Fixing the Bayfront Parkway
Erie charrette yields good ideas
More than a year ago, during public comments at an Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority meeting, I threw out my suggestion to fix the Bayfront Parkway: Rebrand it. By emphasizing the "park" part of the name, PennDOT could beautify the road, put the brakes on the speed demons, and make travel by every mode safe and inviting for locals and visitors.
But Michael Fuhrman has come up with an even better idea: Rename it.
How does the "Bayfront Boulevard" sound?
That is one idea Fuhrman came away with after the "Erie Bayfront Charrette." The event took place in Erie Oct. 17-19, thanks to the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University, community leaders, and various sponsors, including the Jefferson Educational Society, the Erie Community Foundation, the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, the NAIOP commercial real estate development association, and the Mastriana Endowment.
The "Bayfront Boulevard" alliteration is pleasing, and so is the imagery. Many of Erie's prettiest neighborhoods boast boulevards, and they aren't limited to upscale areas. When I drive or take the bus home from my per-diem job at the Iroquois Branch Library, I appreciate the soothing travel pace along East Lake Road, with its attractive, center-lane boulevards that stretch from Lawrence Park into the city limits.
I also just like the word "boulevard," which the dictionary defines as a "broad, often landscaped thoroughfare." A boulevard doesn't require a center strip of greenery. Instead, trees, flowers and other plantings can line the roadside to make it beautiful and to encourage leisurely travel, Fuhrman said.
French in origin, "boulevard" pairs well with "charrette," a French term for an intense architectural design process.
Credit for organizing the "Erie Bayfront Charrette" goes to Lisa Austin, Adam Trott, John Vanco, and Fuhrman. The purpose was to brainstorm design ideas to reconnect the bayfront with Erie's neighborhoods, as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation readies its final recommendations for improvements to the parkway from Sassafras to Holland streets. PennDOT will release its recommendations in late spring or early summer 2020.
As bayfront development continues, PennDOT wants to ease congestion and improve walkability by installing roundabouts, lowering the parkway under State Street, and building pedestrian bridges. The goals are said to align with Erie Refocused, the city's comprehensive plan, which states that Erie should "prioritize pedestrian comfort, safety and interest" in neighborhoods, downtown and on the bayfront.
Kent State students from the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University, under project manager Kristen Zeiber, led public charrette sessions at the Church of the Nativity Community Center, 106 German St.; at Bostwick Design Partnership, at Lovell Place; and at the Jefferson Educational Society.
Zeiber and her students, who are pursuing master's degrees in architecture and urban design, did advance homework by studying the various planning documents already on the books for Erie. They then labored day and night to come up with a batch of enticing ideas for the bayfront promenade, Dobbins Landing, and the parkway.
I admit to being intimidated by the term "charrette." But I quickly saw its value, as I joined 50 or so participants at each public session. The Kent State group, which included Erie resident Julian Colicchio, made us all feel smart and creative as we pitched ideas for "iconic" connections between the parkway and the rest of the city and as we touted what makes Erie so spectacular, including our enviable location on a Great Lake, our immigrant history, and our maritime heritage.
"Our team took note of how many of the participants spoke really eloquently about New Americans, about the diversity of Erie's old and new immigrant communities being an anchoring asset for the city and region. That sentiment is not as common as one might hope, but it felt genuine and really welcoming," Zeiber said in a follow-up interview.
Erie participants stressed that both eastside and westside bayfront residents should have easy access to waterfront amenities, and they pleaded to make sure those attractions aren't just built with the affluent in mind. Rather, they said, remember the things that regular folks like to do: Walk, run, fish, boat, bike, play with their kids, buy ice cream, eat pizza, and watch the sunset.
They also advocated for recreational spaces for Erie's oft-neglected eastside. One Kent State student sketched out plans for an eastside beach volleyball court.
Erie participants fondly recalled the days when the Chestnut Street pool brought kids together from both sides of State Street. Might there be another public pool in the future?
Zeiber was impressed by the public's interest in the charrette process, which the Design Collaborative oversees in a different city every fall. Recent charrettes have been held in Akron, Detroit, and Toledo. "We always hope to inspire with possibilities we see for our partner cities, but to see it happening in real time is really incredible, especially for our students, who don't often get to work with real communities in their education," she said.
Fuhrman, an artisan baker who served as the first director of Erie County's long-range plan, "Destination Erie," said it's important for PennDOT to get its plans to improve the bayfront parkway right this time. "Once the shovel goes in, you have that for the next four, five, six decades," he said. "You can't look at it and say, 'I don't like it anymore.'"
There's a lot to like about the ideas that the Design Collaborative put together — putting in scenic overlooks that jut out over the bluffs; creating art and history trails; connecting the Bayfront Promenade from east and west; planting pollinator gardens and local vegetation; designing unique bridges for pedestrians and walkers, including, perhaps, an elevated, circular, illuminated one over State Street.
The students also noted the vertical designs that help to define our landscape, including the Bicentennial Tower, the Perry Monument, the various lighthouses, even the three old Hammermill smokestacks. Their observation reminded me that I like the sweeping view of church steeples — also vertical elements — from the top of the Bicentennial Tower.
Erie residents have suggested painting the old Penelec smokestack on the property owned by Scott Enterprises to look like a lighthouse. The charrette students envisioned putting striking, colorful nautical symbols on it.
Zeiber and her students highlighted two things that we may take for granted: the 12-foot public access walkways along the bay required by city ordinance and the proximity to Presque Isle State Park. "How do we capitalize on that?" Zeiber asked at the first public gathering.
"Physically, the things I was most surprised by on-site were the possibilities for the bluff/promenade south of the parkway and the 12-foot public access waterfront," Zeiber said. "Both of those things were incredible assets that you already have, but are underused. I really pushed our team to center those in our work, in order to highlight the amenities you already have."
"We knew about Presque Isle, Dobbins Landing, and the downtown coming in, but those other two pieces surprised me and seemed like amazing opportunities for increasing connectivity," she said.
Seating and public park "nodes" could make the public access walkways more visible and inviting, the students suggested.
Community engagement was key, Zeiber said. "A participant in the Friday afternoon review brought a lot of specialized knowledge and perspective on being someone with a visual impairment in the city, which our team then incorporated into specific textural guidelines for wayfinding that aren't entirely visual," she said.
"We found out the evening of the second day that the observation deck mural at the Dobbins Landing site was intended to be the first move towards making that space more of a public gathering space, which was also a goal of ours; so, we reoriented our ideas for that deck specifically, to complement existing work," she said.
One Erie participant grumbled about a student idea to turn the parking area that stretches south from Dobbins Landing into a public park.
"Yes, sometimes we hear mixed messages, but we try to find some sort of consensus," Zeiber said. "This is also a wonderful learning opportunity for our students — there is no one 'community,' and their work in any public space will always have to reconcile a whole host of desires and visions."
The students were diplomatic when someone at the Jefferson Society, on the final day of the charrette, asked if there should be a Ferris wheel on Dobbins Landing. Port Authority concept sketches include a Ferris wheel as one possible attraction there, but Brenda Sandberg, the port's executive director, has stressed that the amusement ride is just an idea, not a certainty. One student politely pointed out that Erie already has a Ferris wheel (at Waldameer Park & Water World) and that perhaps such a major attraction should wait until Erie draws a critical mass of tourists to the bayfront.
What's next? The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative will return to Erie, likely in early December, and the student work will soon be available on a website for the public to view.
Representatives from PennDOT attended all three public charrette sessions. "Partnerships are an important component of transportation projects, especially large projects like the Bayfront Parkway," said Jill Harry, press officer for PennDOT's District One office in Oil City. "Once we receive the final report from the group, we will evaluate the recommendations, determine which are within our jurisdiction and decide what can be included within the scope of the Bayfront Parkway Improvement Project," Harry said.
Zeiber said it was fun to have Colicchio, an Erie native, as a charrette member.
"This doesn't usually happen, and it really helped give us local perspective and history in real time. It was also great to ask specific cultural questions (what is sponge candy?)," she said.
Liz Allen likes the way "charrette" rolls off her tongue now that her Ancestry.com DNA test has revealed that she is supposedly half French. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Taking steps for access
On Aug. 7, when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation presented revised plans to improve the Bayfront Parkway, Jesse and Ricardo, the Erie artists known as Art in Tandem, talked about how they had weeded and cleaned up old brick steps leading from Front Street to the West Bayfront.
The men undertook the project because they had seen people climbing over the guardrail near their home to scramble down the bluff, often to get to work.
Soon after, the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority posted signs: "No trespassing. Unsafe steps," the signs reads. "This staircase is a feature of the Bayfront's past. The use of this staircase is NOT permitted. Alternative access to the Bayfront is provided to the East at State St. and to the West at Cascade St."
I understand liability concerns. But referring to the brick stairs as "a feature of the Bayfront's past" communicates a message that many of us hear repeatedly about various projects. Elected officials, public employees and community leaders tell us that they know what's best when it comes to making progress in Erie. Who needs brick steps to walk to the waterfront, when you can get in your vehicle and zip along the Bayfront Parkway?
Yet citizens have expressed concern about mobility and safety along the Bayfront Parkway, from Lincoln Avenue to East 12th Street, and the Bayfront Connector, from East 12th Street to Interstate 90, since the segment from Greengarden Road to State Street opened in October 1990.
On that date, Erie residents turned out in throngs for a celebratory walk along the length of the road. Less than two weeks later, an Erie Daily Times headline read: "Problems pop up on bayfront highway," as motorists complained about speeders, crashes, and glare.
Maybe that was to be expected, because over the years, elected officials, business executives and transportation planners offered various reasons about why the parkway and the connector were necessary. The road would be an incentive to boost local manufacturing and the port; it would attract tourists to the waterfront; it would spur bayfront development; it would be more convenient for locals living in the suburbs.
A 1972 Morning News story said that completion of the Bayfront Highway, as it was called then, would "give the city its first 'expressway' system." That same year, Earthwatch-Erie, an environmental group, urged officials to abandon plans to build what would eventually become the Bayfront Connector, in favor of "an east-west rapid public transportation system." What kind of future might Erie have carved out if those in power had listened to Earthwatch-Erie?
In the '90s, various proposed alternative routes for the Bayfront Connector prompted hundreds of citizens in Harborcreek, Lawrence Park, and east Millcreek to protest loudly that they didn't want the extension of the road to obliterate their neighborhoods. They won; the connector went through east Erie neighborhoods instead.
In 1995, Erie City Council President Mario Bagnoni tried but failed to get council to ban truck traffic on the Bayfront Parkway. "The people over there on East Avenue are screaming and I don't blame them," Bagnoni said. "Trucks are not supposed to use that as a shortcut to get through town."
In 1996, Jeffrey Spaulding, director of Erie's Department of Economic and Community Development, said the city was seeking funding to build a pedestrian bridge over the parkway at Plum Street. "The fact that residents have been crossing the parkway at unprotected areas is creating major safety concerns," Spaulding said then. "This project will eliminate a dangerous situation."
"This project" never happened, and now PennDOT is proposing pedestrian bridges for Holland, Sassafras, and State streets, and possibly across from the Pennsylvania Soldiers' and Sailors' Home. But Jim Forringer, PennDOT's district executive, told the Erie Times-News in August that there is only enough funding for the Holland bridge in the first phase of the project.
The three-day "Erie Bayfront Charrette," led by the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University, came up with dozens of exciting ways to better connect the city to the bayfront and to improve public access and amenities along the entire bayfront.
"I do always look forward to seeing what (if anything) comes from the charrette! Our hope is always that we are useful for our host community, and that our students have a meaningful experience (in that order)," said Kristen Zeiber, the collaborative's project manager.
My hope is that the Urban Design Collaborative's final report, due to be shared in Erie in December, will persuade PennDOT officials and other local partners to improve the parkway in ways that work for pedestrians, bicyclists and users of mass transit, in addition to Erie motorists and visitors. — Liz Allen