Imagine hiking or biking along a 25-foot-high elevated nature trail between Canalside and SolarCity.
The Western New York Land Conservancy — and many residents in the Old First Ward and the Valley — can.
A roughly 1.5-mile linear park that runs along the old Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) Railroad line overlooking some of Buffalo's most historic — and revitalized — real estate will be formally proposed this morning at the Tewksbury Lodge on Ohio Street.
The railroad tracks are long gone, but most of the elevated section of the rail line remains in place.
“We’d like to be number 20,” Nancy Smith, executive director of the land conservancy, told The Buffalo News.
Think this is some pie-in-the-sky, “it’ll never happen,” 1985-esque Buffalo idea? Those in the know know better.
“This is going to get done,” said Congressman Brian Higgins, who’s a big supporter of the idea.
The proposal also has support from the Valley Community Association, Old First Ward Community Center and city and county leaders.
Early funding to jumpstart the vision and designs for the project includes $50,000 each from Ralph C. Wilson Jr. funds from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and M&T Bank as well as $20,000 more from individual donations.
That’s a good start, but it won’t get the linear park built.
“We need more money,” Smith said.
Exactly how much isn’t clear yet. Smith said the project will probably be completed in phases.
The linear park would begin near the corner of Moore and Miami streets, continuing east just north of Miami Street to Louisiana Street and then on the southern side of Miami Street to Hamburg Street. The elevated berm drops to grade crossing at Louisiana, Alabama, Hamburg and other cross streets and disappears east of Katherine Street before picking up again adjacent to Red Jacket River Front Park.
From there, the proposed trail crosses one of Buffalo's busiest railroad lines over an existing bridge south and east of Smith Street and ends at a half-bridge over the Buffalo River with views of the South Park Avenue lift bridge, the Buffalo Color peninsula and Buffalo's new SolarCity plant.
The project committee is eyeing a design competition next summer.
Smith said it hopes to attract interest from environmental architects and land use planners from across the continent.
There’s precedent for that.
Using funding from the Niagara River Greenway Ecological Standing Committee, the conservancy lured internationally renowned landscape designer Darrel Morrison to help design its recent $1 million habitat restoration project in the Niagara Gorge.
The abandoned DL&W line is owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which appears to be on board with the proposed use for the rail corridor.
One of the NFTA’s top directors, Tom George, represents the authority on the DL&W project committee — and advisory group consisting of community leaders.
“The chance to collaborate with the land conservancy to develop consensus on enhancement of the corridor through creation of public spaces in concert with future light rail service can provide great benefits to our community,” George said.
George said the proposed line would run along the same right-of-way where a possible light-rail extension to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport is also envisioned.
And, there's room for both.
"We're of the feeling one is not mutually exclusive of the other," George said.
For now, Buffalo's proposed version of the High Line is being called the “DL&W Linear Park and Multi-Use Trail.”
It’ll eventually have a better name, land conservancy officials said.
The advisory group held focus group meetings with neighbors of the proposed park from the Old First Ward, Valley and Perry communities over the last few months, including those whose yards face or back up to the park on Miami and Mackinaw streets.
“We really want to understand: what do they want to see here?” Smith said.
The first community-wide public meeting is in the works for February or March at a to-be-announced location in Buffalo.
“Places like this can create a vibrancy to our neighborhood,” said Peg Overdorf, the Valley Community Association’s executive director.
Overdorf said parks like the one proposed and the existing Buffalo River Fest and Mutual Riverfront parks eliminated neighborhood blight and launched opportunities for economic development.
Sara Heidinger, a business owner and president of the Old First Ward Community Center, envisions the linear park as an outdoor space for art, wildlife, pollinators, neighbors and visitors.
“Not only will it be a place to relax and enjoy the beautiful green paths,” Heidinger said, “it will be a way to create a more walkable, bikeable community and connect neighborhoods together.”
Between Canalside’s DL&W terminal — which is proposed to undergo a separate redevelopment — and SolarCity, the elevated multipurpose nature path would link the Old First Ward with the Valley and Erie County’s Red Jacket Riverfront Natural Habitat Park.
From there, Smith and members of the Western New York Railway Historical Society hope there’s an opportunity build a visitor’s viewing area over the former DL&W’s bridge over the existing active main railroad line into Buffalo from the south.
It could allow rail-buffs, or just casual train enthusiasts, to watch some of the roughly 50 or so trains that come and go every day along one of Buffalo Niagara's busiest rail lines, Don Owens of the Western New York Railway Society said.
“We might be able to work along with them on this,” Owens said.
The society recently purchased the former Buffalo Color site across from its Lee Street headquarters. It hopes to expand its footprint there for railroad artifacts.
The linear park would terminate at a half-bridge overlooking the ecological restoration work the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper led along the Buffalo River as well as Tesla’s new SolarCity plant.
Each spot along the way would be designed to complement the other for aesthetics, and utility, Smith said.
“Connectivity is a huge piece of this,” Smith said.
She said the land conservancy — which has spearheaded environmental preservation efforts along the Niagara Gorge, along the escarpment, in Amherst, Aurora and Clarence — has sought to reach into the urban environment.
Conservancy officials believe they’ve found a worthy project in a corridor that was once the center of Western New York’s industry, transportation and commerce.
“We’re all about connecting people with nature, and to be able to do it right in the middle of the city?,” said Jajean Rose Burney, the conservancy’s development chair. “It is such an important part of Buffalo’s growth. We think it could be part of Buffalo’s renaissance, too.”
According to Higgins, Buffalo’s waterfront restoration is “about 45 percent” complete in a “Rust Belt to green belt” vision that started a quarter-century ago.
The cleanup of the Buffalo River’s industrial toxins was followed by habitat restoration and redevelopment along Canalside, the Ohio Street corridor and into the First Ward and the Valley.
“Buffalo never had the problem of getting the right projects finished,” Higgins said. “Buffalo had a problem of getting the right projects started.”
Higgins added: “This is one of the last big pieces."