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Streetscape project seeks to connect Allentown to Medical Campus

Leaders on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and in Allentown have worked for years, with mixed results, to forge closer ties between employees and visitors on the campus and the residents and business owners of the adjoining neighborhood.

It’s a goal that grew more complicated with the construction, along Main Street, of the University at Buffalo’s massive new medical school, which had the potential to further wall off the Medical Campus from Allentown.

But a team of planners, with community input and the cooperation of UB, has come up with a plan to extend and rebuild Allen Street in a way that encourages pedestrians and bicyclists to travel across both sides of Main Street.

Design work for the Allen Street Extension project should wrap up in the winter, with construction on the first phase likely to start in the spring and the City of Buffalo tapping into previously awarded funding for the $6.8 million project.

“This will be the first east-west movement that encourages people to engage themselves with Allentown, where they feel safe and secure, and also enhance people’s use of the transit station,” said Mark McGovern, senior project manager for the Medical Campus.

The initial plans for the project called for extending Allen Street from Main Street to North Oak Street to bring vehicle traffic onto the Medical Campus and to make it easier for campus workers and visitors to drive to restaurants and shops in Allentown.

That “gateway corridor” was part of the original master plan for the Medical Campus and was a longtime vision of the Allentown Association, said Jonathan White, the association’s president.

Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton led the effort to win nearly $7 million in federal transportation aid for the project.

However, UB, looking for a site for its new, $375 million medical school, settled in late 2011 or early 2012 on a parcel at Main and High streets, and construction of the school at that location pre-empted the full-vehicle extension onto the Medical Campus.

Instead, lead designer Bergmann Associates, working with the City of Buffalo, the Medical Campus, the Allentown Association, UB and community feedback, altered the plans to make the portion of the project on the campus, between Main and North Oak streets, a pedestrian- and bike-friendly, landscaped thoroughfare.

What is today a little noticed, and little used, walking path – between High and Carlton streets – will be revived with new lighting, new trees and flowers, wider sidewalks, benches and other improvements.

It will run underneath and through the new Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences building, which was designed with a large square opening – about 30 feet high and 60 feet wide – to allow pedestrians and cyclists to pass through.

UB officials tried to design the medical school building, which includes a new NFTA Metro station, to keep it from looking like a solid wall running along the campus, said Laura Hubbard, the university’s vice president for finance and administration. “I hope now that people from Allentown can really see what we were talking about: that it does invite you in, and it does feel nice and open,” Hubbard said.

Scaling back the plan from the more costly, full Allen Street extension to the less-expensive, landscaped pathway on the Medical Campus left organizers with more money than they needed from the original federal allocation, McGovern said.

That’s when they checked with the office of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, on whether they could use the leftover funding to rebuild Allen Street. There are also state and local shares.

Plans now call for a full reconstruction of Allen between Main and Wadsworth streets. Once it’s completed, the street will look similar to the 500 block of Main Street, said Michael Finn, city engineer for the city’s Department of Public Works, Parks and Streets.

Instead of a traditional sidewalk with a curb that sets it off from the parking and driving lanes, the sidewalk and parking lanes will be at the same level, Finn and White said. They will slope down several inches to the driving and biking lanes in the middle of the street through a feature known as a mountable curb. Use of different paving materials, line markings and posts known as bollards will also set off where the lanes begin and end.

This setup will make it easier for the association to block off parts of the parking lanes, for example, for special events without having to shut off the entire street to traffic, White said.

“It’s a radical redesign,” White said.

Work on this project was delayed as the UB medical school project moved forward, as the City of Buffalo, which is the lead agency, pursued other construction work across the city and as the Medical Campus completed a major, $6.5 million streetscape project along Ellicott Street, McGovern said. “The timing is now right,” he said.

Construction on the stretch between North Oak and Washington streets, which is estimated to cost $1.5 million, would begin in spring.

Work on the portion that runs underneath the Medical School must await the completion of that project, which is set to wrap up next year. That section has a separate funding source because it sits on the school footprint.

Work on the reconstruction of Allen Street between Main and Franklin streets would begin in 2018, Finn said.

The city has enough funding to complete that section of Allen Street, at a cost of $2.7 million, but must seek additional aid for the $4 million needed to complete the reconstruction out to Wadsworth Street, Finn said.

The rest of the $6.8 million committed to the project is being spent on design work, acquiring the rights of way, inspection and other expenses.

Barbara Hart, a former Allentown Association board member, sells contemporary artwork from her Studio Hart on Allen Street, but few of her customers are campus employees.

“As far as the people who are in business here, we’re all hopeful but a little nervous,” about the construction and the extension, she said.