NYS DOT Gets Failing Grade for a Redesign of Humboldt Parkway

(Ed. Note: Once upon a time Humboldt Parkway was a beautiful tree-lined street. But in the early  1960’s it was destroyed when the   Kensington Expressway, a section of Route 33,  was built. Today that expressway cuts straight through an African American community, creating in its wake economic, environmental and health related devastation to the Hamlin Park and MLK Park communities. It is  a sad    symbol of racial inequality. Community activists and residents have been advocating for the change since the 1970s with the  Restore Our Community Coalition  (ROCC) leading  the charge to bring back the parkway design.  On November 13, the New York State Department of Transportation held a public meeting where it presented its proposed redesign of Humboldt Parkway. The Coalition gave the DOT a failing grade.  What  they presented to the community “was a major disappointment” writes ROCC Executive Director Karen Stanley in the following update. However  the  Coalition   is far from giving up the fight. They say it can be done and point to   21 other cities in the U.S. where parks have been built over expressways to reconnect communities and build green gathering spaces. The question many are asking is, will we see the “green  parkway”   restored  along Humboldt in our lifetime?  ROCC’s Stephanie Barber Geter   is adamantly optimistic that we will.)

By Karen Stanley                                                                                                       For Restore Our Community Coalition

On November 13, over 80 community residents and neighboring institution representatives were on hand at the Buffalo Museum of Science to see the New York State Department of Transportation proposed redesign options for the Kensington Expressway.  This meeting was three years in the making, since April 2016 when Governor Cuomo announced that $6 Million in state funding would pay for an Environmental Impact Statement and Construction planning for a re-establishment of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Humboldt Parkway.

The stage for the 2016 funding had been set by feasibility studies funded by $2 million in the 2010 state budget.  Led by University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning and the UB Regional Institute, the study articulated the goals of the Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) and provided data regarding potential project costs, with the added bonus that such a massive construction project would create over 900 jobs during the course of construction (expected to be 5 years.)

The Restore Our Community Coalition rejects the DOT’s “fill in” design, which they say “would do nothing to provide a less poisonous environment for residents along the Expressway.”

However, despite ROCC presentations to local, state and federal elected officials, no funding was identified until in 2016, when then Assemblywoman (now Majority Leader) Crystal Peoples-Stokes interceded with Governor Cuomo to set aside money for the planning stages of this project.  In late 2016 and early 2017, members of ROCC met with NYS DOT engineers to further discuss and develop ideas for a project to “Put The PARK Back in Humboldt PARKway.”

What the DOT presented to the community during the November 13 meeting at the Buffalo Museum of Science   was a major disappointment.  

The Coalition’s preferred redesign would feature a green deck over a portion of route 33.

One option merely added surface dressing to the existing overpasses.  Another option offered a partial tunnel approach that would have required an enormous tunnel operations building, that would be an absolute insult to the neighboring homes.  The purpose of the building would be to house the air cleaning equipment for the tunnel.  

One community advocate, who had given input for the 2013 University at Buffalo School of Architecture and planning and the UB Regional Institute study, noted “that giant ventilation building in the middle of the parkway was so ridiculous that it made me wonder if it was a poison pill.”

The Restore Our Community Coalition had met several times with DOT representatives in 2017, and most significantly, co-drafted a purpose and needs statement that would guide the project design.   However, that design was denied by the Federal DOT in Fall of 2018.  

Ultimately, the DOT did what they do best – plan for a low-cost fix to the crumbling overpasses on the Kensington Expressway, falling far short of the concept to RESTORE Humboldt Parkway.

Having been an advocate for the restoration of Humboldt Parkway for over 20 years, Stephanie Barber Geter tried to be optimistic.  “People should see it as an issue that we’ve worked on a long time and it’s going to take a little longer, but we’re going to get it done,” Barber Geter said.  Her  organization was firm in their expectations for a restorative project.  ROCC had their own handout to explain the community vision.

Here is an excerpt from the ROCC plan: 

The Kensington Expressway has caused decades of environmentally-induced illnesses of nearby residents and severe economic decline of entire neighborhoods. In order to restore our community, the redesign of Humboldt Parkway MUST:

1. Provide a reasonable and feasible mitigation for reconnecting divided neighborhoods.

2. Recognize the importance of the corridor as a multi-modal regional transportation link.

3. Mitigate health impacts due to poor air quality and noise pollution.

4. Re-establish the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed, tree-lined parkway.

5. Re-establish the Frederick Law Olmsted firm-designated park acreage.

6. Improve pedestrian and bicycle mobility.

7. Enhance the compatibility of the corridor with the surrounding neighborhood character, while not precluding the ability for the 39-acre restoration of Humboldt Parkway between Delaware Park and Martin Luther King Jr.

There seemed to be another contingent of people at the meeting.  These people do not live in the area, and they do not bear the environmental and health burdens of cancer and respiratory illness that plague families living near the Expressway.  These people seemed to be excited about the idea of “filling in” the Expressway and forcing traffic back to the Ellicott-designed radial grid that offers several surface roads as pathways to downtown.  But that is not the preference of the immediate community, for a “fill in” would do nothing to provide a less poisonous environment for residents along the Expressway.

By the end of the meeting, there was a feeling of De Ja Vu, as the public comment section of the meeting was rushed, and people were left feeling that the Kensington project will go the way of the Scajaquada project, which is nowhere.  ROCC has not given up, but we acknowledge there is still a long way to go.  Learn More about ROCC