They came, they heard what State Parks representatives had to say, and they gave input. What happens next is anyone's guess.
Representatives of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation held their much-anticipated public scoping meeting on the Robert Moses Parkway Tuesday evening before an overflow crowd in the auditorium at the Niagara Falls Public Library. The session was intended to guide the state as it studies alternatives for changes to the northern parkway.
"We stand here at a moment of opportunity; we need to seize that moment," commented Mark Thomas, western director, NYSOPRHP. He spoke on the need for public consensus and for preserving and maintaining environmental integrity of the Niagara Gorge corridor as the state moves forward with its plans for the parkway.
As those familiar with the issue are well aware, the parkway -- its current state and particularly its future -- has been a source of contention and downright heated controversy at times, particularly with regards to a roughly 6-mile Niagara Gorge corridor section from Niagara Falls to Lewiston, and to a lesser extent points beyond out to Lake Ontario. Currently, the parkway exists as an altered one-lane, 40 mph road in either direction from the Rainbow Bridge area of Niagara Falls, north past DeVeaux Wood and Whirlpool state parks, past the Niagara Power Project, the DeVeaux neighborhood in the Falls to just beyond the escarpment area in Lewiston. From there it returns to the two-lane highway setup out north to its terminus at Route 18, Lake Road in the Town of Porter.
Years ago in an experimental move, the state opted to change the two-lane riverside stretch from Niagara Falls to Lewiston to one lane in either direction, with an eye for providing recreational use and public access to the Niagara River gorge area. Traffic lanes on the riverside were blocked off, first with barrels, then jersey barriers, with the intent of providing greater public access to the gorge area. It has met with mixed results. The area targeted has seen limited recreational use in some areas, and none in others.
The experiment also met with decidedly mixed reactions from the very many stakeholders representing the City of Niagara Falls, Lewiston and points north -- the environmental and conservation groups, the lower river region business and tourism community and others. Some, such as City of Niagara Falls residents, that city's business and tourism interests, the Niagara Heritage Partnership and others, have urged removal of the parkway, targeting primarily the aforementioned stretch from the Falls to Lewiston, for the Niagara Gorge to be geared for recreational and historical uses. Some have gone so far as to call for complete removal of the parkway as it exists outward to the lake.
The other side representing numerous interests from Lewiston and points north, such as the Robert Moses Parkway Preservation Committee, Artpark, Old Fort Niagara, representatives of Lewiston's and Youngstown's government and business communities, tourism interests and many others, have pushed hard for a return to the former parkway setup from the Falls to Lewiston and maintaining the parkway outwards to the lake. Issues have ranged from the current inconveniences of dealing with one-lane traffic to fears of complete removal of the parkway and denied access to northern points.
Other concerns voiced included the practicality of utilizing alternative traffic patterns such as Lewiston Road, Hyde Park Boulevard and others, the inconvenience and aggravation to motorists, plus the negative impact on neighborhoods.
Tuesday's session by state OPRHP was intended to gauge the response of both factions "for the record," said University at Buffalo professor Robert Shibley, who served as moderator. "Accessibility is the issue," repeated Shibley throughout the roughly two hour-long session.
Both he and Thomas told the crowd that members of a memorandum of understanding group comprised of State Parks, Department of Transportation, the City of Niagara Falls and USA Niagara developed a list of nine "initial project objectives" from an August session that are intended to guide the state in the future. "Our goal is to aim the consultant team to the best approach to get this done," said Shibley.
Key points of the plan discussed include: removing the "excess transportation infrastructure" that currently exists, i.e., the aforementioned 6-mile section; providing for "public transportation linkages," i.e., vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility in the gorge area; creating new and enhancing "connections with the adjacent community" and the gorge; and enhancing opportunities for "appropriately scaled uses," i.e., economic development by expanding the park experience in the gorge corridor to neighboring communities.
Shibley then opened the forum to input, first in the form of electronic responses by those who opted to utilize the electronic response clickers provided, and then by verbal comments on various issues that went on to occupy the balance of the session.
A total of 182 opted to speak their minds to the issues presented via electronic responses. By demographics, 38 percent of responders said they were from Lewiston, 28 percent from Niagara Falls, 23 percent from Youngstown, 4 percent from other areas of the Niagara County and 7 percent from outside the county.
Responses by attendees, both on the parkway and to the proposals presented were quite varied. A sampling of the comments Shibley and State Parks representatives heard included: strong support for completely removing the parkway in Niagara Falls; support of alternatives for maintaining sections of the parkway; concerns over accessibility/use of the parkway for medical emergencies; support for making the gorge corridor a world class park; wishes for greater access to Whirlpool State Park; security concerns for the Niagara Power Project; strong support for maintaining the parkway for regionalism objectives to benefit the lower river areas of northern Niagara County; better access for Niagara Falls neighborhoods; complaints on the state's changing the parkway in the first place without public input; the cost issues; the economic impacts and reasoning.
Overall, the biggest issue heard was access. Many questioned the practicality of removing the parkway infrastructure in the Falls and the impact on northern communities. Others argued for preserving and enhancing the natural integrity of the gorge areas. And all voiced a strong need for compromise and to further study alternatives.
As the session wound up, some attendees began to vent they were not provided adequate opportunity to comment during the structured response session. Shibley responded that State Parks was far from done with the scoping process and that Tuesday's meeting was just the first step. He reiterated that all their comments at the session -- written, electronic and verbal -- were being recorded and that over coming months State Parks will be reviewing them as part of assessments and further developments, en route to a planned April 2011 follow-up meeting and additional studies. He further informed that scoping phase of the project is the only one currently funded by the state.
"We've heard a lot from many people," said Shibley. "And we're not done."
He said those desiring to offer comments may due so up to Dec. 24. Comments can be sent to: Niagara Gorge Corridor Project, c/o Parsons, 40 La Riviere Drive, Suite 350, Buffalo, NY 14202. They can be sent via e-mail to: [email protected].