Front Park – the first park Frederick Law Olmsted designed and built in Buffalo – will be made whole again six decades after a road was paved through it to reach the Peace Bridge.
Work is expected to begin next year to remove that road by 2015, when a new entrance will be completed south and west of the park.
The changes, which are to be announced today, are seen as a milestone in making long-stalled improvements to the U.S. bridge plaza a reality, as well as restoring the historic park.
“The focus of what we’re trying to do is make the U.S. plaza more efficient and move traffic more quickly,” said Sam Hoyt, who is both regional president of Empire State Development and chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority. “Secondary benefits include air-quality issues, moving traffic away from the neighborhood and restoring this once-magnificent park.”
Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, said the announcement is one for which the organization has long hoped. “Restoring the integrity of the park’s landscape is something the conservancy has worked on for decades. This is the cornerstone of restoring Front Park and its connection to the surrounding community,” he said.
Among the key plaza changes:
• A new entry ramp will be created off Porter Avenue, just past Fourth Street, where an entrance to the northbound Niagara Thruway exists, with either a roundabout or traffic-signal intersection.
• Traffic coming off the bridge will flow to a single point away from the plaza, with vehicles going onto the existing ramp to the southbound Niagara Thruway; a new, direct ramp to the northbound Niagara Thruway; or onto Niagara Street instead of Porter Avenue. This is expected to eliminate crisscrossing traffic and jersey barriers that now slow cars and trucks alike.
The $22 million “off-plaza” project will be paid for with $15 million from an unspent federal earmark secured by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and $7 million that was set aside in last year’s budget by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Hoyt said the neighborhood will benefit. “We’re taking traffic currently on top of the neighborhood – the homes along Busti Avenue and beyond – and moving it a good distance away from that. The traffic will still continue, but we’re moving it out of the neighborhood and onto a highway,” he said.
But Erin Heaney of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which has often been critical of the state’s response to the air pollution in the neighborhood from the thousands of cars that enter and exit the bridge daily, said there was no evidence the change will help with pollution.
“There is not a shred of science to back up that this will improve public health, air quality and the overall health of the community that suffers disproportionately from asthma and other respiratory ailments,” Heaney said.
She also said the decision-making process continues to exclude neighborhood residents.
“Environmental justice is the meaningful participation in the design, implementation and output of environmental projects. Low-income people of color, particularly refugees and people who speak Spanish, have been systematically cut out of this process,” she said.
Herrera-Mishler said he was thrilled about the prospect of regaining three acres of historic parkland in Front Park, saying it would allow the Olmsted Parks Conservancy to try to re-establish Olmsted’s original design, which could include the return of the park’s original entrance to the corner of Busti and Porter, and Olmsted’s planting design around the park’s perimeter.
The conservancy is currently working to complete the restoration of the “hippodrome,” an oval walkway.
“It’s the original park that Olmsted designed and built in Buffalo, the very first one, and we’re going to be able to put it back very close to what it once was originally,” Herrera-Mishler said. “The more authentic the Olmsted parks and parkways are, the better it is for cultural tourism, our quality of life, our real estate values and the neighborhood.”
A fast-tracked environmental review, which includes public hearings, will proceed concurrently with efforts to seek design and building services.
That will allow contracts to be signed right after an environmental impact statement is approved and will get the project moving faster, said Joan McDonald, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
“It will allow shovels to go in the ground much sooner. It’s tried and true on the Tappan Zee Bridge and other projects across the state,” McDonald said, noting it could cut the time getting started by roughly half.
The environmental impact statement, which will include results from an ongoing state Department of Environmental Conservation air-monitoring study, is expected to take about a year to complete.
There are some decisions yet to be made regarding the plaza.
Hoyt said the duty-free shop could stay where it is on the 14.9-acre site, or eventually move to the former Episcopal Church Home across the street. He said there are no decisions yet on what to do with the Busti property between Rhode Island and Vermont streets, where eight homes, some of them historic, were recently torn down.
There are also unknowns regarding when a pilot project to allow truck inspections to be relocated in Canada, which has a 70-acre bridge plaza, will begin, and what the results will mean when the project is concluded.
But Maria Lehman, the Peace Bridge project manager, said traffic on the bridge has dropped to 1960s levels, rendering any talk of a new bridge moot. The existing bridge is “structurally obsolete because it’s narrow, but some of the steel being looked at, and decking, could give it 20 to 30 years, no problem. As long as you stay on top of the maintenance, it will keep chugging along,” said Lehman, who was director of risk management on the $6 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project.
Hoyt, who represented the Peace Bridge area for nearly 20 years in the State Assembly, praised Cuomo for getting things done on what has been a long-languishing project.
“The governor made it clear to me 18 months ago that a significant part of my portfolio here in Western New York was getting the Peace Bridge project moving,” Hoyt said. “He knows [the failure to get something done] is kind of legendary, and this marks the first real sign of progress on the U.S. side of the border in 20 years.”