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Canalside: How to turn a Thruway underpass into something dynamic

A couple of weeks ago the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation held a Public Hearing which was an essential step in addressing two elements in the Modified General Project Plan for the Inner Harbor. One was the changes in their layout of the replica canals being proposed, the second the addition of Harbor Center, the exciting new project slated for the Webster Block directly in front of the First Niagara Center.

So I went to talk, and as far as I know, I was the only speaker in what was a sparsely attended affair for handling routine business. But it gave me a chance to speak, and vent a bit, about the need for better attention for the aesthetics of this emerging neighborhood which is now beginning to get a lot of notice from the public, thanks to the excellent job to date in developing the Central Wharf and the terrific programming and schedule of events there. People are clamoring for more, and the marketplace is responding.

But the ECHDC, which stands for the “development corporation”, needs to become more hands on to all the public spaces that have been too neglected, whether it be the bedraggled parking lot west of the Aud Block which is run by the Municipal Housing Authority, the below grade Amtrak right of way bisecting underneath the Thruway, where overgrown vegetation, debris and crumbling support walls make this channel an eyesore. The condition of the Aud Metrorail Station is an absolute disgrace. When is the NFTA going to step up and do the right thing and show some pride in what should be a showcase rail station for this city?

Then there is the Thruway underpass.

The I-190 bisects downtown in that area from east to west. Unlike the Skyway, where there has been continuing dialogue about its eventual removal, the Thruway is here to stay. Unfortunately, this elevated highway cuts off the central core of downtown from the Inner Harbor. The neighborhood beneath the bridge is dark and dank, a miss mosh of roadways, public parking lots, and gravel strewn nothingness.

Interestingly, the ECHDC has identified that real estate as future development parcels (labeled T1 and T2 on their MGPP). They would like to see the city abandon the stretch of Lower Terrace between Main and Pearl and cede it to their agency. And there is some talk of parking, perhaps some sort of kiosk type structures. The space poses some challenges, but done right, should present an opportunity not only to bridge the public spaces between downtown and Canalside, but do something dynamic and iconic.

Here are two examples presented from Florida. In recent years, the entire stretch of I-4 from Tampa to Orlando was rebuilt and in some places expanded. When the Florida DOT took on this project, they gave particular attention to critical neighborhoods, where overpasses could be made into assets instead of dead space.

In Ybor City, the historic district just on the outskirts of downtown Tampa, the first exit of I-4 just off of I-275 spills into this “town square” area. What they did here was finish off the support beams with a brick and stucco facade, add brick pavers, attractive landscaping, iconic light fixtures, and a wrought iron gate surrounding a reflecting pool. During the evening fountains spew water in the center of that pool, done to a light show of changing colors. It is an attractive and warm spot both by day and by night, and yet cars sail over the area and around on all four sides.

And check out the influence this public space has had on adjoining development. This is a Mickey D’s, of all things! Awesome!

Sixty miles to the northeast, I-4 bisects a very bustling and very busy Downtown Orlando. Right in the center of things stands the Amway Center, the glitzy new home of the NBA Orlando Magic. The arena sits right next to I-4, and even though it’s been open just a short time, has already been an economic shot in the arm for the adjoining neighborhood, where new retail, mid rise condos and townhouses, and parking structures also sporting ground floor shops are in abundance.

Just on the other side of I-4 is a neighborhood called the Church Street Station, an historic neighborhood which had become the bar and party district back in the 80s and 90s, but had fallen on hard times. Thanks to the new arena and explosive residential growth, it is enjoying a resurgence.

Again, what they did with the I-4 underpasses between The Amway Center and Church Street Station is pretty cool.

This is view looking eastward from the front door of the Amway Center

This is a hologram bouncing off one of the underpass support walls, changing colors and messages constantly

Check put the landscaping, light sculpture and passive mood lighting bathing the support trusses in different colors

Looks even more awesome at night!

The area was transformed thanks to mosaic brick pavers, street furniture, brick and stone planters with abundant landscaping, light sculptures, and passive lighting which floods the support trusses in ever changing colors. It is an attractive and inviting area which provides immediate connectivity to two critical districts in downtown Orlando.

Right now ECHDC President Tom Dee and his team have a bunch of balls in the air, what with the canals in the Aud Block, the Donovan Building, the Harbor Center the biggest marquee projects now in progress. Additionally, getting things actually done by the ECHDC poses yet more challenges, when they have to deal with other public entities, some of which might always not be too cooperative. Think about it, you’ve got the City of Buffalo, the Department of Transportation, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the New York State Thruway Authority, a very hands on Congressman Brian Higgins. All of which have a piece of this neighborhood.

Nonetheless, the dark and foreboding land which sits beneath the Thruway between Washington Street westward to past Pearl Street would greatly benefit from the attention and public infrastructure investment similar to the examples presented above.

2013 will be the most exciting year yet for those of us who have been watching and supporting and speaking out and working so hard to help deliver to this community The Waterfront We Deserve. Lets hope the finishing touches, the attention to detail, the cleaning up of pieces of the landscape and streetscape which need t.l.c., are items that the ECHDC and the City embrace and take up, as work concludes on the first section of the canals and One Canalside gets set to open its doors in the old Donovan building a year from now.

follow Andrew Kulyk on Twitter @akulykUSRT

  • Matthew Ricchiazzi

    Cool write up, great pictures. But I wonder why you assert that “unlike the skyway, the thruway is here to stay”?

    The I-190 takes up hundreds of acres of space downtown, particularly the on and off ramps take up several blocks of real estate that would otherwise be ideal for development. Tearing down the highway and build out the canals could make way for dense, mixed use infill development between downtown and the waterfront districts:

    Also, removing the I-190 would improve waterfront access and development opportunities along the Niagara River on the Westside and in Blackrock:

    • Moving the 190? Sure! I heard it’s on the list right after the building of a new Peace Bridge and the re-opening of Bethlehem Steel. 

      It’s time to get realistic, financially speaking, and make lemonade out of our beloved lemons. When the good times return, we can think bigger.

      • Matthew Ricchiazzi

        It’s revenue positive in the long run. It opens up hundreds of acres of waterfront land for development, returning hundreds of parcels to the tax rolls while increasing property values of adjacent neighborhoods. Also, at grade all access roadway is cheeper to maintain than elevated thruway.

  • Great ideas for dealing with impossible transitions in time and style of structures.    Maybe we don’t have to accept a stark, industrial look to elevated roadways.   I’ve never thought to question the dirty, dingy eye sores we see every day.    Any idea what attractive facades and design elements add to costs of construction and maintenance of these bridge-like structures?

    • As Andrew and I have discussed this topic a number of times, I don’t think this would be all that cost prohibitive. While the Orlando example is the gold standard, I could see a simple coat of paint, mood lighting and perhaps some Buffalo-inspired (think the ped walkway near Niagra St. 190 exit) or Canal-era artwork serving as a sort of gateway for Canalside and those entering down Pearl St.

      Even a paint job and lighting features would do wonders for the areas on Lower Terrace and for the entry from Pearl.

  • Yes, these changes would be reasonable.