Riverside Park

The final Olmsted park designed for Buffalo was the city’s northernmost park, Riverside Park. The plan for this park was created in 1898. 22 acres in size, this park was built on the site of a private picnic ground overlooking the Erie Canal and the Niagara River. Its formal feature was a fountain and music court, with a carriage drive separating them from a play area devoted to ball fields and from a series of minnow pools nestled amongst a dense grove of trees.

Riverside Park was the first Buffalo park designed by Olmsted with a direct waterfront connection. A footbridge provided access across the canal to the park from a boat landing on the Niagara River. Both the footbridge and landing were already present when the site was obtained. Olmsted designed the formal features of the park to align visually with the footbridge. The carriage drive connected Niagara Street, which runs parallel to the river, with the park. The carriage drive also connected with Roesch Avenue, which was visualized as a part of a northern parkway system connecting Riverside Park with Delaware Park. That anticipated parkway was never completed.

In 1912, another 17 acres was added on the southern side of the park, but never completely developed. The abandonment of the Erie Canal along the Niagara allowed additional riverfront space to be added. However, that added space was lost during the 1950s along with the footbridge and boat landing when the Niagara Thruway was constructed on the river shore. The Thruway cut Riverside Park off from access to the water.

Olmsted’s design for Riverside Park has suffered considerably from intrusions and neglect. A senior citizens’ center, a covered ice rink and set of swimming and diving pools cover much of the formal area of the park, blocking sight lines to the river as well. The diving pool is no longer used. The noise of the Niagara Thruway is a significant distraction along the western portion of the park. A modern footbridge was constructed over the Thruway to connect Niagara Street to the Niagara Riverwalk, but it was not build not along the axis of the of the original. The riverside walk and bike path it connects to is sterile asphalt, devoid of trees. No parkway link to the rest of the park system was ever completed. The carriage drive is now designated Hotaling Drive. The minnow pools have long since been filled and turned into lawn, and the once dense tree stand has been considerably thinned by age and disease. Utilitarian picnic shelters dot the area adjacent to Hotaling drive. An ill-sited parking lot now adjoins it, and a new driveway has been built across former lawn leading to the senior citizens center’s entrance. Almost no integration of the southern addition to the main park has been developed. Access to that portion is primarily from the perimeter rather than from the original park. Where they were constructed, modern interior pathways show little consideration for pedestrian amenity or park enjoyment.

As the result of the formation of a steering committee for Riverside Park in 1994, an initial master plan for restoration and development of the park was prepared. Covering both the Olmsted area as well as the later park addition, it called for considerable landscape improvements. These would include tree plantings and landscaping of an improved river linkage. It also called for a more coherent development of the newer section as the focused site of the park’s active recreation activities. The minnow pools, while not restored, would be recreated as low lawn areas under the plan. It called for the replacement of the dilapidated picnic shelters, removal of the parking lot at the east end of Hotaling Drive, and the restoration of the early cobble curbs along the drive. The diving pool and the driveway to the senior citizens center would be removed, and a performing arts stage constructed on the site of the original park bandshell. The document also proposed the eventual removal of the buildings from the site once their life expectancy would be reached, and for their replacement in adjacent areas outside the confines of the park.

The 2008 Olmsted Parks Master Plan superseded the 1994 document, but it incorporates many of the improvements earlier recommended. It also proposed that the minnow pools, with some modifications to address the recognized shortcomings of the original implementation, be restored, returning a very popular and unique feature to Riverside Park. After public input was evaluated, funding was secured for the initial phase of the restoration work. A large number of trees were planted, pathways restored, and the first phase of the minnow pool recreation was completed between 2013 and 2014 under Conservancy guidance.