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Other Cities Do It, Why Can't We? | Commentary

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Other Cities Do It, Why Can't We?
Other Cities Do It, Why Can't We?

The post-World War II highway construction boom that blasted its way through urban American neighborhoods in the latter half of the 20th century achieved its goal of streamlining automotive traffic, all right, but it had unintended consequences as well. Divided neighborhoods, urban flight, lost waterfront access, degraded quality of life -- all these ills have been blamed on the transportation miracle that tied America together in a ribbon of asphalt.

From the destruction of Humboldt Parkway and the sundering of the East Side to make way for the Kensington Expressway, to the as-yet unhealed wound known as the Scajaquada Expressway that cuts through Delaware Park and Forest Lawn Cemetery all the way across the West Side to the Niagara River shoreline, Buffalo must certainly be counted among the victims of well-intentioned but disastrous efforts to replace living spaces with high-speed thoroughfares.

Salon magazine is reporting that many of these aging automotive edifices are approaching middle age and cities from sea to shining sea are considering eliminating the roads rather than spending the money to rebuild them.

The drive to tear down the huge freeways that many blame for the inner-city blight of the ’60s and ’70s is one of the most dramatic signs of the new urban order. Proponents of such efforts have data to show that freeway removal is not at all bizarre, that we can return to human-size streets without causing a gridlock apocalypse. 

Ambitious plans in St. Louis, New Orleans, Trenton and the Bronx seek to recreate the successes enjoyed by San Francisco and Milwaukee when those cities eliminated highly trafficked but highly intrusive urban highways.

Buffalo had a similar opportunity in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s when the New York State Thruway Authority engaged in a $1 billion construction project to rebuild the entire length of the I-190 Niagara Section of the Thruway. Neighborhood advocates embraced a plan to redirect an approximately two-mile stretch of the riverfront portion of the road, between the Scajaquada Expressway and its terminus at the I-290 Youngmann Memorial Highway, onto an inland route, following the course of an abandoned railroad line (highlighted in red above).

The plan would have reunited the Black Rock and Riverside neighborhoods with their waterfronts, a union that had been severed when the Niagara Section was completed in the late 1950s. Highway builders had to bulldoze a colorful neighborhood known as the Towpath that had grown up along the banks of the Niagara River to make way for the high-speed connector. The Towpath was a melange of saloons and rod-and-gun clubs, boathouses and baitshops, many of which were squatting on New York State-owned property at the time. The Towpath had been built on a filled-in section of the river-hugging Erie Canal, hence its name.

Then-Congressman Henry Nowak was able to obtain funds for an engineering feasibility study in 1994, after the Thruway Authority proposed redirecting that stretch of highway away from the waterfront, but a witch's brew of bureaucratic inertia, opposition from the railroad that owned the inland corridor and community in-fighting killed the idea. Instead of freeing up one of the most scenic portions of Buffalo’s riverfront and giving two blighted city neighborhoods a chance at a new life, the big mistake that misguided urban planners had inflicted on Buffalo in the 1950s was repeated in concrete and steel, probably for another half-century at least.

Meanwhile, the New York State Department of Transportation is spending $1.4 million on upgrades to the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, an automotive blight on the northern part of the river, even as the New York State Department of Parks is spending another $700,000 trying to decide whether or not to eliminate the highway.

Buffalo could have been at the forefront of a new era in urban planning. But then, we wouldn’t be Buffalo, would we?

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