A Stupid Solution to a Real Problem

The battle over what should occupy Buffalo’s waterfront has been roaring for the better part of two decades, as the early aughts brought us Bass Pro, an evolving vision for Canalside and eventually to where we are now. Which is, to say, not too far off from where we started.

Much of the progress we’ve seen has come in spite of the hucksters who weasel their way into any project of merit whose developer isn’t formidable enough to shoo them away. Other opportunities have been outright lost due to the pervasive obstructionists that seeps into much of the public discourse in the city. The Aud has been gone for over 10 years and we still have the empty pit to show for it.

That hasn’t kept Buffalo’s resident carnival barkers, the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, from concocting silly plans for projects he has no stake in. The group’s latest venture is a suspension bridge meant to connect the Inner and Outer Harbors. It’s a terrific idea until you see the route chosen by the group for their million-dollar deathtrap.

It’s hard to decipher in some of the renderings but what we have here is a proposal for a suspension bridge that will traverse the Skyway, Canalside and the Buffalo River before terminating at the top of the Connecting Terminal grain elevator. I can only hope the plans call for elevators to accompany the many flights of stairs in the two towers shown in the illustration. That the Campaign thinks this can get done for only a million bucks is endearing in its absurdity.

Of the many, many foolish aspects to this project, the limited use capacity is chief among them. I’m sure it would provide wonderful views in the summer and fall, but best wishes to anyone who would dare walk the bridge in the dead of winter when 40 mile-per-hour winds are coming off the lake. It’s not as if the other three months are without wind events, either. Seems like something that should’ve been taken into account for a project meant to solve a key connectivity issue.

I also have questions about the decision to pass the bridge over the four-lane highway where speeding cars and trucks will be just a few feet below patrons. As this is very much a blue sky set of plans, why not begin the bridge on the other side of the Skyway? It’s not like there isn’t room. Getting up and down from the bridge seems like a chore as well. You’re either hoofing it up 10-plus flights of stairs or dealing with elevator access. Best of luck if you’re bringing a bike. How the two stair towers, with what I would hope includes elevators, gets built along with the bridge, for a million dollars is beyond me. But who am I to doubt the brilliant minds that brought us outdoor rinks on top of parking garages.

What the Campaign does get at is the need for a logical connection to the Outer Harbor. Another connection point is imperative. Ohio Street works to an extent, but it’s still more car friendly than pedestrian friendly. That the City Ship Canal and the River are both still active with both recreational and commercial boat traffic presents another hurdle. Anything built surface level would need to accommodate that boat and shipping traffic throughout the year. Anything built above grade would need to rival the height of the Skyway, and as we’ve seen, it’s utterly ridiculous.

The most obvious solution is to work out an agreement with General Mills to rebuild the bridge that stretched from Kelly Island to the Outer Harbor. Rumors indicate that General Mills has been the main factor in keeping the bridge from being replaced in any way shape or form. If the city could find a way to get General Mills back on board, restoring that connection would be a vital connection between the Inner and Outer Harbor. Restoring it to vehicle and pedestrian traffic would be ideal, but even a pedestrian-only bridge would bring incredible value to the area. Recreating the jack knife bridge that was destroyed by the Tewksbury would make for a cool cultural and historical nod to Buffalo’s maritime history as well.

The S. Michigan connection point would be done at grade, so no need to carry your bike up 150 feet of stairs. It also offers the opportunity to include vehicle traffic, something that could aid in mitigating traffic for a future Skyway replacement. Using the design from the old Michigan Avenue bridge offers the historical context that has helped inform many of the projects in and around Canalside.

Another idea came to mind as I read this piece on Buffalo Rising. The post talks broadly about incorporating more of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture throughout the city and briefly mentions a concept Wright had for a bridge in San Francisco. The bridge design Wright came up with was gorgeous and it immediately made me think that a scaled down version would make for an incredible pedestrian bridge for Buffalo.

The logistics are the obvious issue here. There are few ideal crossing points between the Inner and Outer Harbor which wouldn’t require some sort of mechanism to move a bridge out of the way of water traffic. You could, in theory run a bridge from somewhere further down Ohio Street, over the train tracks and Route 5 sort of akin to Chicago’s BP Pedestrian bridge, just bigger. But the closer to Silo City you get, the less convenient a bridge would be for people visiting Canalside. Which brings the question of moving a bridge, and the associated costs, back into the picture.

There are plenty of incredible pedestrian bridges across the world. Just Google “cool pedestrian bridges” and you’ll be busy for hours. With the right capital behind the project, Buffalo could put themselves on that list. And the beauty of going that extra mile is that you wouldn’t be creating a novelty for novelty’s sake – like the Campaign for Greater Buffalo is trying. You’d be creating something that is equal parts visually stunning and functional.

Take the Millennium Bridge in Tyneside. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering that’s equaled only by its beauty. Now, imagine a version of Wright’s Bay Bridge, built at grade between Canalside and the Outer Harbor with the ability to accommodate the boat and ship traffic of the Buffalo River. It doesn’t have to be the Wright design, either. That may be way too ambitious to attempt even without some sort of lift or swing mechanism included. Something with character and beauty that would be a postcard picture staple and define Buffalo’s waterfront.

Whether it’s from the mind of Wright or some other gifted architect, it should be something that Buffalo can be proud of. Not a glorified ropes course strung over top of an active highway.

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