Humboldt Parkway and the Kensington Expressway: A History

Humboldt and Delevan, 1927 and 1995

Like most inner-city Public Works projects built during the middle of the 20th century, the construction of the Kensington Expressway completely changed the nature of the East Side of Buffalo, diverting automobile traffic away from the local shopping districts, bisecting historic streets and neighborhoods, and contributing unwanted pollution and noise to formerly quiet residential areas.

What makes the Kensington unique amongst its counterparts in other cities is that it didn’t just destroy neighborhoods; it also destroyed Humboldt Parkway, a historically significant greenspace designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Humboldt Parkway was the widest, grandest street in Buffalo and included a 150-foot wide, two-mile long public lawn suitable for leisure and recreation. It was an integral part of the Buffalo Parks and Parkway System, an ambitious and comprehensive network of parks, lawns, circles and plazas that defined Buffalo’s cityscape.

The destruction of Humboldt Parkway represents the most conspicuous and painful casualty of the misguided ambitions of Buffalo’s mid-century urban planners. A lot of people want Humboldt Parkway back — the Mayor, members of the community, local advocacy groups, and bloggers like myself – and restoring it would be a huge project for the city and state to undertake. There are many ideas on the table, but there’s not one with enough popular or financial support to be taken seriously.

1896

Map of Buffalo, 1896. The Parks System is colored green.

The Parkway that Was

When Olmsted and Vaux designed Buffalo’s parks system in the mid 1800s, they envisioned that the parks would be connected by a network of parkways - wide boulevards accented by trees and lawns. Four of these parkways – Lincoln, Chapin, Humboldt and Bidwell – were given an extra-wide median suitable for recreation and leisure. Most people don’t know that the Kensington Expressway exists in the place of Humboldt, the grandest of Olmsted’s parkways, and that the construction of the Kensington is what led to its demise. Most people also don’t know what Humboldt Parkway was like in its heyday, because it was demolished in 1958.

According to the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy:

Humboldt Parkway extended southeast from Agassiz Circle to Martin Luther King Jr. Park.  The broad, beautiful parkway was designed with a heavily planted median containing a bridal path down the middle and access roads on both sides. It was initially planted with six rows of Tulip trees which turned out to be too tender for the Buffalo climate.  They were replaced with Maple trees which did somewhat better and were later infilled with Elm trees. During the 1960’s Humboldt Parkway was destroyed to make way for the construction of the Kensington Expressway.

I’m lucky to have a direct connection to Humboldt Parkway. My Great-Uncle, Milt Oehler, owned a tavern on Humboldt Parkway, and remembers it as a beautiful place to have a business. His wife, my Great Aunt, remembers walking along it — never on the grass — on her way to and from errands, etc. What’s clear from both of their stories is that Humboldt Parkway was a grand boulevard and — much like Bidwell and Chapin Parkways today — the focal point for its neighborhood.

The Expressway and Its Effects

Artvoice reporter Geoff Kelly, in his excellent article on the subject, described the decision to demolish Humboldt Parkway in favor of the new highway:

Sixty-two years ago, William Gallancy, an associate engineer with New York State’s Department of Public Works, told a standing-room-only crowd at St. James Evangelical and Reformed Church on High Street that the Kensington Expressway was the best solution to East Buffalo’s problems. Traffic congestion on the neighborhood’s thoroughfares was bad and getting worse, he explained. Gallancy said 70,000 vehicles a day cram that section’s main arteries—Main, Kensington, Genesee, Bailey and Walden… “Unless something is done to relieve this congestion,” he said, “property values will drop alarmingly.”

Those who are familiar with Buffalo know how well that went. Kelly continued:

The $45 million Kensington Expressway tore up Frederick Law Olmsted’s tree-lined Humboldt Parkway, claimed hundreds of homes in previously stable neighborhoods, ripped a trench in the ground that emphasized the city’s racial division, and diverted automobile traffic from the East Side’s once-thriving business strips to a limited-access expressway that shuttles commuters from downtown Buffalo to the northern suburbs in about 10 minutes on a clear day. In other words: Making the city a backyard to its suburbs. Depressing property values. Starving small businesses on Jefferson and Fillmore of customers and abetting the evisceration of those business districts. Subjecting two generations of residents surrounding the expressway to air and noise pollution.

As for relieving the ever-increasing congestion Gallancy worried about, the Kensington today carries about 70,000 vehicles per day. In other words, traffic volume between downtown and the northern and eastern suburbs is about the same as it was in 1958. The region’s population hasn’t grown to fill the capacity created by the state’s highway engineers. It hasn’t grown at all. This city incurred all the negative impacts of an urban expressway, and it turns out we didn’t even need it.

Humboldt Parkway, 1903

Preparation for demolition

Construction on the Kensington

Restoring Humboldt Parkway?

Most people believe that returning Humboldt Parkway to its splendor would be excellent for Buffalo and its region; Several newspaper articles and community voices have advocated its full or partial restoration in recent years. So far, there has been little momentum in any direction, despite support from the Mayor and local groups.

Right now, two visions exist for the restoration of Humboldt Parkway, each with a small amount of support. The first, endorsed by the State DOT and  The Reclaiming Our Community Coalition, involves “capping” (placing a roof over) the sections of the Kensington that are currently below grade and placing a public park on top of the cover. This is the most likely vision right now because it would allow Route 33 to continue as an expressway from Cheektowaga to Buffalo while restoring a portion of Humboldt Parkway. However, since much of the expressway is at-grade, not all of Humboldt Parkway could be restored. It would also be incredibly costly, according to a study by the Millenium Group:

If implemented, the resulting “cap” would represent the most expensive grass lawn ever constructed in history… [The] lawn would not support large shade trees, would not allow the street network across Humboldt Parkway to be restored, would not reconnect neighborhoods, and would not bring new life to desperate East Side commercial strips. The project would either require blasting through solid bedrock to lower the elevation of the freeway, or building an earthen mound over the trench of the freeway that would not exactly resemble Olmsted’s vision or function properly as a public space.

The second vision — the Boulevard Option developed by The New Millennium Group –  would see the Kensington replaced by a modern “urban boulevard”  à la Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway or San Francisco’s Embarcadero Boulevard. This would allow for drivers to continue using that stretch of roadway for high-speed commuting while reclaiming much of the land for public recreation, leisure, and neighborhood beautification. In his article, Kelly cites the following information in support of the Boulevard Option:

The [boulevard option] has at least two distinct advantages, according to advocates… First, burying is considerably cheaper than capping. A rough cost estimate for the project in 2007 tagged the second capping option at $265 million for covering less than one mile of expressway. When people talk about the price now—and it’s a guessing game, to be sure, until the study gets underway—the figure ranges from $350 million to $500 million. No funding for construction of the project has yet been identified. On the other hand, the cost of simply burying the expressway is probably less than $100 million.

Of these two visions, the Boulevard Option seems the best because it provides more parkland, ends the noise and traffic pollution caused by the Kensington, and more closely reclaims Olmsted’s vision of a city-wide park system. But it would also disrupt the way that people travel to and from Downtown Buffalo, which is why the State DOT firmly supports a “capping” method if there is to be any changes made at all.

That’s not to say that these are the only options. The restoration of Humboldt Parkway is not even in its fetal stages yet.  The largest effort so far in any direction is an 18-month, $2 Million study aimed at “investigating the feasability” of putting a cover over a limited stretch of the Kensington, thus creating a short tunnel with a small park on top. The study is reportedly being conducted by the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, but it does not appear anywhere on their website nor on their list of current projects, and no results from the study have been publicized. It is unlikely that this study will lead to something resembling a parkway – if it leads to anything at all.

Other cities have already began demolishing or tunneling their most odious highways, most notably Toronto, San Francisco and Boston. The Mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, supports the full restoration of Humboldt Parkway, as does the East Side’s State Senator, Antoine Thompson. Most community groups and citizens involved with the East Side also support the restoration of Humboldt Parkway. It seems like the momentum would be there if there was a plan in place that everyone could get behind. It would probably have to allow for the Kensington to remain an expressway, but it should aim to fully restore the street plan and parkland of Olmsted’s original design for Humboldt Parkway. Is this possible?

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