Bringing Back an Olmsted Parkway
A recent interview conducted by Mike Puma was featured in the April 2015 edition of the Buffalo Spree Magazine.
Picture the Hamlin Park neighborhood in the winter of 1959. As a light snow falls, resident Donnee Hill steps out of his house, feeling the fresh snow crunch under his feet. The mighty elm trees overhead seem to go on forever and create a snow-covered canopy as far as he can see. As he takes a moment to gather himself, he realizes that Humboldt Parkway, where his family has recently bought a house, is one of the most beautiful streets he’s ever seen.
Over fifty years later, when Hill leaves the same home on Humboldt Parkway, he’s now confronted with the Kensington Expressway. Even though he only had a few short years to enjoy the parkway, his memories are vivid. “Walking the parkway was like being in an Ansel Adams photograph,” he says. “When the trucks came in 1962, it was devastating.”
Looking back on that day and so many others like it, Hill remembers the paradise that once was Humboldt Parkway—and he’s not the only one. A movement that has been decades in the making—to restore Olmsted’s vision for his longest and grandest parkway—is gaining traction in Buffalo. Dedicated community members who want Humboldt Parkway returned for future generations to enjoy have organized as the Restore Our Community Coalition.
Tell me about the Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC)—what are you trying to achieve?
Clarke Eaton (founder/board member): To bring back to the neighborhood what was here before the expressway destroyed Humboldt Parkway. I’ve lived in the community for the past forty-eight years, and, like any person who loves their home, I want to see the best for it. I raised my daughter here and she raised her son here. This is something we want for future generations. It’s time for us to go back and restore the beauty of the parkway. I even remember the days we could pet horses still using the bridle path.
Stephanie Barber-Geter (board president): ROCC was formed five years ago, but Clarke has been involved in some form to restore the parkway as far back as the 1970s. I remember as a kid living downtown on Eagle Street when they took all the land, moved everybody, and built the Frederick Douglass Housing Projects, which was a big calamity. I remember a woman named Margaret Strasner, who had to move because of the project and moved to Humboldt Parkway. Unfortunately, with the expressway coming only a few years later, she went from one calamity to another. We’re still dealing with the effects today and need to fix it.
We’ve been reaching out to the community with our “I Remember” campaign, where residents recall the beauty of the parkway so we can have an identifiable face for the movement.
What’s the solution that ROCC has come up with to restore Olmsted’s vision?
CE: We thought we would turn and look at the economics of the situation. A restoration of the parkway would be beneficial on so many levels. It would create jobs and help maintain and improve the community, while, in turn, draw more people to the neighborhood.
SBG: We looked at every possible fix and we believe that covering the expressway is the way to restore the community and fix the residual effects it created, like the loss of business on Fillmore and Jefferson. It’s not our intent to disturb the flow of traffic with our solution. We don’t propose filling it in; we don’t think that makes sense. Capping the expressway allows us to reconnect the community, while still allowing easy access to downtown.
Why not just fill it in and be done with it? It seems like an opportunity to fix systemic problems of sprawl in our region.
SBG: For months, our meetings were just focused on how big this could possibly be, but we decided to have a more specific focus with the ultimate goal of restoring the parkway in the most feasible and least disruptive way. There was a big concern that removing the expressway would result in significant traffic on our streets and many folks along Humboldt Parkway wanted us to avoid that. We believe that filling it in places us too much at a disadvantage for even getting it started.
KSF: The design report that was produced by Professors Hata and Warren at UB was to first and foremost reconnect the neighborhood, almost like pulling up a zipper. If we fill it, and create heavy traffic at grade, then we’ve not closed the zipper and effectively reconnected the neighborhood.
This would be a pretty big project; what would be the first step?
SBG: Phase one would see the expressway capped from just south of the science museum all the way up to East Ferry. It would actually extend the parkway beyond where it was originally supposed to stop, but it’s an expansion on Olmsted’s original vision.
What about the rest of the parkway, since it went all the way to Delaware Park?
SBG: Phase two is more ambitious, and the groups we’ve had look at this have told us we can do some very interesting things with it. Because the expressway eventually becomes grade level past East Ferry, it would require some excavation. A part of that idea could include an extension of light rail that would allow people to get between downtown and the airport. That change in grade is due to the Scajaquada Creek being buried, which presents a challenge. There are a couple of thoughts about how to deal with it, and other projects have run into the same problem, like the big dig in Boston.
Speaking about the big dig, how much is this going to cost and where is the money coming from?
SBG: We’ve been working with a number around $500 million. It’s a lot of money, but we believe the money is out there within the state and federal governments.
Who are your political and community partners in this endeavor?
SBG: We’ve got a lot of politicians already involved and interested, thanks to the efforts of our executive director. The churches along the expressway have been very supportive, our various community organizations have been very involved, and all of our elected officials. We certainly have support from our Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Senators Kennedy and Schumer, and Congressman Higgins. The mayor and council even passed a resolution in support of the project. There are so many others like the people involved in removing the Robert Moses in Niagara Falls; we have a lot of people who want to help.
Although Sean Ryan doesn’t represent the district, he has been a friendly ally. I hope he’s able to keep the Scajaquada upgrade movement alive for the Parkside community. Speeding through a park just isn’t right, and something has got to give.
Do you think this project can have broader implication outside of Buffalo?
SBG: I think in a time when the president and elected officials are looking for infrastructure projects to put people to work, we look pretty good. The shelf life of the current expressway is fast expiring and it has serious issues that will need to be corrected eventually. A project like this is already necessary ,and employs a major number of people in our community for a long time. At this point in Buffalo, the city is coming alive and it should be coming alive for everyone.
KSF: This project could generate over 950 construction jobs for the entire course of work, which would be five to ten years. That number doesn’t include potential additional employment for infill housing, rehab work in the neighborhood, and improving Jefferson and Fillmore businesses. The potential ripple effects of this project are huge.
Mike Puma is a project manager at Preservation Studios.