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Advocates push for Scajaquada Creek's resuscitation as part of expressway redesign

Advocates push for Scajaquada Creek's resuscitation as part of expressway redesign

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The polluted, nearly stagnant water oozes around rows of concrete pillars, five abreast, in a channel narrowed decades ago at the western end of Scajaquada Creek to make way for the Scajaquada Expressway.

It's an ugly remnant of what was once a scenic, healthy creek that supplied the city drinking water and offered a place for respite and recreation.  

Scajaquada Creek (copy)

A restored Scajaquada Creek could turn SUNY Buffalo State into a waterfront campus. 

Could it be restored? Some say yes, as the idea of revitalizing the Scajaquada Creek corridor gains traction as part of an expansive redesign of the Scajaquada Expressway, also known as Route 198. 

Rectifying one of the most polluted waterways in New York State, proponents say, would provide healthy greenspace for residents and restore habitat for wildlife. The creek's renewal would also spur economic development in the West Side and Black Rock neighborhoods and turn SUNY Buffalo State into a waterfront campus, supporters say.

Doing this, however, would require a major change: removing the Scajaquada Expressway between Elmwood Avenue and Niagara Street, including the tangle of highways and on- and off-ramps at Niagara and Tonawanda streets, where the expressway and I-190 intersect.

A regional transportation agency, working with the state Department of Transportation, expects to release three scenarios for redoing the corridor by March as a prelude to making a decision about how to proceed. Each scenario is expected to go beyond simply looking at how best to move automobiles, a focus that ruined past attempts to gain public support.   

"The 198 redesign is not simply a transportation problem to solve, or a public debate about a small road, a big road, a bigger road or an expressway," said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper and a member of the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition. "It is our last and best chance to enable the creek's restoration."

'13-mile-long man-made natural disaster'

The 13-mile creek begins in the Town of Lancaster and runs through Depew and Cheektowaga before being diverted into an underground culvert. The tributary reemerges in Forest Lawn, flows into the Black Rock Canal and empties into the Niagara River. 

The creek has long been polluted by sewage overflows and stormwater runoff from Lancaster to Buffalo.

Cheektowaga and the Buffalo Sewer Authority have made headway to curb the problem, but much remains to be done. Additional help is coming from federal infrastructure dollars expected to reach Western New York in 2022, though the region may have to compete for some of the funding. 

"It is literally a 13-mile-long man-made natural disaster," Jedlicka said. "This is what a century of bad decisions and community planning and infrastructure will get you." 

Scajaquada Creek (copy)

Supports from the Scajaquada Expressway clog the western end of the Scajaquada Creek as dirty, stagnant water wades by. The redesign of the Scajaquada Expressway could lead to its elimination from Elmwood Avenue to Niagara Street. 

The creek owes its survival to its natural, clear groundwater, she said.

But the expressway has taken a toll on the creek, with the roadways and bridges built into a much narrower channel. Vehicles bring oil, grease and other unfiltered fluids, along with road salt in the winter.

"The creek is basically strangled by transportation infrastructure, because it's been bad decision layered upon bad decision for decades," Jedlicka said. 

Restoring the creek to good health will be complicated, time-consuming and expensive. 

That's because the creek's natural water course and adjoining flood plain have been "so manipulated and buried and channelized and disrupted for literally 100 years," Jedlicka said.

Unlike the Buffalo River, which Waterkeeper has worked to clean up for three decades, the creek doesn't have a defined jurisdiction.

Several agencies and municipalities are involved. They include the State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Town of Cheektowaga, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Buffalo Sewer Authority, "because the creek is basically functioning as a sewer," Jedlicka said.

"There are a lot of players, but (its recovery) is not unachievable," she said.

Seeking a 'clear vision'

Proponents say addressing the waterway as part of the expressway's redesign can set the stage for addressing other parts of the creek.

That includes the East Side, which, though hard to picture now, was a waterfront community a century ago, before the polluted creek that was prone to flooding was buried in a giant 30-foot pipe.

There have been successes, most notably in Forest Lawn. Waterkeeper recently completed a successful $8 million project to bring back the creek's floodplain and re-create a wetland.

Forest Lawn

Ducks swim in a restored part of Scajaquada Creek in Forest Lawn.

Waterkeeper also hopes to eventually restore the creek's natural water course at Hoyt Lake.   

Widening and restoring the creek where the expressway now stretches, along with sewer and other ecological improvements, would be the catalyst for addressing the whole creek, Jedlicka said.

"If we have a clear vision of 5, 10 or even all 13 miles of this creek, we can design our communities and our transportation system around what Mother Nature intended, in a way that they can coexist," Jedlicka said. 

That would mean putting an end to the sewer overflows, the stagnant water, floating trash and legacy contamination.

"The frustrating part with a lot of our region's water quality issues is that we know what the problems are for the most part, and we know what the solutions are," Jedlicka said. "We succeeded with the Buffalo River when nobody thought it was possible, and we can certainly do so with Scajaquada Creek."

The bigger picture 

Removing the expressway from Elmwood to Niagara is one component of a larger plan that supporters say would boost neighborhoods and address historic wrongs.

The Scajaquada Corridor Coalition also calls for re-creating the at-grade, tree-lined Humboldt Parkway east from Delaware Park removed more than a half-century ago, and returning to an at-grade city street by the park west from Agassiz Circle to Elmwood Avenue.

The park road would allow people to cross the street at intervals, reduce the noise level and lower automobile traffic. The coalition, including Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, want to see a portion of the road pass through a tunnel so parkgoers can walk from the park's meadow to the lake without leaving the park.

The changes to the expressway would require traffic to be rerouted through the existing street grid built for a city with a larger population and more car activity than today. Realigning some streets and making other infrastructure improvements would also be needed.

New traffic engineering studies from the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, the agency leading the review process, bolsters the case for removing and altering the expressway completed in 1962, proponents say.

More people get on and off the expressway like a city street than use it as a thoroughfare, according to traffic studies. Just 19% of eastbound travelers drive the full length of the expressway, and only 8% of westbound vehicles travel all the way to the other end, the studies found. Only 18% of trips are for work.

The expressway is busier in the middle of the day than during morning rush hour, and traffic has been lower over the past five years than at any time in the last two decades, studies found. 

"The studies being done looking at traffic patterns show that removing the expressway is not going to be the 'carmegeddon' some people anticipate," said Barbara Rowe, board president of Vision Niagara, an advocacy group for the Niagara Street corridor.

Waterfront campus

SUNY Buffalo State is receptive to the prospect of a renewed creek on its doorstep.

"We're the only urban-engaged campus in the SUNY system that doesn't have any recreation or green space," said Laurie Barnum, vice president for finance and management. "It would give a different sense and feel and destination to our campus.

"We want to be seen as a place for people to come and not just a place to take classes," she said.

Plans by the college to redevelop the city's auto impound on Dart Street could be enhanced by a nearby, restored creek. Extending Letchworth Street and connecting to the Jesse Kregal Pathway that runs the length of the creek, as it passes the college, is something the college would look into, she said.

SCC Revitalized Scajaquada Creek Corridor

Scajaquada Creek Corridor: This rendering faces east, along the former Scajaquada Expressway in the vicinity of Wegmans on Amherst Street, overlooking Scajaquada Creek. SUNY Buffalo State appears as a revitalized waterfront campus.

Rehabilitating the creek is also seen as enhancing the Museum District, which includes the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Buffalo History Museum and the Richardson Olmsted Campus.

"Scajaquada Creek is an integral part of the environment that the Albright-Knox has called home for more than 100 years," said Joe Lin-Hill, the deputy director. "The proposed revitalization of the Scajaquada corridor is an inspiring vision for Buffalo's future."  

Rowe sees contaminated or underused land in Buffalo and Black Rock as ripe for economic development with a renewed creek.

"We have opportunities for using that water and land in so many ways," Rowe said.

A revitalized creek would reconnect communities and boost local business growth, said Mary Ann Kedron, past president of the Black Rock Riverside Alliance. But she said it can be challenging for people to imagine what a creek they don't have familiarity with can offer.  

"We have had generations that haven't seen the creek in its glory, so we have difficulty envisioning what it can be," Kedron said.

Michael DeLuca, an architect and urban planner at Cannon Design, said improvements to the Buffalo River show what's possible with the creek. 

"Look at Ohio Street and all of the investment that occurred there because people could touch the water," DeLuca said.

Mark Kubiniec, past president of Grant-Amherst Business Association, said it's time for the creek to be treated with the same regard as the Buffalo River and the Inner Harbor.

He believes the street grid, with some enhancements, will allow for greater connectivity between neighborhoods and provide benefits long overlooked by the desire to move automobiles quicker.

"It might be a few extra blocks here and there, but the grid connections work," Kubiniec said. "It's a small price to pay for vastly improved communities and a restored creek."

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News. 

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Related to this story

The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy wants New York State officials to re-think its plan to convert the Scajaquada Expressway into a lower-speed boulevard. The conservancy expressed concern Monday that the State Department of Transportation was nearing a design decision without additional public review for the 2.2 miles of Route 198 between Parkside Avenue and Grant Street. The conservancy called

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