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Buffalo's new bridges abandon 'Soviet' design; reflect art, culture

Buffalo is blooming into a city of beautiful bridges.

Instead of the utilitarian spans reminiscent of Soviet-style bleakness, transportation planners are now summoning the city’s rich architectural and historical heritage as they erect a series of new bridges across major highways.

Over the past several years, the state Department of Transportation has led the way with a new strategy that so far has produced 10 local spans. They incorporate ornate stonework and historic lighting, railings and emblems evoking neighborhood history. Even artwork from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery will soon grace the new Elmwood Avenue bridge over the Scajaquada Expressway.

Now you can spot impressive designs over the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways, the Niagara Thruway and even the Erie Canal. They may cost a little more, say DOT engineers, but not that much.

Designers and community sponsors of the new bridges take genuine pride in the results.

“We call it context sensitive design,” said Susan S. Surdej, spokeswoman for DOT’s Buffalo headquarters. “Peoples’ awareness and focus have changed, and we’ve been more sensitive to the surroundings around us in the past decade.”

Local communities seem to crave the participation.

“They see, drive over and walk on these projects every day,” she added.

Mike Christner, the DOT’s regional landscape architect, said the “context” concept recognizes that important cities build bridges not only to get from Point A to Point B, but to reflect their culture and history, too. That’s why all kinds of local groups now assist in the bridges' design.

“There is a sense of ownership on these projects – that we did it together,” he said.

In recent years, state planners have encouraged more local involvement in designing projects that affect the lives of New Yorkers. Norm Duennebacke, regional structures engineer, said the department took the responsibility “to heart.”

“We started reaching out to the community, asking what you think the bridge will look like, then asking what you think the bridge should look like,” he said. “When you replace a bridge, you have to keep in mind it will be there for the next 75 years.”

Here are the stories behind some of the area’s new “signature” bridges:

Elmwood over the Scajaquada

Community inspiration may be best reflected in the new $10.4 million span ferrying Elmwood Avenue over Scajaquada Creek and the Scajaquada Expressway.

The Elmwood Avenue bridge over the Scajaquada in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Duennebacke displayed photographs of the same area taken more than a century ago during the adjacent Pan-American Exposition. They depict a bridge remarkably reminiscent of what will be finished in June, complete with stonework and historic lighting.

The engineer mused that today’s bridge designers would prefer duplicating the graceful arches of the original structure, but discovered over the years their inefficiency and difficulty to maintain.

Still, they wanted to come as close as possible. So they looked to the nearby Albright-Knox, SUNY Buffalo State and Buffalo History Museum as well as backwards to the Pan-Am.

“What was here before? What did that bridge look like?” Duennebacke said. “We were inspired by all that.”

The Pan-American Exposition: Then and Now

Enter Anthony O. James, consulting architect to the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, whom Christner labeled the “driving force” behind the design. James said the DOT asked him and fellow architects Charlie Jordan and Peter Flynn to contribute, and thinks the new bridge is better as a result.

“They showed us some designs we didn’t like at all,” he said.

So James and company reached into history and submitted their own ideas. The state had no budget for genuine stonework, much to the committee’s disappointment. But stone facing created by concrete form liners looks pretty close, he said.

“Now it looks a lot better than the original proposal,” he said.

The final design stemmed from a series of “charrettes” – public sessions hashing out designs – that also included input from SUNY Buffalo State and the nearby museums. Designers faced the challenges of maintaining 14 feet of clearance, connecting Elmwood Avenue at the same level, and changing originally proposed stonework the committee deemed inauthentic.

Soon, the bridge will feature artwork mounted on pedestals contributed by the Albright-Knox. Duennebacke said the gallery is now finalizing the artwork to be mounted.

“I’ve seen it. It’s unique work,” he said. “But I’m not letting the cat out of the bag.”

Pedestrian span over Niagara Thruway

Bikers and joggers are about to encounter the city’s most unique pedestrian crossing, which will be near the Peace Bridge and over the Niagara Thruway and CSX Railroad.

Festooned with blue metalwork images of birds, sailboats, motorboats and fishermen, they appear to be “held together” by waves also designed in blue. Surdej explained that the ideas stemmed from public forums, where participants clamored for replicating the famous Parker truss on the adjacent Peace Bridge.

The new pedestrian bridge over the I-190 north near the Peace Bridge in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Part of the $56.2 million “Gateway Connections Improvement Project” that revamps the road and ramp system around the Peace Bridge, the new pedestrian structure serves as the entrance to the city’s Shoreline Trail and also will feature interpretive historical panels.

Like plans for its Peace Bridge big sister spanning the Niagara River, the new pedestrian crossing also includes a covered “lookout” at the geographically significant confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River.

“It’s a unique outlook for people to stop and look at the river under its roof,” Duennebacke said.

The new bridge replaces another nondescript pedestrian bridge while serving as a gateway to downtown.

“The bridge itself mimics the Peace Bridge,” Christner said, “while the roof design mimics a sail, as do the pedestals actually holding up the bridge.”

The new crossing is slated to officially open by June 30.

Porter Avenue Bridge over Niagara Thruway and CSX

This new waterfront connection also stems from the Gateway project based on Thruway Authority and City of Buffalo money.

Opening last year, designers say it represents a classic example of community participation as neighborhood groups and other stakeholders suggested emblems in the railings, visible from the highway below.

The new Porter Avenue bridge over the I-190. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Emblems include images of a woman dancing and a man playing an instrument, all submitted by the neighborhood’s Hispanic community. Christner said the depictions stem from ancient Caribbean stone art that highlight the Hispanic concept of “celebration.”

Others originated with the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Albright-Knox.

“The idea was to capture the culture and artistic opportunities that Buffalo offers,” Christner said.

Grant Street over the Scajaquada

One of the DOT’s first efforts at transcending the utilitarian was completed in 2005 on Grant Street over the Scajaquada Expressway. Its designers drew heavily on its proximity to SUNY Buffalo State, using a form concrete treatment on the beams.

Decorative work on the Grant Street bridge over the Scajaquada in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“It was basically at the entrance to Delaware Park and the college, and we wanted it to look better,” Duennebacke said.

The project cost $4.3 million.

ECMC bridges over the Kensington

Completed in 2013, the Erie County Medical Center access road bridge was part of a $7.2 million deck replacement for several area spans. It features medically related emblems on the roadway leading to the hospital.

The ECMC access road bridge over the Kensington in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“It was supposed to be a fast project, but we slowed down enough to recognize it is a very visible bridge,” Duennebacke said. “We wanted a flavor to remind people they were near a hospital.”

Further west toward downtown, the new pedestrian bridge completed in 2009 replaced a predecessor that nobody remembers.

“The community definitely wanted to connect those neighborhoods,” Duennebacke recalled.

Other projects

Through much of its 200-year history, the truss bridge – with interconnected triangular structures that spread out loads – carried roads across the Erie Canal throughout upstate New York. But today’s engineers say the design became expensive to build and maintain.

Nevertheless, DOT planned something special to replace the Campbell Road structure over the canal between Amherst and Pendleton.

“We didn’t have to put up the truss. We could have done just some industrial type of bridge,” Duennebacke said. “But because it was the canal, we did the truss bridge.”

The $10.9 million span, completed in 2010, features a medallion with the image of a packet boat.

Other projects include the Outer Harbor bridges under Fuhrmann Boulevard and the $30 million twin arches carrying Route 219 between the towns of Ashford and Concord.

The department also seems especially pleased with new $4 million retaining walls lining the Kensington Expressway at the end of Cherry Street in Buffalo. Neighborhood residents lobbied for various forms of African art for the walls and resulting pocket park.

Completed in 2011, DOT found a way to incorporate examples of ancient African fabric into the walls. Now people in the neighborhood look out from their porches on a point of community pride.

Surdej pointed out that similar walls elsewhere seem to draw graffiti artists no matter where they are located. Not so along Cherry Street, she said, which has never been attacked by graffiti.

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