Jacobs, Kennedy skip forum on Scajaquada removal, irking City residents

Katrinna Martin, Bernice Radle, and Melanie McMahan discuss party headquarters' effort to remove them from the ballot. Samatha Nephew, a staffer working at headquarters, is spearheading an effort to remove 'opposition Democrats' from the ballot. Political observers are infuriated by the practice, and argue that Party staff should be working on behalf of all Democrats, not just those aligned with Chairman Jeremy Zellner.

No elected officials from the City of Buffalo or Erie County were willing to demonstrate the political courage that it apparently would have taken to attend a community forum on the removal of the Scajaquada Expressway and the restoration of Humbolt Parkway, held at the Burchfield Penny Art Museum Friday evening. 

The only elected official daring enough to attend was Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, a celebrated figure among local urban planners, who described his administration’s approach to removing the Robert Moses Parkway from that City’s downtown waterfront as humble yet resolute.  Dyster’s three terms as Mayor seem to have made him resilient to the kinds of criticism that can be expected from Niagara Falls’ undereducated electorate, constrained in a socio-spatial existence of automobiles and surface parking lots that is all they know.

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Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster with the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, New York’s loudest champion of highway removal. She secured funding to remove a portion of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, and a portion of the Inner Loop in Rochester. She was a renowned figure among urban planners until her unexpected death in 2018.
 

At the event, it was apparent that the Coalition for a Civilized Scajaquada is becoming increasingly offended by the lack of courage in our elected officials — many attendees even disparaging Delaware District Common Councilman Joel Feroleto by name.

Feroleto shocked his constituents last year when he voted against a non-binding Common Council resolution that called on the State engineers to accept the neighborhood’s design aspirations for the City’s flagship public space. All other Council members voted for the resolution — except Feroletto, whose constituents are most feverishly supportive of the highway’s removal, and whose property values stand to benefit most. 

Political operatives were stunned by the political calculation. But Feroleto is no stranger to the ire of urban planners, who see the young politico without training in urban design and lacking sensibilities around spatial aesthetics that mean so much to a neighborhood’s quality of life. 

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Senator Tim Kennedy at a recent private event hosted at Flying Bison Brewing Company. Kennedy is the Chairman of Senate Transportation Committee and had been widely expected to secure $1.2 billion to extend Buffalo’s Light Rapid Rail to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus. Instead, he was only able to secure $100 million for improvements to the existing system.  He has expressed support for ‘covering’ the Kensington but has been silent on removing the Scajaquada.

Feroletto’s support of Mayor Byron Brown‘s wide-ranging expansion of parking restrictions and fees in the Hertel Avenue and Elmwood Village commercial districts have made Feroletto unpopular among small business owners in the district. 

Even Senator Tim Kennedy –– ostensibly the Chairman of the Senate Transporation Committee — refused to attend, despite having oversight authority of the Department of Transportation, which has long refused to integrate design aspirations promoted by area residents into its project proposals.  Throughout the forum on Friday, DOT engineers were lambasted for their ineptitude and condescending posture towards the community.

Kennedy, whose Senate district encompasses the East Side, South Buffalo, and Cheektowaga, has expressed support for making modifications to the Kensington Expressway, perhaps by covering the current thoroughfare or restoring the original at-grade parkway.  That broad green space between Agassi Circle and Martin Luther King Jr. Park that was once the City’s preeminent residential parkway. 

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The Scajaquada Expressway divides several commercial districts and residential neighborhoods from the Buffalo State College campus. The highway occupies a winding waterfront along the Scajaquada Creek that was once a focal point of the City’s Olmsted-designed park system.
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Urban planners want to remove the highway, restore the Creek, and deindustrialize the Blackrock Harbor by repurposing defunct industrial brownfields as expansive new park spaces.  They imagine a “more leafy, campus environment” that links the campus seamlessly with surrounding commercial districts on Grant and Amherst Streets.

Senator Chris Jacobs, who was somewhat influential in the State Senate chamber until last year when Republicans were ousted from power, also declined to attend.  For years he has been unwilling even to offer supportive public commentary, for fear that the suburban areas of his district wouldn’t understand the economic impacts of regional highway reconfiguration.  

Jacobs faces reelection in the 60th district next year and has been identified by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins as her top pick up opportunity.  She is planning to pour campaign funds to the district to back the eventual Democrat nominee. 

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Political observers find it curious that Senator Chris Jacobs has been so silent on the issue, despite earning praise earlier in his career as a real estate developer who helped revive Buffalo’s Theater District. Critics of the Elmwood Village resident argue that he is beholden to suburban voters who don’t understand urban design.

Typically, Jacobs ensures that his Democrat challenger is a political neophyte closely enough ingratiated to his social sphere that his opponents’ fundraising efforts compete inside his social network. But this year Democrats are expected to field a more robust challenger.  There is a slew of candidates already preparing for the primary, and willing to make urban design and regional highway reconfiguration central to their campaigns. 

Two candidates for Common Council and political newcomers — the Niagara District’s Bernice Radle and the Delaware District’s Melanie McMahan — were in attendance; as was Katrinna Martin, the candidate for County Legislature in District 1.

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Some candidates for Common Council have been calling on the State Department of Transportation to transfer the roadways to the City of Buffalo so that local neighborhood residents drive the redesign.  Mayor Brown has been silent on that proposal.

Radle is widely regarded as one of the City’s leading preservation advocates and is a self-styled “Do-it-Yourself” development guru.  She has long advocated for a more progressive approach to urban design.  She is running for Council on a slate of female candidates who have mobilized to challenge several longtime incumbents.  It’s unclear if they will be allowed on the ballot, and observers expect party headquarters to forcefully challenge the opposition candidacies in the Courts. 

No other contenders for County Legislature — not even District 2 and District 3 candidates whose constituencies are most benefited from the roadway’s removal. In District 2, freshman County Legislator April Baskin has a spirited challenge from Duncan Kirkwood.

In District 3, Peter Savage III will soon be appointed as a City Court Judge in an inside deal that has longtime operatives appalled but not surprised. According to sources, Savage circulated petitions to run for reelection this year, knowing that his appointment to the City Court was imminent.  Despite there being enormous support in North Buffalo for removing the Scajaquada, neither Cindi McEachon or David Amoia (the two remaining candidates in District 3’s primary) were in attendance. 

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All eyes are on first-term County Legislator April Baskin, who serves as the Chairwoman. She represents District 2, which comprises much of the Elmwood Village and Delaware District, but hasn’t shared her views on highway removal in any depth. She is a loyalist of Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner, a Tonawanda Democrat who has never been supportive of urban design issues.

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