance cost ($5 million vs. $12 million). Nevertheless, I must assume that this option is dead in the water because it discharges untreated vehicle emissions directly into the air. In other words, it doesn’t solve one of the major reasons given for putting us through all of this in the first place.
Option #2 provides for air filtration. There are two variations to choose from within it. The main difference between these two variations lies in the size and quantity of required “utility” buildings that it will be necessary to construct along the current parkway. These buildings will house mechanical systems, ventilation fans, air filtration equipment etc.. The numbers of floors required both below ground (2-3) as well above ground also varies. Consistent with NYSDOT’s customary circumlocution, the elevation of these buildings is only referred to as “sufficient height to disperse the treated air.” Illustrations, however, indicate buildings which appear to be about 3-4 stories tall.
As for design of these buildings, only a few concept renderings are offered along with NYSDOT assurance that building types and architecture will be “refined” as the project progresses. That word “refined” comes to us from the agency that ripped up Humboldt Parkway and plowed a highway through Olmsted’s keystone Delaware Park.
Construction of the “utility” buildings will require ROW property seizure, relocation of occupants and demolition. Does any of that sound familiar? “Truck Access” to the buildings will be necessary so they can remove contaminated water from filtration systems. Fourteen “fresh air intake” grates each measuring 20 X 5 feet will need to be situated in the street verges along each side of the parkway. Recall my earlier query as to what is to prevent poisonous fumes from spilling out in the opposite direction from these “fresh air intake” grates.
Hopefully, if all these costly and cumbersome mechanical interventions work successfully, they will furnish much needed and deserved relief from polluted air to those lucky enough to be situated in the direct vicinity of the small area to be capped. Pity it is though, that their success probably comes at the expense of any realistic hope for similar relief among all the other communities bordering the expressway’s treacherous path from East Ferry Street to Bailey Avenue. Pity also, that it will come at the expense of the city of Buffalo ever completely recovering the invaluable treasure of the once glorious Olmsted landmark it has lost. With this huge reinvestment, I am afraid the enduring presence of this open sore on our city’s landscape will be with us for decades to come. Those arguing for removal of this malignant obstruction will now be given a billion dollar reason for not doing so.
As I discussed in my article, perhaps it is time to consider the example of the Scajaquada Expressway (198) on the other side of Main Street. There the dead end fate of the 198, perpetrated through exclusive dependence on NYSDOT’s insular approach, was finally broken as the matter was appropriately turned over to a holistic planning agency like the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council (GBNRTC).
Buffalo has made some tragic, costly mistakes in its past. Now, is not the time to pour a billion more taxpayer dollars into the revitalization of one of the most egregious of these. It is time to let go of the 33.
We also should have more respect for ourselves than to accept the appeasement of some pathetically fraudulent Olmsted imitation. We once had a world admired success story and we wantonly destroyed it. We have Olmsted’s original plans. It won’t require rocket science to rebuild it. It only requires some of the pride and the determined, aspirational resolve of the ancestors who gave it to us.
Lead image: Humboldt Parkway and East Ferry – Preservation Ready Sites