Bright Future of Buffalo's Waterfront Threatened by State Plans to Expand Freeway Infrastructure

Expert Report Says Current DOT Plan to Maintain Freeway and Expand Frontage Road Will Limit Access and Development Potential

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DOT Shift to Its Boulevard Alternative Would Lay Groundwork for Waterfront Renaissance

Buffalo's Outer Harbor has immense potential to be redeveloped into valuable urban neighborhoods of lofts, restaurants, shops and parks -- but leaders need to act now to get the streets designed correctly. That is the message former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and transportation planner Norman Marshall will deliver this week in a 10:30 a.m. Friday waterfront press conference and a 1 p.m. Friday appearance before the Buffalo Common Council’s Waterfront Development Committee.

If Buffalo does not act now, Norquist warns, the state will forge ahead with plans to maintain the embanked Route 5 freeway and expand a major frontage road on the Outer Harbor. Together the dual roads will occupy a large swath of potentially valuable land. And with an embanked freeway looming to one side and with no provisions for on-street parking, the new frontage road will stunt hopes for new development. Update 9-10-07: Read about Buffalo news coverage generated by the visit of Norquist and Marshall to Buffalo.

A new report by Marshall’s transportation planning firm Smart Mobility looks at three Route 5 alternatives developed by the New York State Department of Transportation and concludes the DOT should shift to its "Boulevard" plan, which would replace the embanked Route 5 and frontage road with a single road, an urban boulevard that would enhance waterfront connectivity and invite the reemergence of valuable neighborhoods. A new lift bridge and an extension of the boulevard could then replace the Skyway Bridge.

The urban planning and development organization that Norquist now leads, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), has a national program that examines revitalization in cities such as Portland and Milwaukee that have replaced waterfront freeways with neighborhood-friendly boulevards. That program has identified Buffalo and Seattle as two top candidates for similar transformations.

The current Buffalo report is the second that CNU and its partner in the highways-to-boulevards project, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, have requested from Vermont-based Smart Mobility. Released in December 2006, the first concluded that replacing the Skyway Bridge and the embanked Route 5 with a lift bridge and at-grade boulevard would help unlock sizable unrealized tax base on the Outer Harbor and ably meet traffic needs, more than ably in light of the reduced volume on Route 5 following removal of tolls on the New York State Thruway. (Read about the December 2006 Smart Mobility report on Buffalo.) Smart Mobility's experience includes transportation and planning analysis for the state departments of transportation in New York, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Hampshire among other clients.

Key findings from the new report include:

  • "The NYSDOT preferred alternative maintains the elevated bridge and embanked highway at the expense of valuable waterfront acreage and ultimately does not create the access necessary for making the waterfront a destination connected to downtown. The NYSDOT Preferred Alternative will have many devastatingly negative effects on the efforts to develop the Outer Harbor as a vital urban, walkable place to enjoy the Lake Erie waterfront."
  • "The NYSDOT 'Modified Improvement' alternative includes 8 lanes of pavement in an area where redevelopment is hoped for, with four of these lanes high-speed, elevated, and noisy. Our preferred alternative would be a four-lane avenue with a design speed of 35 mph. The future traffic projections indicate that four lanes would provide sufficient capacity for an urban setting."
  • The "Boulevard" alternative is far superior to the "Modified Improvement" alternative because it can easily be adapted to the removal of the Skyway Bridge, building a new grade-level bridge connection to downtown Buffalo, and reconfiguration of the Fuhrmann Avenue/Route 5 corridor into a multimodal street. Because the Skyway Bridge is currently under study to determine options for its future, which should include an exploration of "downsizing" to an at-grade facility, it would be prudent for NYSDOT to pursue the Boulevard alternative at this time, as it is most adaptable to a range of strategies for the Outer Harbor. In the Boulevard alternative, Route 5 transitions from the Skyway Bridge into a single 6-lane boulevard. This plan is highly compatible with removing the Skyway Bridge and constructing a new at-grade bridge, which could be in one of several possible locations.

Norquist and Marshall will appear before the Common Council's Waterfront Development Committee Friday at the request of its chairman Michael Kearns. Kearns will appear at the Friday a.m. press conference along with Common Council President David Franczyk and Council Legislation Committee Chairman Richard Fontana.

"Buffalo’s waterfront could be one of the most attractive development sites in New York State," said Norquist, "but if the DOT sticks with its current plan, the waterfront will function as a truck route. Its development potential will be stunted."

Image: Rendering of proposed Buffalo waterfront boulevard by Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists

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