BUFFALO — The Scajaquada Corridor is a city dweller’s dreamland, a culture-vulture Valhalla. Within two miles there is a restored Frank Lloyd Wright house you can visit, an art museum with Picassos and Gauguins, three college campuses, a zoo and a history museum in a majestic Greek Revival building from the 1901 Pan Am Exposition listed on the National Historic Register. All of it borders a 356-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
There is just one problem: An expressway runs through it.
The Scajaquada Expressway, or Route 198, is a 3.2-mile tear in the urban fabric. Built in the early 1960s, it slices Delaware Park in half, isolates north Buffalo from destinations south, makes walking or bicycling in the area a death-courting activity and creates the strange optical illusions common to freewayscapes. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Buffalo History Museum are less than half a mile apart, on opposite sides of the Scajaquada. Looking across the expanse of pavement and speeding traffic, however, the distance seems insurmountable.
“People don’t cross the Scajaquada,” said Alison Merner, the communications coordinator for GObike Buffalo, who grew up in a neighborhood that borders the expressway. “If I were going to go for a run or a short bike ride, I would always stay on my side. You were kind of on an island.”
The Scajaquada is not just a local barrier but also a poster road for a growing movement being championed by progressives in the urban-planning community. They want to tear down some highways in cities and replace all that elevated-and-barricaded pavement with lower-speed streets that favor pedestrians and bicyclists and foster greater connectivity among neighborhoods and residents.
It’s the kind of argument you can imagine the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs making, and indeed she led a successful campaign against Robert Moses in the 1960s to block a planned expressway through Lower Manhattan before it could be built. The highway would have resulted in the demolition of wide swaths of Greenwich Village and SoHo.
One of the groups leading the new charge is Congress for the New Urbanism. Since 2008, it has published a biennial list called “Freeways Without Futures,” which names highways whose elimination would, according to its website, “remove a blight” from their cities. The 2017 edition includes Route 710 in Pasadena, Calif., Interstate 70 in Denver, Interstate 375 in Detroit and, paved enemy No. 1, the Scajaquada Expressway.
Lynn Richards, the president and chief executive officer of C.N.U., said that removing a highway is “a somewhat radical idea.” “There’s a lot of analysis that needs to go into it about where the traffic is going to go,” she said.
But already, several cities have removed or decommissioned existing highways, including Paris; Seoul, South Korea; Boston; and Portland, Ore. Last year, Rochester buried a portion of a downtown expressway known as the Inner Loop, a stretch of sunken highway the city’s mayor likened to a “moat.” It is being replaced with a boulevard on the same grade as the rest of the streetscape.
And because of a confluence of factors, including the embrace of ride-hailing services like Uber and the rebirth of cities as places to live, work, raise families and retire to, advocates like Ms. Richards see an “incredible opportunity” to remove even more pavement. “When we put out a call last summer for freeways without a future, we got almost 75 recommendations,” she said. “This can kick-start a conversation about the best way to spend infrastructure dollars.”
Many in-city highways were built during the post-World War II boom years with easy money from the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act. They hail from an age when the automobile was ascendant and were built to quickly move commuters in and out of urban centers; many of these highways were used by white suburbanites and built in low-income minority neighborhoods (“white men’s roads through black men’s homes,” went a saying in Washington).
Perhaps the greatest argument that removal advocates have is that so much of this infrastructure is nearing the end of its life span. In this era of tight budgets and political gridlock, it may be cheaper for local and state governments to remove a freeway rather than repair or build a new one.
If it sounds counterintuitive, if not crazy, to tear down a highway that still carries thousands of cars and trucks each day, there are a number of case studies to point to. One of the earliest and, to advocates, most successful, was San Francisco’s double-decker Embarcadero Freeway. It skirted the city’s waterfront and was demolished instead of rebuilt after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
“The Embarcadero came out of the waterfront, and now the waterfront real estate is seeing tremendous value,” said Peter Park, a city planner in favor of removing highways in cities where neighborhoods have been “significantly disconnected.”
Not only in San Francisco but also in every case where a highway has been removed, Mr. Park argues, “the city has improved.”
Mr. Park was the planning director for Milwaukee when the city decommissioned the Park East Freeway spur in 2002. Less than a mile long, the highway hosted traffic snarls each day, but it had its supporters, especially among suburban commuters and truck drivers, and there was concern about what would happen if it was removed.
“The basic argument for it was, people will never get to the city without it,” said John Norquist, Milwaukee’s mayor at the time, who spearheaded the removal campaign. “Well, how do they get to Paris? The arguments were left over from this glorious age of motoring after World War II.”
The bill to demolish the Park East and restore the street grid was around $30 million, significantly less than the $80 to $100 million estimated cost to rebuild the 40-year-old freeway, Mr. Norquist said. He pointed to the rising land values and the slow-but-steady development along the 26-acre corridor in the years since — and the lack of a traffic apocalypse — as signs of success.
Mr. Norquist, who went on to run Congress for the New Urbanism for a decade and is now a semiretired consultant, said removing a highway is not just about addressing local residents’ concerns. “We had to make the big argument, the Jane Jacobs argument, that the freeway was harmful to the whole city,” he said.
Since the mid-1980s, civic groups in Buffalo have been arguing for the decommission of the Scajaquada Expressway. After more than a decade of environmental impact studies, and after a car traveling the expressway struck and killed a child in 2015, the state is now responding. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has earmarked nearly $100 million for a project that will convert a 2.2-mile portion into a lower-speed boulevard; organizers hope to start construction in 2018.
“What we envision going to would be more of an urban boulevard that allows all modes of transportation — pedestrians, bicyclists and cars — to use that facility,” said Angelo Trichilo, deputy chief engineer for the New York State Transportation Department.
Still, some argue that the department’s current plan, which eliminates features like merged lanes and uses seven new traffic lights and a raised median with curbs to slow cars, doesn’t go far enough to reduce the expressway’s impact or image and fails to look at the redesign in an innovative way.
“It’s like lipstick on a pig,” said Stephanie Crockatt, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. “They have a lot of pretty drawings, but they’re not fixing anything. The road will be just as wide. There will still be a slab of pavement. We’re still not seeing the connectivity and sensitivity.”
In the conservancy’s office cottage inside Delaware Park, Ms. Crockatt and her colleagues showed a color rendering of their own “vision for the new Buffalo.” Most notably, their plan calls for an Olmsted-designed stone arch bridge, presently used by cars and as retained in the state’s proposal, to be returned to its pedestrians and bicyclist origin — in essence, to replace pavement with grass and knit back together the park’s two halves in a way that visually reduces car traffic. They also want to remove the median and scale back the footprint of eight-lane intersections.
In response, Mr. Trichilo said the agency has held “over 50 meetings” with stakeholders and the public “to build consensus that we can all agree to” — though opinions diverge widely from keeping the expressway to downsizing to a two-lane road. The Transportation Department considered the conservancy’s plan to eliminate traffic on the stone bridge. But based on its study, a new intersection would be required, and that intersection “just could not handle the traffic,” Mr. Trichilo said, adding that the Federal Highway Administration has concurred.
For supporters of the conservancy’s plan, including Justin Booth, the executive director of GObike Buffalo, the makeover of the Scajaquada offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “restore Olmsted’s original vision,” as Mr. Booth put it. He was referring to the network of graceful boulevards the landscape architect designed to connect Buffalo’s parks, many of which have since been converted to freeways.
Buffalo could become a leader in forward-thinking urban design and a cultural tourist destination, advocates say. And the Scajaquada Corridor redesign could serve as a model for how to approach other highway tear-downs, including the plan to demolish the Robert Moses-built Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx.
“That’s why it’s so important to get it right now, and not finance a mistake into perpetuity,” Mr. Booth said.
But even at a time when cities are embracing bike-sharing programs and mass transit; even when the end of the car(or the human driver anyway) is speculated; even when waterfronts and industrial and low-income areas where in-city highways were built are being reclaimed through gentrification — it’s not easy to tear down a hunk of concrete in place for generations.
At a Transportation Department public presentation meeting last year, Ms. Crockatt learned that for some, the 19th-century Delaware Park is the problem, not the ’60s-era expressway.
She recalled that one attendee stood up and asked, incredulously: “Why in the world did you build this park next to this highway?”