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Don't Surrender The Front

Proposed Peace Bridge Plaza Threatens Buffalo's Most Dramatic Olmsted Park

The most important question has always been the plaza.

Building a beautiful new Peace Bridge that is modern in its aspect, efficient in its purpose, and cheaper to maintain in the long run makes good sense. But for all the 15 years that the expansion of Peace Bridge operations has been on the table, the greatest direct benefit to the city lay in the chance to redesign the Public Bridge Authority’s Customs operations, both in Canada and the United States.

The Conservancy's proposal seems to call for less than full reclamation

For roughly 10 of those 15 years, this city has hosted a truly public debate about the PBA’s expansion plans—what it ought to look like, where it ought to land on each side, what sort of Customs plaza will best handle the supposed increases in car and truck traffic that are, to begin with, the rationale for a new bridge and expanded plaza. That debate led to the killing of the PBA’s initial proposal for a steel twin span and a massive new plaza that would have consumed much of Front Park and the Columbus Park neighborhood. The planning process began all over again, and for the past six years, the janissaries of the PBA’s initial expansion plan have been compelled to give the citizens of both Buffalo and Fort Erie a seat at the table.

Because the argument over what the bridge itself would look like drew the greater public’s attention to the matter, bridge design was the first question resolved: A two-pier, cable-stay companion bridge designed by Swiss architect Christian Menn was chosen by a binational committee, which also settled on a bridge corridor just south of the existing bridge. The committee chose the southern bridge placement because it understood that the question of plaza design had been settled by a program called shared border management, which would remove all Customs operations from the US side of the bridge and place them in Canada.

Shared border management not only saved the city’s historic Columbus Park neighborhood; it also offered the City of Buffalo a priceless opportunity to restore one of the city’s tarnished jewels: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Front Park.

Once the most popular park in the city’s first-of-its-kind Olmsted park system, the Front has been subject to continous depredations since the Peace Bridge first opened in 1928, first by the PBA, then by the New York State Thruway and the City of Buffalo’s poor stewardship. Shared border management promised to remove at least the PBA’s bootprint from the park, and the expansion project seemed a likely opportunity to leverage funds for a restoration of the Front’s landscaping.

When the intractable Bush administration pulled the plug on shared border management last year, the PBA’s plaza plans regressed 10 years, returning to an expansionist proposal that lands like a bomb on the historic Columbus Park neighborhood and the Front. As a result, in the last six months the focus of the public debate over the Peace Bridge has turned to the plaza. (That is, until last week, when the common tern and the emerald shiner threatened o swallow Christian Menn’s cable-stay bridge design.)

A solid corps of Columbus Park residents has organized itself and mounted fierce opposition to the expansion, for which the PBA threatens to use its power of eminent domain. The number of houses the PBA will take has been a moving target, but Columbus Park residents argue that it doesn’t matter whether the PBA takes 80 houses or 120: The proposed plaza will destroy their neighborhood, and they won’t allow that to happen without a protracted fight. It is less than clear who will fight on behalf of the Front. The City of Buffalo ought to enter that fight, but Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown seems more concerned with getting a bridge and plaza done quickly than with getting the best deal for the city. Ostensibly the job ought to fall to the Olmsted Conservancy, whose mission “is to broaden awareness of, appreciation for, and investment in Buffalo’s Olmsted Park System…in order to enhance, restore and maintain this cultural treasure for the benefit of current and future generations.”

The Olmsted Conservancy hosts a community meeting tonight (Thursday, May 1), 6:30-8:30pm, at the West Side Community Services center, 161 Vermont St., to discuss the Peace Bridge expansion project and present its position on the matter. Will the Conservancy stand up and fight for full reclamation and restoration of the Front? Or will they go to the negotiating table bearing a compromise that surrenders this opportunity to reverse 80 years of neglect and degradation to a park that offers, in the words of Frederick Law Olmsted, “a river effect such as can be seen, I believe, nowhere else…a certain quivering of the surface and a rare tone of color, the result of the crowding upward of the lake waters as they enter the deep portal of the Niagara.”

Buffalo’s reason for being

In August of 1868, US Attorney William Dorsheimer of Buffalo, a Civil War veteran who later would be elected to Congress, invited the firm of Olmsted, Vaux & Co. to visit Buffalo and offer the city’s leadership advice on the construction of a new park. Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, had just finished Central Park in New York City, which was immediately both popular and famous. The leaders of emergent Buffalo, which had grown to be one of the 10 largest and richest cities in the US, were eager to engage the famous team.

Olmsted arrived in Buffalo on August 16, en route to Chicago, and Dorsheimer gave him a quick tour of three proposed sites for the new park. He returned to Buffalo a week later and told the committee steering the project—which included former President Millard Fillmore—that the city should acquire all three sites and build a citywide system of parks connected by treed boulevards.

“Buffalo was the first example of a sort of system of parks and parkways, which is really more like city planning. Whereas what he had done before was simply park design,” says Witold Rybczynski, author of A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (Scribner 1999). “It was really very unusual. The Boston plan is really the only other time that Olmsted had a chance to work on an urban scale, with parks and parkways. But in some ways the Buffalo plan is much more ambitious.”

It was also the first project that Olmsted conceived entriely on his own, without Vaux, who was in England when Olmsted came to Buffalo.

“Vaux and Olmsted of course worked together, so during their partnership it was difficult to know who did what,” says Rybczynski. “Although Olmsted is the better known today, they really did do everything together. This really does come from Olmsted. This is one where we really can say he was responsible for the whole thing.”

The plan—inspired in the main by the natural environment, and in part by the city’s radial street pattern laid out by Joseph Ellicott in 1804—became internationally famous almost immediately. Olmsted called Buffalo “the best planned city, as to its streets, public spaces and grounds, in the United States if not the world.” The plan won honorable mention at the 1878 Paris Exposition.

In 1887, Olmsted returned to Buffalo to expand the system, but it began with three, which he called the Parade (now Martin Luther King Jr. Park), the Park (now Delaware Park), and the Front. The Front was named appropriately: The high bluff over the Niagara River, Olmsted felt, represented the city’s greatest asset. The confluence of waters was the very rationale for both the city’s existence and its success, and so made an appropriate frontispiece to the system Olmsted created. It was from the beginning the most popular park in the system, drawing more than 5,000 visitors on weekends and more than 1,000 visitors on weekdays, according to the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy. The contours of the Front’s pathways swirled like an inland eddy in the river, extending north toward and then along the bluff as if to rejoin the current, narrowing to a pathway above the Niagara beside Fort Porter, with stunning views of the lake and river over the railroad rights of way. Then and now, the Front offers the finest sunsets in the city.

80 years of abuse

In its first 30 years, the Front was expanded and built upon. But in 1928, when the Peace Bridge opened, its contraction and slow demise began. In the 1950s, the PBA ate away more of the park from all three inland sides, while the New York State Thruway cut off the Front from the water that had helped Olmsted to define it. Over the past three decades, both the PBA and the Thruway have continued to nibble away at the Front. Acquiescing to and abetting these higher powers, the City of Buffalo has allowed the park to stagnate and disappear as well.

Made somewhat forbidding by the concrete desert that is the Peace Bridge plaza, the Front’s contours and pathways have all but disappeared or been compromised by neglect, poor planning, and the encroachment of public works projects that so often prefer easily acquired public land.

Now the Front is threatened again, not so much because the PBA plans to devour more of it; the PBA is looking to the surrounding neighborhood for the property it needs this time, and the Olmsted Conservancy says the PBA has earmarked $2 million to pay for improvements to what remains of the Front.

But a park, like a neighborhood, can be destroyed simply by its adjacency to the kind of infrastructure the PBA proposes. Exhaust and runoff make parks and neighborhoods unhealthy for humans and wildlife; noise and pavement make parks and neighborhoods unappealing and unpleasant. Notwithstanding the $2 million in improvements to the park’s landscaping, the PBA’s proposed plaza expansion may well complete the slow strangulation of the Front.

Is the Olmsted Conservancy’s bargaining position acquiescence to that fate or advocacy for the system’s restoration? Asked to explain for Artvoice readers the Conservancy’s position on the proposed Peace Bridge plaza, David Colligan, the Olmsted Conservancy’s new board chairman, replied by email: “Attend our meeting if you want to be informed as to our position. I don’t have time to fully explain this complex subject on an individual basis. Please respect that I still have a job.”

In his book, Rybczynski recounts that Olmsted believed a park was intended to change and even to expand over time—the pathways he built around Fort Porter certainly suggest he may have envisioned that military outpost some day being absorbed by the Front. It’s worked the other way around, of course, and the outside world has eaten into the Front. But Rybczynski argues it’s never too late to reclaim a park:

“What’s sort of interesting about a park, which is different from buildings I think, is that you really can re-create a park, and what you end up with isn’t a facsimile,” Rybczynski says. “When you restore a park, it’s not like when you re-create a building, which has an element of fakery about it. When you re-create a park, you can end up with something that’s just as real…the experience can be just as authentic as if the park had been there all the time.”

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