Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Armchair Planning: The Scajacuada Expressway

 "Run the 198 up Nottingham?"

"Exactly, it would be easy to-."

"You're crazy man. There's no way that would ever get done."

"No, I'm telling you, it's an easy fix-."

"No, I'm telling you; it will never happen."


These are the kinds of discussions that typically occur between arm-chair urban planners. A topic will come up (for instance: any mid-century "improvement" to Buffalo infrastructure), and then the participants will duke it out in debate, citing studies they've read, demographic statistics, moral arguments, and finally if their logical arguments held no sway... yelling, until the other party acknowledges their Olmstedian genius.

It is seldom ever the case, however, that these kinds of plans can or ever will be enacted, but they are fun to talk about. Hypothetical projects without budgets usually are.

Currently plans are being developed to "downgrade" the Scajacuada to a parkway, meaning lower speeds, more aesthetic environments, and hopefully, a restored Olmsted Park. Currently, Assemblyman Sean Ryan is taking input from the public on the plans, and I would urge everyone to go and give their opinions, as well as push for the best possible parkway solution.

...But, while I have you here, I may as well share my APS (Armchair Planning School) inspired Scajacuada Design.

The Completed Olmsted Parkway System in 1896
When Olmsted laid out the Buffalo Park System, the centerpiece was Delaware Park, its prominence recognized in its original name, "The Park." Designed in 1869 and expanded throughout the following decades, The Park and the rest of the parkway system spread throughout Buffalo, addressing the one issue the best planned city in America had forgotten: its environs.

A sketch of Olmsted's vision for "The Park"
The head and heart of that system was Delaware Park, one half centered around "The Lake" (Hoyt), and the other around "The Meadow," which features a golf-course and playing fields today. They had paths to walk and drive carriages along, but it was not intended as a thoroughfare: unlike many of the streets around it, the park was not included in the city's extensive streetcar system. By 1960, the park was bordered by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (the History Museum) and the Albright Knox Art Gallery.

Arial Photograph of the Albright Knox and History Museum
Prior to the construction of the Scajacuada Expressway
In 1958, the burgeoning population in Buffalo's suburbs and peripheral neighborhoods prompted the destruction of the Humboldt Parkway, the most beautiful and expansive in the city, for the Kensington Expressway, a concrete canyon that split Buffalo in half. This shift of priorities toward easing traffic congestion at the expense of Olmsted's system established a terrible precedent for how to handle his most important contribution to the city.

Even with this in mind, it may still come as a surprise that city planners would decide to run a highway through the middle of a gorgeous park. In 1962 however, the Scajacuada Expressway was completed, connecting the Kensington to the also recently-completed Interstate 190. The park design was sacrificed so that commuters could maintain a 50-MPH speed limit straight through the middle of neighborhoods, directly at the expense of one of Buffalo's greatest features.

The current Elmwood exchange layout
The current plans address many of the concerns brought up already; reducing speeds along the expressway, creating more pedestrian-friendly crossings, increasing green space. Still, from the Armchair Planner's perspective, they don't seem to be doing as much as they can, particularly in regards to the Elmwood/Lincoln Parkway exchanges.

Unlike the portion of the 198 that bisects Forrest Lawn Cemetery and The Meadows, this section currently has very limited non-car functionality, with only one option for bikes, and only two pedestrian crossings. Even more pressing is the excessive use of ramps: in this quarter-mile stretch, there are six ramps to enter and exit the expressway (this total jumps to nine if you include the ramps on Delaware). Under the current redesigns, the most progressive plans only eliminate two ramps in the Elmwood exchange, though all eliminate the unnecessary bridge to exit north on Elmwood.

But is that progressive enough? Is that good enough to not only restore Olmsted's park, but to reestablish Delaware Park as one of the premier parks in the country?

I don't think so. Here is my vision (sorry for the poor rendering-- I'm just starting my education at Armchair Graphic Design School) for the new section:
Armchair Planning School Design 1

Eliminate the entire section of the 198 through this portion of Delaware Park. Reroute traffic (now moving at 30 MPH along a boulevard) down Nottingham, where they can access the remainder of the 198 after passing through the Elmwood intersection near the Museum. It eliminates nearly all of those wasteful exchanges, still allows easy access to the remainder of the 198, and increases public space drastically. Currently the Scajacuada cuts off a huge chunk of green space along the creek; with this change, it not only gives access, but increases the space exponentially.

An even more progressive design would eliminate all portions of the 198 between Delaware and Elmwood. Based on this design, reincorporate the Delaware bridge into a park-only path (currently truncated), and have that connect all the way back to Lincoln Parkway for bike and pedestrians. Traffic would utilize a roundabout, then find alternate routes to reach the remainder of the 198: either traveling down the full length of Nottingham from Delaware, or, gasp, traveling down other city streets.

Current Configuration

The Armchair Planning School Design 2
Of course, this leads to several problems. If you reroute traffic up Nottingham, suddenly you pass by some of the most valuable homes in Buffalo, and won't they oppose this kind of design? Well, I suppose they will, but by my count, there are only 27 houses along the whole stretch of Nottingham from Delaware on, and only 10 near the section that passes behind the museum. This park belongs to more than a handful of citizens, but more importantly, can any one of those homes say their current view (an Urban Renewal highway) is more ideal than a slight increase in traffic?

Won't the Department of Transportation have something to say about this, seeing as the road currently handles between 37,000 and 70,000 cars per day? I'm sure they will, but seeing as I-90, I-190, and the 33 already provide high speed travel, and Delaware Ave, Main Street, Niagara Street, and Filmore, Baily, Michigan already essentially operate as highways, is this section really that important for moving traffic?

But, you might ask, if you're going to cut out a huge chunk of the highway to fix the park, what's the point of having the Scajacuada at all?

Indeed, that might be the biggest question of all.

Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

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