Buffalo Council Members Tour Milwaukee's Riverfront Redevelopment

Lessons for Buffalo's Lakeshore Found in Milwaukee's Park East Neighborhood

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It's one thing to read about a place, but there's no substitute for visiting and experiencing it for yourself. Confronted with questions about the removal of an elevated highway in their city, Buffalo Common Councilmembers Michael Kearns, David Franczyk, and Richard Fontana decided to get out in the field and learn from another city. Having heard about the extensive redevelopment efforts along the former Park East freeway corridor in Milwaukee, they were curious if there were any lessons that would be applicable along Buffalo's waterfront. Their trip couldn't have come at a better time given recent proposals from the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) calling for infrastructure changes that would perpetuate the anti-urban nature of the waterfront.

Joined by John Norquist, President and CEO of CNU and former Mayor of Milwaukee, they started out in the Third Ward, an up-and-coming waterfront neighborhood, and used the Riverwalk along the Milwaukee River to make their way through downtown to the site of the former freeway. Along the way, they discussed how the Riverwalk continually connects with the city street grid and how new buildings are now orienting themselves toward the river.

At Knapp Street, the tour group came upon the new at-grade bridge that replaced the Park East Freeway. The freeway, built in 1969, consumed 16 acres of downtown space and had long stagnated the surrounding property values. In 2002, the Park East Freeway was taken down in favor of a pattern of streets and blocks. The neighborhood is now rebounding with mixed-use development. Currently, a number of construction projects are occurring in the area with more in the pipeline.

The councilmembers remarked on how the city of Milwaukee effectively used infrastructure to promote the development of real destinations. Councilmember Michael Kearns, whose district in South Buffalo is cut off from the lake except for a few auto-oriented access points, explained his motivation for the trip: "It was a unique opportunity to learn from the progress that has been made by peer lakefront cities with post-industrial legacies."

Because of its strategic location at the confluence of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie, the city was shaped by the industry that sprouted along its waterways. But in the past half-century, deindustrialization has left vacant waterfront parcels just waiting for future use. Any future waterfront uses have been hindered, however, by the fact that Buffalo's downtown and neighborhoods are currently separated from the waterfront by massive highway infrastructure. Route 5 extends out of downtown via the Skyway Bridge and then continues as a grade-separated roadway running south along the lake. The waterfront should be a great asset to the city, but the freeway has turned it into a liability.

The Skyway, a four-lane bridge over the Buffalo River, reaches a height of 110 feet before dropping down to the Outer Harbor. It creates a wasteland of ramps and underutlized parcels between the fabulous architecture of Buffalo's downtown core and the lakeshore. The ramps and pylons create a confusing series of spaces abutting the downtown that no pedestrian would choose to make part of their daily walking routine.

And once the bridge touches down in the Outer Harbor, the road runs on top of a berm with only a couple of ways for cars to get off. The berm consumes a lot of acreage, destroying development potential and reducing pedestrian friendliness to practically zero.

Replacing the Skyway bridge with one or more at-grade lift bridges, much like Milwaukee has successfully done, would strengthen the connection between the downtown and the waterfront. At-grade bridges take up considerably less room, allowing Buffalo to fully utilize the Inner Harbor. And if the rest of Route 5 was brought down to a surface boulevard it would help foster development and allow connections between extensive natural areas and the lakefront.

But the NYSDOT has a plan in the works that reinforces the existence of the bermed portion of Route 5. Their plan for an improved surface access road is definitely headed in the right direction. But then they throw in two interchanges between Route 5 and the proposed parallel access road. The interchanges suggest that Route 5 is still needed even with the addition of the four-lane boulevard.

But this would mean that Buffalo's waterfront would be consumed with eight lanes of roadway in a configuration that will continue to hamper redevelopment efforts. In fact, if this proposal is carried through, the potential of fully utilizing the waterfront will be closed off for another 50 years. The plan lacks an understanding of how land use and transportation need to be integrated in order to create real destinations.

The volumes of traffic along Route 5 do not warrant all of this roadway. With roughly 40,000 vehicles a day, these volumes could easily be handled on a four-lane surface boulevard and along other more direct routes. Smart Mobility took an in-depth look at the traffic volumes -- check out their conclusions in "Assessment of Transportation Needs for Buffalo's Waterfront Redevelopment."

Councilmember Michael Kearns stated that "it is our belief that the City of Buffalo ought to partner with the State of New York to aggressively explore the possibility of removing the Skyway." John Norquist recommended that the city articulate a vision of what residents want along their waterfront. And then match that vision with an appropriately-scaled surface street network. Norquist explained that the NYSDOT plans were very similar to early recommendations for the Park East area and encouraged the Councilmembers to fight back. "The DOTs simply think of these areas as places to drive through, but this is your city. This is a place with real value."