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Ideas For the Waterfront and Beyond
by Raymond C. Vaughan
Buffalo needs to think big, consistent with its world-class status in various existing ways, and in preparation for a viable and vibrant future. Here are some things worth thinking about:
1. Skyway Park. At the same time as efforts continue to replace the Skyway with a lower-level connection to the Southtowns and points west, Buffalo should be developing plans to convert the Skyway to an elevated linear park. A design competition organized by UB’s Department of Architecture and Planning, open to students and professionals worldwide, would be a good first step. Some of the possible elements of such a plan would be a variety of gardens through which a biking-walking path extends, a single-track light rail spur that goes at least as far south as the Small Boat Harbor, a seasonal sledding hill on part of the south slope, a restaurant complex at the top which offers not only fine dining but a range of casual food, elevators to carry people up from street level at Marine Drive and/or Perry Street, a seasonal stream that meanders down through gardens on one or both slopes, and solar panels angled out from the bridge rails which would be tied to the grid and/or provide park-related power for elevators, pumping of water for the park’s stream, etc. Reusing the Skyway in this manner would preserve the unparalleled views it offers, avoid enormous demolition costs, create a unique addition to the city’s treasured park system, and serve as a truly iconic beacon to visitors from around the world.
2. Canalside/Inner Harbor. Current plans for Buffalo’s Canalside, particularly the former Memorial Auditorium site known as the Aud Block, either dismiss or overlook the fact that the site directly adjoins Amtrak’s New York-Albany-Buffalo-Niagara Falls-Toronto main line. Buffalo’s underdeveloped Exchange Street station is only a few steps away. Why not welcome visitors who come by rail to Canalside, and to downtown Buffalo generally, by integrating the below-grade portion of the Aud Block with the downtown station? The below-grade complexes of shops and restaurants adjacent to the stations in Toronto and Montreal, for example, provide attractive, bustling examples of what can be done. Track and platform expansion, if needed, might take a small portion of the Aud Block, yet most of that block would remain available for a shop-and-restaurant complex that would also serve as a weather-protected concourse for travelers and local residents alike. Such a complex, while below grade at Lower Terrace (leaving the land surface there available for other development), would be at street level at Marine Drive, thus employing the sloping site in a productive and visually interesting way. Those using the rail connection would include not only long-distance train passengers but also tourists intending to visit both Canalside and Niagara Falls.
3. An ongoing archaeology project. Buffalo’s unique history has left many intriguing artifacts waiting to be rediscovered. These stem from the city’s canal system from 1825 onward, its existence for many years as one of the world’s busiest ports, the Seneca Nation’s pre-1850 Buffalo Creek Reservation on which part of the city is built, the Hydraulics neighborhood where early industry intersected with the Senecas, and many other facets of Buffalo’s rich commercial, manufacturing, and cultural history. The city should partner with UB and the Seneca Nation to engage in a multi-decade archaeology project, based at a permanent downtown museum and lab, which would move progressively along former stream and canal corridors, and would also excavate other areas identified as early commercial hubs, unique industrial facilities, or places of particular cultural interest. The project, with its digs-in-progress and downtown headquarters open to the public, would showcase both the recovered artifacts and the methodical work that discovers, documents, and interprets them. Easements or acquisition of land would be prudent in the near future for parcels and corridors of interest, especially where land is currently vacant or underutilized.
4. “Daylighting” of tunnelized streams. Buffalo has at least two former free-flowing creeks—Scajaquada and Little Buffalo Creeks—that have been encased in tunnels and should be returned to their original natural state. Such waterways can complement and enhance city neighborhoods. Bringing them back to life would require a coordinated effort involving archaeology (see above), engineering to eliminate combined sewer connections, expertise in streambank ecology (e.g., from UB’s ERIE IGERT program), and especially the design input, employment, and general buy-in of neighborhood residents.
5. A new light rail leg from downtown to the airport. Buffalo’s existing light rail line can be extended northeastward toward the airport from its downtown end at HSBC Arena. The extension, mostly at-grade along former rail corridors, would serve the Larkin District, Broadway Market, Central Terminal, Walden Galleria, Buffalo-Niagara International Airport (and, beyond the airport, might even continue northwestward along the old Lehigh Valley right-of-way into Williamsville). Toronto’s original U-shaped subway system provides a general analogy for a transit system of this configuration. As an aside: Maintenance of transit service should be a high priority during severe weather.
6. Docking for lake passenger vessels. Buffalo has had no long-distance lake passenger service since the vessels I remember (the palatial overnight boat Greater Detroit and the somewhat smaller cruise ship South American) went out of service many years ago. However, at least two European cruise ships have visited other Great Lakes ports within the last decade, and, even though the market viability of Great Lakes cruises is not yet clearly established, Buffalo should remain attuned to this market and ensure that the city’s waterfront development plans will accommodate cruise vessels.
Some or all of these ideas should be part of the mix in Buffalo’s near-term planning.
Raymond C. Vaughan, Hamburg
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