(Blue Dog 8 November 2001)

Building Buffalo

James Pitts: Getting Rid of the Kensington
(the first of two parts)

by Bruce Jackson

In late September, Mayor Anthony Masiello revealed a plan for revitalizing the city created by a small group of developers and architects. At the heart of the plan was an entertainment and retail triangle defined by a new casino and convention center. The group, which didn’t have a name for itself, said its plan, which didn’t have a name either, wasn’t simply an end run around the opposition to a convention center and a downtown gambling casino. Their plan, they said, also included provisions for reestablishing the functional radial boulevard plan designed by Joseph Ellicott, covering the downtown section of the thruway so there would be access to the waterfront, and locating in the lake a symbol, perhaps something like Geneva’s giant fountain, to represent Buffalo’s regeneration.
     The casino and convention center, argued Mark Mendell, president of Cannon Design and spokesman for the group, were part of the plan, not the reason for it. The city’s share of profits from a casino could, he said, provide the basis for funding the rest of the plan.
 That hope was pretty much dashed two weeks ago when the Legislature approved a deal with Senecas that would send nearly all casino profits to the Senecas and the developers they worked with, and to Albany. Buffalo, Niagara Falls and the other communities where casinos would be located would probably not even get enough money to pay for increased police, health, social, and other casino-incurred expenses.
     Common Council President James Pitts, who questions the wisdom of locating a gambling joint in the heart of the city, thinks the development plan is a good one anyway. “It was a mistake to hook it to a casino,” he said to me several weeks ago. “It’s a good idea with no casino.”
     Pitts’ sense of urban planning is informed by his years in the Common Council, by his personal experience watching Buffalo change while he was growing up in the city, and by his recent studies in ecological industrial development in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, where he is completing a graduate degree. I asked him to talk about the plan, for which neither of us had a name. He began by naming it.

The Fountain Plan

What about that plan from Mark Mendell, Larry Quinn, Carl Paladino and the others? It doesn’t have a name that I know of.

It’s the Fountain Plan. Everything—all the boulevards, Genessee Street, and all the inner and outer harbor boulevards—lead to the fountain in the lake.

That’s a good name. Do they know it?

No. This is something that you and I just came up with. It’s the Fountain Plan.

I look out your window and there’s that abomination of a convention center.

It’s like putting a hyphen across Genessee Street.
     If you were to look at Buffalo from an aerial view, that convention center is like putting a black mark right across the most important section of Buffalo’s infrastructure.
     That radial infrastructural plan where the streets all lead to a centrality—the square and City Hall—it’s a monumental plan. It’s designed to celebrate  majesty, government and strength. Buffalo was a city growing at the turn of the century, it was an industrial giant, and you had buildings that were supposed to match that. If you came toward City Hall across the square or what is left of Genessee Street from the convention center, you could see the frescoes right across the front, pictures of working people, Native Americans, African-Americans, Germans, Polish people, and they’re all engaged in work and industry. Buffalo was a leader, it was the Queen City.
     I was around when they made that convention center decision. I never understood why they did it.
     The Fountain Plan would restore the radial portion of Genessee in particular. Genessee Street has significance in that it is the street that connects downtown Buffalo to the first ring of the suburbs. It runs all the way to the city line, to Cheektowaga.
     When I was a kid Genessee Street was the street you would go down to get to downtown. It was a major thoroughfare. Genessee Street was the inner city thoroughfare that, I think, suffered the most as a result of the Kensington expressway being put in.

The real city planners

The expressway movement provided accessibility to suburban areas, it fueled suburban growth. Someone said, and I think this is the truth, planners all think they’re the ones that planned our cities. It’s not true. The ones who really planned our cities and are still planning our cities are the traffic engineers. They provide the thoroughfares and exchanges for cars. We’re dominated by automobiles.
     The expressway movement was designed to fuel the growth of suburbs. Who suffered the most when it came to that? The neighborhoods surrounding those radials—Broadway, Genessee, Sycamore, William Street, South Park, Seneca. What happened there is, in order to really compete the city had to invest a major part of its resources into developing these highway systems to connect to where people were moving. That’s why you have the Skyway. That’s why you have the Kensington and that’s why you have the disinvestment and dead zones that exist along Genessee Street, along Sycamore, and many of these communities that have been lost in the shuffle.
     I remember a time before the Kensington Expressway was built, if you wanted to go shopping, you had a number of choices. You could go downtown. You could go to the Genessee-Moselle area. You could go down William Street. You could go down Broadway. You could go to Sattler’s. Remember Sattler’s? You had different shopping areas and you had different commercial places that you could go. Jefferson Avenue. Fillmore Avenue. The Fillmore-Main Street area. University Heights, along what is now known as the south campus of UB. You could go to all of these place and shop. You had choice not only in terms of retail outlets, but you had a mixture of ethnic kinds of goods and services that were there as well.
     That is why these streets were there. They were designed for that purpose. Genessee Street is one of the widest thoroughfares that we have and can carry as much traffic as say the Kensington expressway. Not as fast, of course.

Hollow Streets

Once those expressways were built, even people who lived within the city would use the expressway as a shortcut. They didn’t want to get caught on Genessee Street with the traffic lights because it wasn’t time-saving. Time-saving was getting on the expressway. If you wanted to get over to the Museum of Science you would get on the Expressway at Michigan Avenue and then you would ride and get off at Best Street. And what would happen? You would miss Genessee Street, all of that commerce. Because the traffic was no longer there, people began to disinvest, and those streets became hollow, so to speak. That’s what happened to Genessee.
     This Fountain Plan is really designed, I think, to reopen the radial and make the connections, reconnect downtown Buffalo and what was supposed to be the focus of the city— which is not only City Hall but the waterfront and the riverfront—with the neighborhoods.
     I suggested to Mr. Mendell and Mr. Quinn that they didn’t go far enough in talking about the reopening and reconstruction of Genessee Street. Don’t stop at Michigan Avenue. Go all the way down to the city line. What you would be doing there is, you would be reconnecting those neighborhoods with that monumental city plan that we’re one city.

I moved here in 1967, after the Kensington was part of the scene. People said to me that it destroyed viable neighborhoods, but I never understood quite how, or which ones.

It was devastating. And there’s the Scajaquada Expressway and what it did to Lincoln Parkway, Bidwell Parkway. It’s the same thing.

And the Park.

Yes: and Delaware Park. Over on the East Side, Humbolt Parkway was just ripped apart as a result of this. If you go back to the late fifties, when we used to play in Humbolt Park, we used to play football, and we would go to the Museum of Science and would have a good time ice skating or having a rodeo bicycle event of the wading pool of what is now Martin Luther King Park. If you could imagine that Expressway not being there, just how beautiful that area was, how you could come up a street like Herman Street and then run into this beautiful lush green park, and you had Best Street, which was not a thoroughfare but it was just a regular sized street. Best Street wasn’t a major thoroughfare; it was a neighborhood street.
     There was a convent there, which was turned into a prison—Masten Park. And three schools. Just a beautiful area. Beautiful houses, like on Linwood Avenue. They had gingerbread, they were gorgeous mansions, and brick houses like you have in Allentown. These were all torn down, just wiped out. Beautiful houses.
     The expressway and the suburbanization of Buffalo just ripped apart neighborhoods and destroyed communities.

A Dangerous Trail

The Kensington Expressway is very dangerous now because it was built in the late ‘50s for cars that weren’t as fast as they are today and the design was for less traffic. The Kensington is too small for the traffic that you have going now. This is why you have an unprecedented number of accidents. What a lot of people don’t know is that you have more traffic accidents on that expressway than any other part of this area. Because of the design: it’s just not built to handle the traffic that it does.
     A lot of people don’t know that they’re on a very dangerous trail and that their lives are in danger.
     You got the traffic shooting off the Expressway at Michigan going to where old Trico used to be. You have all kinds of accidents that occur there because when you get on that little street you’re trying to figure out “What direction do I go and can I get out there before this light changes and folks come speeding up 60 miles an hour?” Consider Fillmore Avenue, where those kids were killed coming around that turn, and then getting on the Expressway where Fillmore Avenue is—that’s one of the most dangerous exits in the world. How many times have people run into those barriers where they have all those yellow lights? It’s very dangerous.
     And it’s dangerous to our kids: you can’t cross it. If you get pedestrians that try to cross at Michigan and Expressway, right at St John’s Baptist Church, if you don’t hit those lights right, your life is in danger. People don’t stop in most cases. People are traveling at thruway speed in the middle of the city.

Cars, cars, cars

The reason I would support this monumental Fountain plan is because it gives another chance to streets like Genessee, it gives another chance to streets like Broadway, it gives another chance to William Street, reconnecting downtown, the water, with those neighborhoods. It gives us an opportunity to again begin to put traffic and interest and activity on these thoroughfares.
     The way you do that is, you rebuild the neighborhoods. You put services there. You don’t need to do any new studies. You can just go back to the Genessee-Moselle area, which still is a central place where people go to shop, albeit poor people in this case, and if you take the corner of Jefferson and Genessee, it still has commercial value. The area from Jefferson all the way back to Michigan Avenue can have the same types of uses it had before.     The Kensington Expressway is poorly designed for today’s traffic and it would cost so much money to try and upgrade it to satisfy the traffic needs today. Why spend the money on that? Spend the money on Genessee Street and reconnecting neighborhoods with downtown. Use the Kensington Expressway as a utility street. We would then get rid of the isolation of those East Side neighborhoods and we would put ourselves in a position where we would be able to rebuild those communities.

Now it functions as a barrier.

It’s a barrier and it’s an escapist trail. For those who work in downtown and who live in the suburbs, it’s a way of getting in and out without looking at things they that don’t want to see.
     So let’s get rid of it. Shut it down. Marc Coppola and I have raised on a consistent basis that we need to shut it down because it’s dangerous.
     It’s too small. Don’t make it larger. Let’s just close it down, reorient it. Make it another street that’s there and let’s force traffic and interest back to our neighborhoods and communities.
     If we can spend millions of dollars to remove the rust from those viaducts and bridges over the Kensington Expressway, how come we can’t spend millions of dollars to redesign those streets and the streetscapes to reconnect communities?
     And get rid of the Kensington Expressway altogether.

Building Buffalo is a series of interviews focusing on Buffalo’s current problems and future options. They’re online at http://csac.buffalo.edu/buildingbuffalo.html. In the second part of this interview (click here to see it)  Mr. Pitts talks about the casino, the convention center, and what he’d like to do with the Skyway. 

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson

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