Monday, February 11, 2013

Highways and Skyways

Photo of the Skyway courtesy of Wikipedia
For a city like Buffalo, the placement of thruways and arterial highways throughout the downtown core is just one part of a much larger laundry list of problems that will need to be addressed over the next decade. However, in light of the "Buffalo Billion," and all the plans unveiled last week, it is a good time to begin considering how the city will handle its aging infrastructure.

Over the last year, The Atlantic Cities has had a number of articles handling the issue of highways and the urban landscape, including this one published last March. Unlike other views of highways, this article does raise the point that interstate highways have been beneficial for national growth by encouraging travel between cities, but quickly returns to the fact that highways and cities themselves do not mix well.

The article is short, and worth a full-read, but a quick summary is as follows:

  • Highways are less efficient, or just as efficient, at moving traffic through high-density areas as non-highways, but seldom more efficient except during non-peak hours.
  • Highways have destroyed historic fabric in cities, resulting in the destruction of 335,000 houses during the first decade of the Eisenhower Interstate System, often through minority (primarily African American) neighborhoods, destroying business, livelihoods, and communities. 
  • Highways have created physical barriers between different parts of cities, with property values decreasing significantly the closer to the highways, often ensuring impoverished communities remain blighted by disinvestment and crime. 
Interestingly, this is not how it was intended, as the article links to a memo by President Eisenhower that explicitly stated his dissatisfaction about highways running through "congested areas." The article notes that cities around the country have been taking strides to rectify these divisive scars in urban areas, and in November, the website ran another piece that emphasized the efforts of San Francisco and other cities to remedy this problem.

Buffalo can actually learn a great deal from San Francisco's example. When an earthquake damaged a section of Interstate 880 in 1989, rather than repair the structure (which had the same divisive qualities and damage to property values as noted with most highway systems), the city chose to replace it with a tree and palm-lined boulevard with options for rail, bike, and cars that highlights, rather than hides, its shoreline. As a result, the area has seen a great deal of investment, and is one of San Francisco's most popular areas. 

Buffalo is currently experiencing a revival in its waterfront, headlined by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation's work to make the harbor the forefront of Buffalo's summer festivities, the announcement of the Webster Block, and the reskinning of the Donovan Building and the restoration of the historic Canalside. Coupled with the corporate and event park at Larkinville, as well as the attention to the Ohio Street Corridor, Buffalo is seeing a great deal of investment.

As it stands, it seems clear that the Skyway is not stopping investment, but who is to say that it wouldn't be better? There seems no better time to address this question than now, while the DOT is considering alternatives to the hulking structure, and implement some of the successes of other cities. In particular, with groups actively looking to develop the Outer Harbor for a variety of uses, including an Olmsted-inspired 21st-century waterfront park, as well as plans that would help bring some of the recent development across the water, plans that would help bring some of the recent development across the water, and even may help resolve stadium issues with the Buffalo Bills. 

Taking note of the success San Francisco has had with their waterfront, wouldn't now be the time to take a look at a multi-modal transportation system that still moves traffic, but incorporates other means of transportation to and from the Inner and Outer Harbor? Wouldn't now, with plans circulating that will lead to new investment along Ohio Street and the 400-acre area along Fuhrman Boulevard, be the time to encourage growth with great infrastructural changes, considering the investment we see right now in the Harbor where development appears to occur in spite of poor infrastructure like the Skyway?

For other parts of the city, infrastructure changes could help reverse a half-century of neglect. The conversion of the Humbolt Parkway, which ran through a then-thriving African American neighborhood (note the similarity to the destruction of prominent minority communities in Nashville, New York City, and elsewhere as mentioned in the AC article) to the Kensington Expressway caused the same plummeting property-values near highways and arterials experienced throughout the country, perpetuating a physical barrier of segregation in the city that begins at Main Street. Not only was it a prominent component of the Olmsted Park System, but it connected neighborhoods and helped foster community in an area that has since lost an incredible amount of density and seen nothing of the investment currently experienced by West and South Buffalo. 

It is no wonder that as calls to tear down the Skyway ring out, similar ideas concerning the future of the Kensington were expressed by activists and politicians alike. Mayor Byron Brown, resident of the Hamlin Park historic district (currently being elevated from local to the National level by Preservation Studios), noted in 2010 that filling in portions of the Kensington Expressway and restoring some sections of the parkway, would help promote investment in the area, a concept that seems to have traction considering the success in other parts of the city. David Torque's blog Fix Buffalo, featured a multi-part series following discussions concerning the parkway as well. 

The fact remains, however, that Buffalo's past mistakes are coming back to haunt them. Boulevards like Humboldt Parkway are being proposed as highway replacements throughout the country, and if Buffalo were to follow, the Kensington Expressway would be a bitterly ironic mulligan of development. The Skyway, a product of the same urban renewal program that destroyed the sprawling Italian Colony west of City Hall, was listed #4 on the Congress of New Urbanism's "Freeways Without Futures," noting that while investment on the Inner Harbor continues, it is hampered by the non-traditional street-grid forced onto it by the highway, and that Outer Harbor development would be greatly facilitated by non car-dependent means of access. 

Speaking with a resident on the East Side recently, he noted that while he was encouraged by Buffalo's recently growth, "as long as we stay where we are, and don't get worse, I'll be happy."

Buffalo doesn't have to maintain the status quo, and if it follows some proven examples in other cities, it could continue the positive trends of the last decade, and reassert itself at the National-level as something other than another rust-belt city with a golden past.

In fact, it could become recognized for what it really is: a city with a bright future. 

Written by Derek King, an Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios. 

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