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Post-Skyway proposal borrows from Buffalo's past to design its future

Post-Skyway proposal borrows from Buffalo's past to design its future

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Post-Skyway --the Terrace

This rendering shows the restoration of the Terrace, Buffalo's first public park, where the Skyway is now. It's preceded by a promenade and public square by St. Anthony's Church, behind City Hall. 

There's been a lot of focus on whether to take down the Skyway.

A new proposal from a preservation group focuses on what might take its place.

The proposal from the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture reaches back to the 1800s for inspiration while erasing the damage it sees from the highway and urban renewal projects in the 1950s and '60s. It encompasses 12 acres that would become available with the removal of the downtown side of the Skyway ramps, highway and supports.

Perhaps most stunningly, the Erie Canal would be reestablished between Pearl and Erie streets. Buffalo's first public park known as the Terrace would be restored from Erie to Court streets, including a promenade between Church and Genesee streets.

The plan also calls for re-creating the historic Canal District by bringing back a neighborhood with small-scale apartments and other structures. 

A public square once located by St. Anthony's Church would be reestablished. Canal Street would be restored and so would the Union Block, which had a documented stop on the Underground Railroad.

The #BNdrone provides a unique view of the Skyway, built in 1953, a 110-foot-tall highway connecting downtown Buffalo to the Outer Harbor on Route 5. Its height was to accommodate the massive lake freighters that pass beneath to reach grain elevators in the Buffalo River and Shipping Channel. Loathed by many for the way it cuts off access to the waterfront, there is increasing talk of plans to demolish the highway.

The Cloudwalk, a part of the plan released in February, calls for retaining 80% of the Skyway as a bike and pedestrian access route and observation deck that heads south from the DL&W train shed. 

"The scope of the plan may seem vast, but it is small compared to what Buffalo lost in the 1950s and 1960s from combined highway and urban renewal projects," said Tim Tielman, the group's executive director. "It was urban malpractice, and Buffalo has been in an induced coma since.

"The aim is to reclaim Buffalo's heritage, economic advancement and a measure of social equity," Tielman said. For the full plan, go to https://greaterbuffalo.blogs.com.

Post-Skyway -- Erie Canal

The view of the Erie Canal from Erie Street and the top of the railroad tunnel, with the building on the right showing the same mass and material of the former Revere House hotel. 

Construction for the Skyway began in 1951. Planners classified the area around it as the Waterfront Urban Renewal Area and marked it for "total clearance," leading to the removal of 292 acres of homes and businesses. 

That created a dead zone. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo believes that after a half-century the area could again teem with neighborhood vitality and economic activity, Tielman said.

Whether the plan – or perhaps a part of it, such as restoring the Terrace or the canals – can gain traction remains to be seen.

Skyway

The Skyway interchanges with I-190 before leading into downtown Buffalo from the Outer Harbor near Seneca One.

There is considerable momentum to remove the Skyway.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo initiated a process to do that in 2019, and a fast-tracked environmental review is on schedule to be finished this year.  

“We are taking down the Skyway, an idea first proposed 50 years ago and creating a spectacular park overlooking Lake Erie," Cuomo said in his State of the State speech in January. "Our construction team is ready to break ground as soon as the federal approval comes through."

Tielman said the project should be viewed as a land reclamation project occurring on what's mostly state-owned land.

"This is a great opportunity for all state agencies to work very hard to undo the damage that Gov. Cuomo admits the highways caused," he said.

He said the most critical step is to restore all the public rights of way.

"Once you plat out the streets it really helps shape what comes after," Tielman said. "The key thing for us is the streets and canalways. Those should never be built on or compromised. If there isn't money in the budget for the Erie Canal, leave it open for future reconstruction."

Post-Skyway -- Cloudwalk

Campaign for Greater Buffalo's plan calls for retaining the Skyway from the DL&W Terminal south the rest of the way for pedestrians and bicyclists and as use as an observation deck. The removal of the downtown Skyway ramps and road would free up a dozen prime acres for reuse. 

The removal of the Skyway has the support of Rep. Brian Higgins, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and is expected to have a big say in the allocation of a big infrastructure plan advanced by President Biden and now under discussion in Congress.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, is also strongly in favor. 

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and five other Western New York Assembly members wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, saying attention needed to be given to the Kensington Expressway, and the harm it did to a Black neighborhood in bulldozing Humboldt Parkway, before the Skyway.

Higgins believes there will be enough federal dollars to do both, as well as making changes to the Scajaquada Expressway and addressing the harm it has done to Scajaquada 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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