To the people gathered Tuesday evening around the wooden-block model of the Hamlin Park neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side, it seemed like an exact replica, except for one small but significant detail.
Between East Ferry Street and the Buffalo Science Museum at Best Street, the Route 33 Kensington Expressway disappeared. It went into a tunnel. At grade level, it looked like what it was before the six-lane road was built in the 1960s – a tree-lined Frederick Law Olmsted parkway.
This “green parkway” plan is the vision of the Restore Our Community Coalition, a group of more than 20 East Side civic and faith-based organizations, who put the model on display outside the Cummings Room at the Science Museum as a preview to a public meeting on the project.
“We’ve been meeting for four years in this building,” ROCC Chairwoman and Hamlin Park Taxpayers Association President Stephanie Barber Geter said to an audience of about 50 as she opened the meeting, “and we’ve focused singly on one thing, restoring this community. We want to regenerate the Humboldt Parkway ... (and) we think we’ve made the case for a huge, huge investment in the center of Buffalo.”
Professor Hiro Hata from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, which built the model, explained how creating the mile-long green space would partially restore the parkway network linking Olmsted’s parks and would act like a zipper in uniting two halves of a neighborhood divided by the expressway.
Paul Ray, who led the Kensington Deck Economic Impact Study for UB’s Regional Institute Urban Design Project, said the $560 million project would have a primary economic impact during five years of construction, and many millions more from enhanced property values, new housing and revitalized business districts on Jefferson and Fillmore avenues.
“We believe we can restore the integrity of the community,” said Richard Cummings, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce and an Olmsted Parks Conservancy trustee.
“Until Buffalo comes to the East Side and corrects the mistake done to the East Side, Buffalo can not attain the greatness it is capable of having.”
During the question period, several speakers proposed filling in the below-grade section of the Kensington between Ferry and Best streets and turning it into a street-level parkway.
Karen Stanley Fleming, ROCC executive director, explained that the coalition decided that covering the expressway would be best because it would not disturb the current traffic pattern.
“Ten years ago we had the same debate about filling it in or covering it,” said one of the public officials in attendance, Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith. “What the community said was they really wanted the cover. And the (state Department of Transportation) does not want to take out the 33.”
Some of the speakers expressed concern about whether longtime residents would be priced out of the neighborhood if property taxes rise along with real estate values.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said that a special tax district could be created, freezing property assessments, a solution proposed for the impoverished Fruit Belt, next to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where real estate values have soared.
Others feared that a revitalized Hamlin Park neighborhood, which one of them characterized as “the other Parkside,” would attract development that would adversely affect the neighborhood.
“We need to make sure that people don’t come with projects that don’t help us, said Valencia Sease, co-chairwoman of the Gethsemane Manor Matters Coalition.
She cited the plans for multiple housing units on the former site of Deaconess Hospital, which she said would “increase congestion and increase pollution.”
She also urged preservation of vacant century-old homes in the neighborhood instead of demolishing them.
“We’ve got to stop being afraid of a vacant house,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to cap the parkway if all of the houses along the parkway are torn down.”
The next step, Geter said as she closed the meeting, will be to get federal support for the “green parkway” project.
She urged the audience to call the offices of Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both D-N.Y., and Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport.
“We always thought this was a good idea,” she said, “and now that it’s been studied, we know it is. We want everybody from the mayor to the president of the United States saying this a good idea, covering this thing.”