Erie Times-News GUEST VIEWPOINT in support of saving the Viaduct written by Philip Langdon, June 25, 2018.
save the viaduct, serve the pedestrians & cyclists of erie
For well over a year, Erie officials have been intent on razing the McBride Viaduct — ridding the east side of a supposedly obsolete piece of the city’s industrial past. If the demolition takes place, I think it would be a mistake — an opportunity lost.
Throughout the U.S., cities are finding imaginative new uses for transportation components that have outlived their original purposes. In New York, a disused Manhattan rail freight line has been refashioned into the High Line, an elevated pedestrian concourse that draws crowds of people eager to walk above the city’s streets and savor the views. Similarly, the viaduct — rough though it now is — could have a future as a valuable urban amenity.
When I returned to Erie in April to talk about my book “Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All” and to discuss how Erie could be made more walkable, I noticed bicyclists pedaling over the viaduct to get from one part of the east side to another. Pedestrians, too, use the 1,170-foot span — not in huge volume, but enough to indicate that the 80-year-old viaduct could have a productive second life.
Even in its current beat-up condition, eight years after it was closed to vehicular traffic, the viaduct offers a safer, more pleasant route than the nearby Bayfront Connector. When I met with a group of teenagers at the E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center on East 19th Street, a girl told me that using the connector’s sidewalk — awfully close to fast-moving cars and trucks and their noxious exhaust — makes her feel dizzy.
The viaduct, on the other hand, offers her something of a refuge. “There are no cars with you,” the girl pointed out. “You can walk at your own pace.”
A walkable street and sidewalk network is crucial to the well-being of urban neighborhoods, and the viaduct provides one of the few walkable routes from the neighborhood around East 12th Street — north of the CSX railroad tracks — to the neighborhood around Buffalo Road. Quite a few low-income eastsiders don’t own cars, so they circulate on foot. People use the viaduct to go to school, workplaces, friends and other destinations. A few push shopping carts loaded with scrap metal across the viaduct to a recycling business by the tracks; it’s a source of income.
There has been talk in official circles that restoring the viaduct would cost close to $6 million. However, Erie CPR: Connect + Respect, a citizens group that advocates thoughtful urban design, has studied the project closely and concluded that rehabilitating the viaduct for pedestrians and cyclists — not for motor vehicles— would cost only about half that: $3 million, spread over five years.
The first year would be the most expensive, costing $1,35 million to stabilize the structure and make it immediately safe to use, says Adam J. Trott, an architect active in Erie CPR. Much of the money, the group says, might come from matching grants, fundraising and corporate naming opportunities.
The Erie Refocused comprehensive long-term plan prepared in 2016 by consultant Charles Buki argued that City Hall should not invest much money in the neighborhoods that have the weakest prospects for revival. I understand Buki’s point. But this perspective — that public dollars should be invested mainly in the areas that will do the most to make Erie fiscally stable — has to be balanced against social justice. Do not harm people and places that are in need.
I believe repairing the viaduct would not only help residents of the east side. It could also enhance the city as a whole. Imagine, for example, that the viaduct were made part of a citywide or countywide network of bike routes. In cities from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon, bike commuting is rapidly growing. Interesting bike routes are in demand — for riding to work, riding for errands, and riding for pleasure.
Having ridden in the New York Five-Borough Bike Tour and other venues, I would bet my Bianchi that cyclists would get a kick out of the viaduct. It’s an overpass from which they could watch up to 700 trains a day. Viaduct users already enjoy looking down on operations in the huge scrapyard at its base. The grittiness of the viaduct’s setting is part of its appeal. Some call this roughness “authenticity.” People go out of their way to find it.
Rehabilitate the viaduct. Illuminate it. Use it. Celebrate it. That is the forward-looking thing to do.
Philip Langdon is the author of “Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All” (Island Press) and other books about urban design. He grew up in Wesleyville and Erie and was keynote speaker in April for Preservation Erie’s Greater Erie Awards.