The hipness and happenings of The Highline in New York City brands an entire movement of urban designers and community activists working together to new public spaces using the skeletons of massive public works projects bestowed by an earlier generation. Reclaiming these routes is in physical disagreement with the Urban Renewal politics and trails of demolitions that came with many of the elevated highways. Reuse is also an extension of the sustainability ethic that is becoming more integrated with historic preservation. Creating a universally appealing use, such as a multi-modal path or a diverse green-space area, returns the space to the community it tore through.
Momentum is just now building for infrastructure reuse projects. The HighLine is in its third phase of construction; The Trust for Public Land is developing plans for Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago; citizens of Philadelphia have been meeting since the early 2000s to reuse the Reading Viaduct. There are examples of parks beneath bridges and large-scale public art projects that help to integrate the monoliths into the existing urban space.
The National Park Service, keepers of the National Register of Historic Places, dedicated an issue of their Common Ground publication to historic infrastructure in 2010; a seasoned and subtle voice in the tear-down calls by the Congress for New Urbanism, Project for Public Spaces, The Preservation Institute and well-covered in Next American City, The Atlantic Cities, and Citiwire. This popular broad-brush call for removal of the highways is as rash as the fast pace installation of them across America.
There is an opportunity to continue to explore infrastructure reuse in Buffalo, NY with the Skyway, a mid-century elevated highway that follows along prime waterfront green- and civic space in Buffalo to lead many modes above the water into the Central Business District in a way previously only afforded to those in the passenger seat. While there are some hurdles to development and reuse, the Buffalo Skyway has numerous advantages that make it worth saving.
A Sample of Infrastructure Improvements
A foray into similar reuse projects as well as successful areas of infrastructure integration yield a springboard for preserving The Buffalo Skyway and similar concrete highways.
La Promenade Plantee, Paris, France
La Promenade Plantée (The Planted Promenade) in Paris is nearly 3 miles of repurposed rail line with infrastructure dating to the mid-1800s. This linear park project started in the 1980s and includes restaurants and galleries beneath the bridges arches. It served as the inspiration for The HighLine in New York City.
The HighLine, New York, NY
The HighLine is a City of New York public park operated by the non-profit Friends of the HighLine led by two West Side residents that founded the park in 2002. It is located on 1.5 miles of abandoned rail line and includes multiple connections with the street, including Chelsea Market. Amenities along with the park’s plantings, include pop-up vendors, large and small scale seating, water features, and bike racks. Plans and funding are in place for a HighLine extension to the north.
Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle, WA
The Alaskan Way Viaduct, a multi-lane elevated thruway along Seattle’s waterfront is slated for demolition. In one day of being open to the pedestrian public over 3,000 people took in the view of the Sound from its vantage. The demolition of this structure has been highly contentious and wrought with public discussion on the reuse opportunities of such infrastructure. Patronage to this event hints at a demand for more pedestrian access.
Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago, IL
Chicagoan’s are working with The Trust for Public Land on the Bloomingdale Trail. The project will turn three miles of elevated rail line into a connecting pathway between several of the neighborhood’s pocket parks. In urban areas, where trails and parkland are often limited, elevated structures provide an opportunity to create what cannot be developed on the ground.
Memorial Waterfront Park, Charleston SC
Memorial Waterfront Park is a spot of shade in Charleston, South Carolina. Built beneath the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, it has a performance space, memorials, a fishing pier and administrative space. Even the bridge itself was built with a bike and pedestrian lane and plays host to an annual run.
National Park Service areas, Cumberland, MD
The National Park Service operates All Aboard for Cumberland in Maryland offering a museum, recreational space, and a coal-powered train ride. Adjacent is a portion of the NPS Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Betwixt these parks is a contemporary highway bridge completing the transportation-based experience.
Brief History and Configuration of The Buffalo Skyway
The Skyway is a historic roadway. Drivers first experienced its paramount view of Buffalo and the Niagara River waterfront in 1955 open its opening day in October. In prosperous times, in fact Buffalo was America’s 15th largest city, the Skyway was to alleviate traffic congestion from Buffalo’s Central Business District to the north and its major economic-driver the Bethlehem Steel Plant just across the southern border into the City of Lackawanna.
Designed by Edward P. Lupfer, lead engineer of this project and that of the international Peace Bridge in the 1920s, the Skyway is solidly constructed and includes some careful detailing. Of note is the dramatic change in materials, from steel to steel-reinforced concrete. The Skyway is two 24 foot lanes separated by a 5 foot concrete divider. It is approximately 1.5 miles in length and it’s 24 reinforced concrete piers hold the steel deck above the waterfront at an lofty 100-feet.
In the early 1990s, the Skyway underwent substantial repairs and lead-based paint removal totally nearly $10M. Approaching 50 years old, structural reports were completed by the New York State DOT to make a plan for continued maintenance. The DOT put the price tag for repairs and improvements at $125M for the next 75 years. Based on the costs presented in the report, the City of Buffalo Common Council voted to apply for Federal Tiger Grant funds to remove the Skyway. Funds were not secured and a large-scale repair of entrance and exit ramps was completed in 2011.
Urban Context of Today’s Skyway: Waterfront Development known as Canalside
Redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, the area of waterfront nearest Buffalo’s civic center, has been under serious consideration and planning, in its current form, since September 1998. A public-private entity, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation controls operations and planning for the inner harbor. Several aspects of the project have already been completed, including the redevelopment of a slip of the terminus of the ca. 1825 Erie Canal, reconstructing historic cobblestone streets, allocation of green space, and enhancement of a naval and marine park.
Some of the final phase that includes major construction is underway, encompasses the redevelopment of twenty-three acres at the Erie Canal Harbor site. The development plan includes providing a mix of office, retail and housing space in newly-built relatively-historically accurate buildings. Plans for Canalside development often omit The Skyway illustrating a failure to represent what infrastructure is existing and also a missing opportunity for creativity in the urban realm. If The Skyway is omitted from the plans, there is little opportunity for public or expert comment on its place in the developing waterfront - this cycle unscrupulously leads one to believe that the only option is demolition.
The Canalside development plans attempt to recreate what stood onsite in the early 1800’s. Recreating a semblance of a bygone era, while advocating for the demolition of more recent history, is inherently contradictory. Advocating for the destruction of current infrastructure to erect new buildings that appear historic is a misguided strategy at best. Part of the issue seems to be the general perception of what periods of history are important.
While the developers and politicians lament the designs of the 1950s, they are lauding those of the early 1800s. Trying not only to capitalize on the economic and recreational potential of the site, but also taking advantage of the kitchiness that is offered by recreating period buildings. Much in the way that Main Street at Disney Land is not indicative of an authentic thoroughfare, Canalside will not be an accurate depiction of life in 1825, if it was with standing canal water. Citing the presence of an 1950s structure as detrimental to the authenticity of the development is tenuous at best.
There was no master waterfront development plan of any significance in Buffalo during the time of the Skyway’s construction and not until recent plans for Canalside has it come under such negative scrutiny - previous apprehensions were based on maintenance costs on the fiscally-strapped city - but not on demolition. There is money coming into the Waterfront that could be infinitely better spent than the demolition of the Skyway.
More than $56M was allocated to make Fuhrmann Boulevard the kind of street that the Congress would approve of, but it dead ends into a barge slip and is only accessible by Buffalo-based southbound traffic by The Skyway. In 2012 $14M was allocated for a park along the Union Ship Canal, just east of the Skyway as it returns to grade, but that is not connected to Furhman Boulevard with any manner intuitive to visitors. There is also a lack of connectivity of what is called the Inner Harbor and the Outer Harbor since 1959 when a docked barge broke its winter mooring and took down the Michigan Street Bridge, it has not been replaced.
With these missed opportunities and over 130 acres of vacant waterfront land owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority since 1954 and has been consistently mis-aligned with efforts to revitalize the area, there is no wonder that the waterfront had remained an opportunity not an asset. Removal or reconfiguration of the Skyway may open up approximately 80 acres of vacant land, but with no meaningful master plan connecting the myriad assets along all of Buffalo’s waterfront, that will too remain vacant.
Approximately 40,000-45,000 cars use the Skyway annually, but along with the population of Buffalo, numbers have continued to trend downwards since the 1970s. Fortunately, there is some benefit in the power brokers lack of action. A community initiative called Friends of the Buffalo Waterfront is led by longtime Buffalo author, booster and developer, Mark Goldman, has convened essential meetings and charrettes of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, the Project for Public Spaces, and the public. Small-scale projects have made the largest impact on the usage of CanalSide such as seating, bike racks, historical signage and regularly scheduled music and art events.
In a report by the Congress for New Urbanism calling for the demolition of The Skyway, issues of increased access, reclaiming wasted land, and repairing gaps are cited. A closer, more-versed look at the situation will uncover less-expensive, more manageable and less-commercially-driven opportunities to enhance Buffalo’s waterfront. The spending of the estimated $40M to demolish the Skyway is too much mis-allocated funding that could do more good separated into smaller projects focused on connectivity and cooperation promotion of recreational spaces, multi-modal paths, and cultural events.
The perceived barrier to development is just that - perceived. The Skyway is often cited as an impediment of development of the surrounding landscape. However, the footprint of the structure itself is relatively small. The piers, although large, spare much of the ground space beneath the roadway and the street grid is intact. In addition, the parcels surrounding the piers have not suffered because of the structure, but due to a lack of a unified vision, uncooperative landowners and the necessary financial package required to facilitate substantial waterfront development.
Improvement and Reuse Options for The Buffalo Skyway
With recent improvements paid for and many of the reasons for demolition disputed, there are new, creative options to consider for the reuse of The Skyway. It can continue to operate as an auto-only express way, it can become multi-modal, or completely closed to vehicular traffic, preserving the physical structure is paramount. Saving the architectural structure will create reuse opportunities that are both purposeful and artistically interesting. Options for enhancing the Skyway have been split into two categories – reuse and improvement options. The reuse options were developed under the assumption that vehicular traffic would be removed and the improvement options examine how to make The Skyway more attractive and beneficial to the community while still operating as a method of vehicular transportation.
Art Makes Everything More Beautiful
One of the most prominent complaints about the Skyway is that it lacks aesthetic appeal. The height of the structure requires large broad piers to elevate it. These bland beige piers can appear to take away from otherwise beautiful views of the waterfront. Beautifying these structures and making them more visually interesting is a cost effective way to enhance the appeal of the structure.
The Skyway can be painted, draped or lit-up in artistic ways that will make it an asset to the harbor instead of a detractor. Painting the skyway piers would provide color to an otherwise drab beige canvas. The painting designs could be put out for competition or have specific themes.
Another option to beautify the Skyway is to use fabric.Textiles have been used to add color and texture to numerous other projects including trees, buildings and fences. Draping fabric from the deck of the skyway and/or wrapping the piers would provide for a unique art installation. The one downside of using fabric is the durability in a high-wind environment.
Lighting has already been used to make the Peace Bridge, an international crossing from Buffalo to more attractive at night. The LED lights that are installed at the Peace Bridge are programmable and the colors that are projected change for sporting events and holidays. The same could be done with the Skyway, with lights coordinated for events at the First Niagara Center, holidays and other events. Lighting the Skyway provides more flexibility than painting and draping do, although the daytime effects are minimal.
Lighting Example: Peace Bridge, Buffalo, NY
In 2009, the Public Bridge Authority, operators of the Peace Bridge from Buffalo to Ontario, Canada, upgraded its flood lighting system to a computer-operated LED lighting systems along the ca. 1929 steel frame. The lights emit a glowing neon and diverse color combinations and patterns can be created. There are over 600 LED fixtures and the project cost sits at 1.2M. The Peace Bridge is a symbol of nearly 200 years of peace between the US and Canada.
Painting Examples: Lexington Avenue Gateway, Asheville, NC
Arts2People started the Asheville Mural Project and worked closely with elected officials and transportation a departments to install a mural on the concrete infrastructure of the I-240 overpass at Lexington Avenue in the mountain town known for its arts and crafts culture. The artwork was created on specialty canvas that adhered to the concrete piers and the depicts local folks in a range of typical-activities, from chess to beekeeping. The underpass is a destination, it even has parking spaces for visitors.
Painting Example: Bridge to the Sea, New Smyrna, FL
High school and middle school students were engaged by New Smyrna’s Parks Department and Community Program Manager to paint a mural at the overpass of the US Highway 1 at Orange Avenue on the way to the island of New Smyrna. The theme “Bridge to the Sea” was choosen and the work was dedicated in 2002. A balance of artistic merit and then physical completion by volunteers is an option for many unpleasant or bland infrastructure elements.
Many options have been discussed that connect downtown and the outer harbor through a means other than the Skyway. Ongoing studies pertaining to the construction of a bridge to the outer harbor all generally assume that the Skyway would become obsolete and should then be demolished. The argument for saving the infrastructure is rarely, if ever made. Saving the structure could create a prime opportunity to create a truly unique space.
Adding Functionality with a Sub-Deck for a Bicycle/Pedestrian Walkway
As previously discussed, the size of the support piers for the Skyway is often seen as a disadvantage. Because of the height of the structure and the shape of the H-shaped piers there is the potential to add a pedestrian deck below the vehicular deck. It would not be difficult to add a pedestrian lookout to the structure for the portion of the Skyway located in the Canalside development. The views offered from the deck, which would afford users the opportunity to stand over the water, would be unparalleled. The deck would be higher than the current observation tower located at the Erie Basin Marina, while offering views of the Buffalo River, Niagara River and Lake Erie.
Example of Pedestrian Deck: Roberta Crenshaw Pedestrian Walkway, Austin, TX The Roberta Crenshaw Pedestrian Walkway is a multi-modal path built beneath the vehicular deck of the MoPac Bridge in Austin, TX. Built in 1973 the bridge was amended in 2004 to include the path as Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail and connects to protected recreational across the Colorado River. This addition was part of a repair project by the Texas DOT.
Make it a Park
Turning the Skyway into a park would take a lot of design and ingenuity, but it would create an unparalleled public space in Western New York. Reclaiming land designed for cars for use as parkland is not a new idea, it has been done successfully several times. With recent successes in similar efforts in the United States and abroad, there is no discernible reason that would make one think it couldn’t be done with the Skyway.
Example of Linear Park: The Highline, New York, NY
The Highline is perhaps the most well-known example of a similar project. The Highline is a linear park in New York City that occupies approximately one mile of Manhattan. Located primarily in the Chelsea neighborhood, the success of The Highline is owed mainly to residents that fought to turn an urban blight into an asset. There was pressure to demolish the structure, as many saw it as a hindrance to economic development and a visual eyesore. A group of residents fought to save the structure, which was still structurally sound but in need of repair. Although the project was expensive, cost approximately 50 million dollars, the impact on the surrounding community is immeasurable. The park has become a hotbed for tourism, adding to the vitality of neighboring businesses and raising property values. Many other cities are exploring similar proposals to utilize abandoned infrastructure at this time.
One obstacle that would have to be overcome through design deals with substantial wind on the Skyway due to the proximity to the water and the height of the structure. Safety measures would have to be taken to minimize some of the wind shear to increase the experience of the user. This can be achieved through proper design, including the potential to cover or encase part of the structure.
Bike Only Access
Buffalo has made great strides in recent years towards providing a contiguous waterfront bike trail that connects the northtowns and southtowns along the waterfront. When biking the connection of trails, one of the most incongruous part is near The Skyway. While there have been several attempts to make a path over time, none of them connect and in fact, they appear to have purposeful barriers.
Reconfiguring The Skyway into a bicycle path would more-than-solve this issue, while offering users great view and unforgettable experience. Safety modifications to the structure would be needed to accommodate cycling – including striping, signage and wind shear relief. To ensure success, a combination of these elements is most likely necessary to provide the greatest amount of interest to the site, while preserving a massive landscape feature. Public money was used to build larger-than life transportation infrastructure in a time of auto-dominated prosperity. Times have changed, but the streets remain in the public domain. What is in need of transition is the reconstitution of pedestrians as the public.
While there is much research and collaboration needed to make a pliable case for preserving and reusing The Buffalo Skyway, the paper is intended to illustrate alternate options to demolition. There are broad-brush calls for demolition of urban infrastructure that can be very appealing on the surface but a closer look at the systematic hurdles for development show that removal is not the solution. There are numerous ways to improve or reuse the current structure, all of which are less-expensive and easier-accomplished than demolition. The systematic destruction of current infrastructure and historic roadways in America may prove detrimental once we have the perspective of a passing generation of time.