Highways to Boulevards

Across New York State, many communities have experienced significant economic declines in their core downtowns over the last 50 years. While many factors are to blame for the economic stagnation, many communities were impacted by transportation decisions made in the 1950s and 60s, that served to effectively cut off their downtowns by constructing expressways through key areas.

Across New York State, many communities have experienced significant economic declines in their core downtowns over the last 50 years. While many factors are to blame for the economic stagnation, many communities were impacted by transportation decisions made in the 1950s and 60s, that served to effectively cut off their downtowns by constructing expressways through key areas. 

As economic mobility increased and more families could afford cars, many cities and towns viewed the construction of expressways as a positive development and as a means to quickly move commuters from the suburbs to downtown.  The result in many cases however, was to cut off downtowns from waterfront areas or to disconnect once thriving communities. In their wake, these expressways left deteriorating communities, land rendered useless for development, increased pollution and noise in once residential areas, dying businesses cut off from customers and less walkable and bikeable communities.

As these communities began to realize the error of planning for vehicles, rather than people, and calls for removal, repurposing or other changes to these transportation mistakes increased. The benefits to these changes are generally to return the vibrancy of once thriving neighborhoods, increase the possibility of economic development and investment (and thus returning more tax revenue), and creating more attractive, people-centered downtowns.

While the cities of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, Poughkeepsie and the Bronx are at varying stages of their respective projects, a few key themes have emerged as recommendations to successfully move these types of projects forward. Among them are building a diverse coalition of key stakeholders and work to engage the community to build support; understand that the New York State Department of Transportation is in business to repair and maintain roads and lacks the capability (in most cases) to drive a broader community vision beyond transportation; the importance of advance planning to have key stakeholders and a vision in place when opportunities for change arise, and the critical need to work ahead of “crisis” so that broader community improvements can be put in place, rather than a narrow focus on immediate repairs that can be expensive and drain resources for larger initiatives.




Like many urban highways constructed in the 1960’s, the elevated 1.4-mile stretch of Interstate 81 known as “The Viaduct” divided an urban neighborhood in Syracuse, New York. The construction devastated an historic African-American neighborhood, displaced 1,300 residents, disrupted the flow of city streets, and paved over countless historic homes and sites. Neighborhood deterioration and citywide population loss soon followed.

Today, the average annual daily traffic on I-81 ranges from about 43,000 to 90,000 vehicles per day as it runs just east of downtown and connects with I-690.  There have been numerous calls for removing the Viaduct, now nearing the end of its design life, and a number of studies to analyze potential alternatives.

The DOT had narrowed down its choices to replace the highway by either rebuilding it to current federal standards, or removing the Viaduct and creating a boulevard connected to existing city streets by sending "through" traffic around the city on Interstate 481, and allowing local traffic to use city streets to reach its destinations.

The boulevard option has the potential to open up land for potential development that would result in higher tax revenue. Keeping the Viaduct is estimated to cause Syracuse to lose $85 million between increased taxes, significant takings of private land and buildings and depressed property values, as well as a reduction of more than $3.2 million in yearly tax receipts.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently directed the state DOT to revisit a third option, involving a $2 billion highway tunnel across the city, despite a number of failed technical evaluations and a lack of public support.

Currently, NYSDOT is drafting an environmental impact statement identifying the preferred alternative, expected to be made public in early 2017.

Lessons Learned

It is critical to frame the question of what you are studying correctly.  DOT will be inclined to ask how to fix or maintain a highway, while the bigger question may be how to improve a neighborhood or create better economic opportunities for a community.

Important to demonstrate to all stakeholders how change can be good for the overall community. Suburban residents and businesses act in self-interest so it is important to communicate how the change can positively impact them (or minimally hurt them) in order to gain support. Sharing data that demonstrated that commute times would not change much was very helpful.

Timing is critical. Don’t wait until infrastructure is falling apart because it becomes easier to make short-term fixes that ignore broader issues and may make it economically unfeasible to make bigger change.

Make sure that the land in question is valued properly to demonstrate the potential economic viability that change can bring which may necessitate zoning or other policy change.

It is important to have a multi-faceted team to bring more perspective to issues.  Without leadership and broader perspective, DOT will step in an address highway issues only – not community improvements.

While outside groups can support and advocate, there needs to be leadership within government to actually make change.



An expressway system in Poughkeepsie has divided downtown from the rest of the city, which has negatively impacted its economic vitality. The system of one- way streets and roadways around the city has essentially choked off downtown and made the area unappealing and unsafe for pedestrians. With assistance from Pace University Land Use Law Center, Poughkeepsie has developed a Main Street Economic Development Strategy that would convert one-way Market Street to a two-way complete street. It also would establish direct transit service up Main Street from the riverfront through the central business district to Arlington. Improvements proposed for Main Street include better lighting, landscaping and bike infrastructure.

The proposals for new Main Street and waterfront infrastructure are aimed at reconnecting the city to the waterfront and to create a pedestrian friendly environment from the waterfront to Arlington. The strategy also will consider the feasibility of converting the city’s east- and westbound arterials into boulevards, presently functioning as three-lane highways. While speed limits are posted at 30 mph, people routinely drive much faster as a result of the arterials’ one-way design.  As a means to demonstrate the impact of implementing these plans, including the narrowing of a 3 lane roadway, the city undertook a one day modeling event that reduced traffic lanes, added pedestrian friendly assets including Astroturf, café tables and other traffic calming measures that was hugely successful. Commuters had a first hand understanding of the possibilities and the minimal impact on traffic congestion.

Lessons Learned

•     Invite NYSDOT to get on board early. Don’t surprise them.

•     Creating a real world example of potential changes is a great way to provide a visual example, get people involved and demonstrate that negative impact can be minimal. Also provided a way to gather data (car counts, speeds) that is useful for planning and advocacy.

•     Important to have all government entities unified when going to DOT and businesses. Poughkeepsie is unique in that the City and County are working together and share a staff person, which helps to keep things unified.

•     Important to understand and communicate that these changes alone can’t turn around the city – just one part of the process of broader strategy to revitalize the city.  Be aware of concerns of gentrification that change can create for local communities and communicate how improvements can benefit all in city and suburbs.




Conceived in the 1950’s and completed in the early 1970’s, Interstate 787 had a major impact on downtown Albany. The highway is both a physical and mental barrier between downtown and the Hudson River waterfront. Current options for pedestrians and bicyclists to safely access the waterfront are minimal. Needed (and expensive) repairs to the roadway today have impacted the support for long term future planning of I-787.

In 2014 the I-787/Hudson Waterfront Corridor Study, an integrated transportation and land use planning effort in the City of Albany, the City of Watervliet, the Village of Menands and the Town of Colonie in Albany County, was initiated. The purpose was to identify short- and long-term strategies for improving the 10-mile long interstate highway that carries on average 85,000 vehicles daily. Options for reconfiguring the Interstate are complicated by the presence of a freight line that runs down the middle of the Interstate. The study will identify strategies to improve access to the Hudson River, support waterfront revitalization and economic development, support multi-modal transportation objectives, guide future planning and explore potential reductions in infrastructure maintenance costs over time.

Extensive community engagement for the first phase of the study was undertaken through the use of a  project website, several formal community meetings, several stakeholder meetings and significant media coverage. The study and its recommended options are expected to be released in early summer (mid 2017).

Lessons Learned

Tracking the condition of infrastructure is critical so that planning can begin early enough to address issues and avoid “crisis” when immediate and expensive repairs are necessary. These crisis repairs can impact support for future planning and funding of roadway projects.

Engaging a broad cross section of stakeholders is critical but also important to understand that, in the end, it is still DOT’s road. Engage DOT employees to see the bigger picture and to work with them to monitor the condition of infrastructure so that planning can take place before crisis repairs are necessary.

Understand that regional opposition may be negligible during study period but can ramp up once things progress so plan for communication and engagement at a regional level.

Support from a Champion such as a Mayor and or State Legislators is necessary to engage DOT and the realities of New York State transportation priorities/funding.

BRONX/Sheridan Expressway


More than 50 years ago, Robert Moses designed a freeway that sliced through the South Bronx, cutting the community off from the Bronx River waterfront and blocking waterfront development opportunities. With less than 35,000 vpd, the Sheridan is used primarily as a way to cut through the Bronx for autos and to the Hunts Point Peninsula for commercial vehicles. Working for almost 20 years to right this wrong, the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance created a Community Vision for the Sheridan Expressway corridor, including more developable land along the Bronx River, removing truck traffic from local streets, pedestrian safety improvements, and direct access to the Bronx River waterfront. All of these elements found in a 2013 TIGER Study that recommended converting the Sheridan to a boulevard and narrowing the overall footprint of the roadway.  

In early 2017, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo released a different plan to convert the Sheridan to a boulevard, but that plan did not include the reduced roadway footprint or waterfront developable land included in the TIGER Study. Although this is an important next step in moving the process forward, community members are hopeful a more neighborhood-friendly alternative emerges from the environmental review for the project.

Lesson Learned

The community must drive the process through community outreach and engagement.

Creating a coalition of community groups partnered with technical assistance groups can amplify each other’s overall effectiveness. 

Sustained funding from various partners is critical.

Having a focused vision for necessary changes and communities benefit can help keep stakeholders engaged and achieve consensus.

ROCHESTER (Inner Loop expressway)


Rochester’s 2.68-mile Inner Loop had completely encircled the city’s central business district and created a major physical barrier between the downtown and nearby, densely populated neighborhoods. It served to siphon residents out of the city center and nearby areas became neglected and vacant.

While part of the highway served significant traffic volumes (up to 46,500 a day), the eastern section carried only 10,500 cars/day, low enough to be handled by a modest urban avenue and has been targeted for replacement with an at-grade boulevard.

In 2012, the City was awarded a $17.7 million USDOT TIGER grant to facilitate the replacement of the Inner Loop East, bringing the highway between Monroe Avenue and Charlotte Street up to grade, and creating a two-lane boulevard with street parking and surrounded by mixed-use development. North-south streets have been reconnected for two-way traffic reopening downtown for residents. Six acres of land that had been deteriorating and vacant due to Inner Loop has been reclaimed and mixed use development is taking its place, making it a vibrant area and bringing it the city property tax revenue.

Business and retail activity has returned to the city, and its downtown population is expected to rise more than 400% by 2020. The partial removal of the Inner Loop, a groundbreaking project currently in its finishing stages, has helped drive that renaissance.

With the success of the project, Now, Rochester wants to fill in the northern section of the Inner Loop, which carries just 25,000 vehicles a day, and replace it with a surface street—reconnecting the entire east and north side of downtown to nearby neighborhoods. Beyond even that section, the remaining Inner Loop continues to pose physical barriers between the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, and much of the land on the corridor is vacant with an opportunity for development.

Lesson Learned

Planning is critical to build credibility and consensus even before formal design and engineering work was done. Because DOT knew the city had plans for the Inner Loop, they held off on making any significant changes to the roadway in anticipation of broader work to be done.

Preparing specific cost-benefit analysis was also critical to make the case that the changes would benefit the community.
The City (not the State) must be in the lead to drive changes for the immediate community – the State will not view it through the same community lens.

Engage elected officials starting at the local politicians. Congressional representatives will not support the project if they perceive the locals don’t.

Engaging elected officials at all levels is critical particularly if you are going after Federal funding.

Rochester did not have significant opposition to the plan because the road was not heavily traveled and because of planning, they were prepared to demonstrate the plans benefits.

NIAGARA FALLS (Robert Moses Parkway)


Stretching approximately 18 miles, the Robert Moses Parkway stands as a barrier between the City of Niagara Falls and one of the world’s most tremendous natural assets, cutting off Niagara Falls from its scenic gorge.  This barrier also inhibits ecotourism and the restoration of natural landscapes. Initially conceived to serve industries along the waterfront that have since vanished, the parkway is now an underutilized highway showing its age.

After years of study and debate, New York State has recommended a design for removing a section of the Parkway in Niagara Falls to give the public greater access to the Niagara River gorge and state parks there. The reclaimed land that once had been a highway will be turned into a pedestrian and bicycle trail network along the gorge rims, linking to existing trails within the gorge and to adjoining city neighborhoods. Amenities and associated streetscapes are also included in the plan.

The $42 million vision to remove the two-mile stretch of road and to restore public access to the Niagara Gorge between Main Street and Findlay Drive in Niagara Falls was unveiled in the Spring of 2016 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The removal plan will re-establish waterfront access for the city and increase parks, trails, and ecotourism. The project will result in the removal of the elevated embankment to at-grade, opening views and access to the Upper Niagara River. The state plans to open bids and put a shovel in the ground by the end of 2017 with completion expected in 2019-2020.

BUFFALO (Scajaquada Expressway)


The Scajaquada Expressway, built along New York State Route 198 in Buffalo, cuts through Delaware Park, Buffalo’s crown jewel in the City’s park system designed by city planner Frederick Law Olmsted. The expressway divides the park in two and offers no safe, ground level pedestrian crossing from one side to the other. Constructed in the early 1960s, the 3.6-mile four-lane highway carries between 37,600 and 65,000 vehicles per day between Interstate 190 and State Route 33. The Scajaquada also runs alongside the 10,000-student campus of Buffalo State, approximately two miles north of downtown.

Safety concerns were realized in May 2015 when a car traveling on the expressway jumped a barrier and veered into Delaware Park, killing a three-year-old boy and severely injuring his five-year-old sister. Lowered speed limits and other safety infrastructure have been put in place since the tragedy.

For decades, community members have demanded that the expressway be redesigned as a parkway to cut noise, pollution, and dangerous high-speed traffic and to reconnect Delaware Park to adjacent neighborhoods. Now, the project has support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), and local Buffalo stakeholders.

The Governor pledged $30 million in state funding for the conversion of Scajaquada Expressway into a low-speed urban boulevard in early 2016, with an overall cost projected at $115 by NYSDOT. Alternatives are being evaluated and community feedback was solicited as recently as January 2017. The Scajaquada Corridor Coalition, a group of local stakeholders, continues to push for more people-oriented design beyond the latest recommendations. A revised plan is expected but no timetable has been established.

Lesson Learned

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to generate interest and action in a project that had been discussed and debated for years.

Community stakeholders with support from the City need to lead the project, rather that the DOT, to ensure that a broader vision that is more inclusive of the community vision is promoted.

Critical to engage the community, businesses and political support in order to move project forward.

Prior planning proved critical when tragedy struck because there were established lines of communication between critical stakeholders and initial planning completed that enabled the State to take immediate action after the child’s death to ensure safety.

Skyway (Route 5) – Buffalo, New York


The Buffalo Skyway is an elevated steel bridge 100 feet over the Buffalo River and 1.1 miles in length that links Route 5 connecting the southern suburbs of Erie County with the Business District of the City of Buffalo, northern suburbs of Erie County and Interstate 190.

Built in 1956, the Skyway creates a barrier between Downtown Buffalo and it waterfront, discouraging development on what could be valuable land. The confusing system of exit ramps makes accessing the Outer Harbor difficult. The Skyway has been the subject of considerable public debate regarding its potential removal, re-use or repair to improve structural integrity and safety for vehicles. A total of 41,500 vehicles per day travel along this blighted corridor. The DOT rates the Skyway bridge as "fracture critical" while the Federal Highway Administration classifies the bridge as "functionally obsolete." It is likely to cost more than $50 million to maintain over the next two decades. Over the last four years, advocacy group GObike Buffalo has hosted “The SkyRide” a bike tour over the elevated roadway, providing a perspective most residents have neer seen outside a car. The event has served to fuel imagination and discussion regarding a future vision for the Skyway.

Currently, no specific plans are in place for either removal or repurposing although the State has agreed to conduct and environmental review for removal.

Lesson Learned

Providing a new perspective on the roadway through the SkyRide has raised awareness of the need to remove or repurpose the Skyway, while creating enthusiasm for more bike and pedestrian friendly roadways.

Political support is important in keeping awareness of the issue high and Kensington Expressway (Route 33) – Buffalo, New York

The Humboldt Parkway, designed by noted landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted and designed to connect Olmsted Parks in Buffalo was destroyed in the 1950’s to construct the Kensington Expressway (Route 33) as a commuter pathway for a suburban workforce going downtown. While similar parkways on the West side of Buffalo have been preserved and contribute to beautiful, vibrant neighborhoods, the construction introduced a devastating change to the look of the area and to the quality of life of local residents. Construction of the 33 also caused physical damage to homes and slashed property values. The planning decision to construct the Kensington Expressway brought decades of decay and decline of a once vibrant, clean, green, and beautiful neighborhood. 

The Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) is leading the effort to restore Olmsted’s vision of a vibrant, green community space and to remediate the devastation caused by the construction of Route 33.  Currently is advocating for a “cap” solution that would require reconstructing the road deeper and adding a cap to reconnect both sides of the community.