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Take down Skyway, lift waterfront

I don't care if my as-yet-unborn grandkids understand how it happened, or who was most responsible. All that will count – to them, to me, to everyone else – will be enjoying the pleasures of a better waterfront.

Whether future generations know the history behind the change will matter less than the reality of it. The hordes who this summer walked past an excavated Commercial Slip on their way to Thursday at the Harbor concerts did not silently thank the activists who saved the site's history. But they enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Just as many of those same people may someday gaze skyward and see not Skyway but sky.

The waterfront highway-on-stilts is a blast from the past that roadblocks the future. It is an obsolete anachronism that holds back development, takes people away from the waterfront instead of bringing them to it and lost its reason for being soon after it opened.

It will cost us tens of millions of dollars in the coming years to maintain the mistake. Every dollar will be an investment in the past that perpetuates a problem.

Other than that, I really like it.

Congressman Brian Higgins, the longtime waterfront champion, called again Monday for the Skyway's demise. With a planned cross-channel bridge and a revitalized backdoor-to-downtown Ohio Street in the works, the Skyway – built high to accommodate tankers that long ago stopped coming – will become a redundant dinosaur.

This is not just me talking. From Toronto to Milwaukee to San Francisco, sensible cities in recent years have dismantled elevated waterfront roadways. The Skyway this year was fourth on an urban experts' national hit list of obsolete, development-choking roadways. Higgins, the driving force behind recent waterfront revival, has long had it in his cross hairs.

"Do we stay stuck in the past, or do we move forward to a better place?" Higgins asked me, rhetorically, on a recent afternoon over coffee.

Predictably, the state DOT has its arms wrapped around every Skyway pier. The concrete-huggers cling to the 1950s relic the way naturalists revere a redwood, claiming it is a needed vehicle-carrier.

Yet the cost of prolonging the life of an anti-development relic – a DOT study put it at $117 million over the next 20 years – could be better spent on alternative roads and bridges. Beyond that, the Skyway, part of the legacy of master builder Robert Moses, undercuts the value of the prime waterfront property it looms above. Taking it down is addition by subtraction.

For Higgins, it is a mission. "I want to galvanize public support," Higgins said. "I think there's a growing confidence in our ability as a community to get profound changes implemented."

As John Norquist of Congress for the New Urbanism has told me: "Robert Moses' dead gray hands are still strangling the City of Buffalo."

CNU holds its annual conference here in 2014. It will only amplify the anti-Skyway chorus.

I look forward to, someday, telling my grandkids all about it.