The nation’s top transportation official said Buffalo should consider resurrecting at least a portion of the grand, tree-lined boulevard that once stretched 3 miles from Delaware Park to Martin Luther King Jr. Park – before it was replaced by an expressway that split the neighborhood.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said it’s incumbent on Buffalo and other cities to explore how to revive neighborhoods decimated by the urban renewal projects of the 1950s and ’60s.
In April, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced $6 million to complete a Department of Transportation study on the feasibility of covering a portion of the Kensington Expressway, also known as Route 33, and return it to a tree-lined parkway and promenade.
Doing so won’t come cheap: The 2012 DOT study showed a $600 million price tag in 2018 dollars for what was named Alternate D. It would deck the highway and create green space over a three-quarter-mile portion between East Ferry and Best streets.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was carved up,” Foxx told The Buffalo News. “The lingering effect of those kinds of decisions across the country was that there was poor connectivity in almost every way – from a neighborhood economic standpoint and from a community vitality standpoint.
“We have to help communities trying to reinvent themselves and reconnect themselves to find ways to do so,” Foxx said.
Foxx, who has been transportation secretary since April 2013, lived in a low-income, mostly African-American neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C., that was divided by a freeway. Transportation planners and community engineers routinely routed highways through minority and low-income neighborhoods as the preferred way to take cars off city streets, move people more quickly to airports and speed up the commute to and from the suburbs. As in Buffalo, it typically occurred over objections of the affected communities.
Foxx, who was Charlotte’s mayor before his current job and has eight months left in office under President Obama, said the issue of addressing the harm done by urban renewal also is timely.
“This is particularly important now because we will be replacing or rebuilding so much of our infrastructure,” Foxx said. “If we do it correctly, we can begin correcting some of the mistakes that were made, including to places historically underserved and neglected.”
Tanya Redmond, a retired phone company worker, remembers riding horses as a girl on Humboldt Parkway, surrounded by rows of Dutch elm and maple trees.
“There were beautiful trees that were straight on one side, and straight on the other,” Redmond said. “It was in the middle where the activities would take place. It was just a peaceful place. We always called it ‘the Park.’ ”
An estimated 300 trees were cut down to make way for the highway on the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parkway. Hundreds of families were forcibly relocated by the time the green respite from urban living disappeared by the mid-’60s and the below-grade expressway, with five bridges, divided the community.
“I feel angry that such a beautiful area was taken away from us. It was gorgeous,” Redmond said. “It split this part of our community up.”
Redmond’s father, Clarke Eaton Jr., was one of the first to advocate restoring the parkway as a way to make the community whole again.
“It was my father’s vision for 40 years, and he’s 81 now,” she said. “I pray he lives long enough to see a groundbreaking.”
Don Hill, who grew up on Humboldt Parkway, said the parkway’s destruction coincided with the flight of Jews, Italians, Germans and others to the suburbs.
Hill has many fond memories of the parkway, like walking to school in the wintertime.
“It was like walking through an Ansel Adams photo,” Hill said. “That’s why many of us who grew up in the area were just devastated. It was a spectacular parkway.
“They said it was ‘for the sake of progress,’ but it was just to get people from downtown out to the suburbs, and it didn’t matter to them what it did to the people living here.”
But Hill, 70, remains hopeful. “I’m happy for the movement to make this a Frederick Law Olmsted city, and to restore his vision to what it once was.”
Completing the study
The DOT study announced by Cuomo is the follow-up to the department’s preliminary engineering feasibility report issued in August 2012. It is expected to provide a more complete environmental assessment and detailed cost analysis.
Both studies came about as the result of community advocacy, including efforts by the Restore Our Community Coalition and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.
Karen Stanley Fleming, ROCC’s executive director, said the study will point the way to the best course of action. That could mean supporting the decking and green space between East Ferry and Best streets, Fleming said, or another approach that reconnects the entire span between Delaware and Martin Luther King Jr. parks.
Fleming said more than the sheer economic cost needs to be weighed.
“You have to look at the investment and the repairing of a community that was destroyed,” she said. “This is going to bring back a neighborhood and improve property values.”
A 2014 economic study prepared by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute’s Urban Design project found there would be a significant economic impact from an increase in property values along the parkway, higher tax revenues and hundreds of construction jobs.
“We think the time is now to move on this, and we are very excited that this is exactly the type of project Secretary Foxx is speaking of,” Fleming said.
Peoples-Stokes, who pushed for both DOT studies, said the waterfront’s resurgence gives her confidence the parkway can also come back to life.
“Urban areas don’t thrive when you take everything out of them,” Peoples-Stokes said. “They thrive when you put everything in them.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said it took years and many incremental steps to turn the waterfront around, and suggested it may be necessary to start with a smaller area such as Northampton Street to Best to get things going along Humboldt Parkway.
“Projects like this need a start, not a finish, and I think the Best Street corridor is going to be very, very important,” Higgins said, noting its proximity to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Buffalo Museum of Science, City Honors School and the Johnnie B. Wiley sports complex. “If we could get that done in a decade, I think it would demonstrate tangible progress, and be a major contribution to righting that historical wrong.”
Higgins said there’s a reasonable chance that a massive investment will be made in the nation’s aging roads, bridges and rail in the coming years, with the prospect of federal funding for large infrastructure projects like this one.
When Cuomo announced the $6 million study on April 6 at the Buffalo Museum of Science, it was met with loud cheers from the audience.
“Most places have reversed their mistakes, and that’s what we are going to be doing here,” Cuomo told them.
Later, the governor told The Buffalo News it was possible for the state to provide significant funding for the project.
“These transportation projects – you bond them, they’re done over time, and they’re doable,” Cuomo said.
Foxx said there are federal dollars that could be of assistance, pots of money that Higgins said he’s looking at.
Fleming said having the federal transportation secretary recognize the importance of what happened in places like Buffalo means a lot.
“We understand Secretary Foxx’s personal experience, and we very much appreciate his vision for reconnecting communities,” Fleming said.