Simonson issues report to raise public awareness, spur dialogue amongst stakeholders
Download full report HERE (PDF)
By Joshua Maloni
Look, up in the sky!
It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s, it’s … super bands … of wires, signs and poles clustered together above Center and Water streets.
Now, while those things are designed to help people, these days they’re also blocking out portions of historical buildings, monuments and, well, nature.
The result, according to community historian and volunteer Lee Simonson, is insidious, suffocating eye pollution – not exactly the words Lewiston leaders would want used in describing the village’s main thoroughfares.
Yet, this is precisely what Simonson sees when he drives down Center Street.
In a recently compiled report, the former Niagara County legislator said Lewiston is choking on a hodgepodge of signs, utility poles and wires, and it needs to be saved.
“Now is the time to begin writing a new chapter for Lewiston’s future,” Simonson wrote.
His 36-page analysis begins with a call to action. Simonson encourages residents to get out and actively take note of what’s hanging above the main roadways. He then details steps that can be taken to remove these blots on the landscape.
“First, we need to get rid of the utility poles on Center Street and Water Street. These poles, electrical wires and cables, are suffocating our very way-of-life and stifling our potential,” Simonson wrote. “We need to adopt an aggressive multi-year program to either bury the lines or relocate them. Niagara-on-the-Lake adopted a program 50 years ago to do the same thing and has been wildly successful. Other towns have been doing this for years. …
“Moreover, we need to coordinate the pole and wire undergrounding with any water and sewer line improvements. And we need to get our plans developed and get them on future federal infrastructure project lists now! …
“Second, we need to get serious about the explosion and proliferation of public signs. Street signs are popping up all over the place as state and local officials think that another sign is going to solve another problem.”
In a phone interview, Simonson said, “Anyone interested in the historical character of Lewiston would almost have to notice the encroachment upon our community’s character and quaintness by the never-ending addition of more and more signs.”
“The whole thing, to me, is one of the most serious issues that faces Lewiston right now, in terms of its future,” he explained. “Other communities around the country … have been implementing plans and taking actions to rid themselves of sign pollution and, in particular, wire pollution.
“The report shows several examples – certainly not all of them – but several examples of how we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Example No. 1 is what Simonson called “the spider web” (shown right).
“One of the Village’s most historic properties is the Long House at 5th & Center Streets — what is located in the ‘heart of the village.’ And yet, the most glaring and obtrusive eyesore happens to be at this important intersection,” he wrote. “Standing underneath this tangle of wires, or even looking at it, makes you feel like you’re caught in a spider web — suffocating under a crazy maze of cables, wires, lines and threads. It’s a dizzying mess.
“But more importantly, it’s hiding one of the Village’s most treasured properties and assets.”
“That is an atrocity … that nobody even notices,” Simonson said in his interview.
Next in the report, he points out the presence of a utility pole in the background of scores of photos.
“Tens of thousands of people visit the Freedom Crossing Monument on the bank of the Niagara River on North Water Street every year, including bus loads of students who take field trips to this landmark to learn more about the Underground Railroad. Judging from Internet presence, it is also the most photographed landmark in Lewiston,” Simonson wrote. “But look at what people see when they get home to sort their pictures and create photobooks. The fugitive slaves won their freedom in Canada with the help of Lewiston volunteers, and yet, we have become slaves to the sights that blemish this world class sculpture and hallowed landscape.”
Simonson also references what he calls “Lewiston’s Leaning Tower of Pisa,” the slanted utility pole next to Niagara Crossing; as well as the utility pole taking up a parking space in front of Water Street Landing.
Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign
The report takes aim at signs, suggesting there’s not only too many of them, but that they’re achieving the wrong goals.
Simonson wrote, “Lewiston’s entrance looks like you are about to enter an industrial city, not a small village renowned for its culture, arts and history. No other village in Western New York has a 6-lane gantry – some call a monstrosity – as a welcome point.
“How many things are wrong with this picture? For starters, the first thing you see is an arrow telling you how to get out of town. It’s not welcoming, it’s oppressive!” he wrote.
Simonson also takes aim at the sign on Lewiston Hill, which is “intended to designate the Village boundary. But the arrow at the bottom gives visitors the impression that they need to take the Creek Road exit to get to the Village. Not only is the sign ridiculously unsightly, but it’s misdirecting. The whole thing should be taken down immediately.”
And “There are several Northbound Alternate signs that are part of our local pollution problem. To make matters worse, no one really knows what they mean or what purpose they serve.”
These are just a few of many examples cited in the report.
Simonson told The Sentinel, “We have to dig ourselves out of a hole that we’ve dug ourselves in over the last several decades. And it’s continuing to this day; every time there’s a problem, somebody has a sign with a solution. It’s just getting to the point where the scale is tipped too far to the extreme. And we need to get some balance back.”
He cautioned, “We really need to take a step back. We need to become more sign and wire aware.
“The purpose of the report is to open people’s eyes to what, I believe, is the most serious and egregious impact on the history and historical character of historical Lewiston that we’re trying to (protect).”
Simonson wrote, “Lewiston needs to adopt a policy where, if a new sign goes up, then they have to choose a place where another sign comes down. That would force everyone to start making priorities in terms of what’s important. There should also be an effort to try to get rid of about 15% of the signs that we have up right now – signs that no one wanted, no one asked for, and no one would miss.”
Can it Be Done?
Village of Lewiston Mayor Anne Welch said, “I like his report. I think it’s great.”
However, she expressed some concerns.
For starters, Center Street is a New York State Department of Transportation roadway. This limits what the municipality can and can’t do. Moreover, Welch said she briefly discussed the sign report with NYSDOT Region 5 Director Frank Cirillo, and he, too, had reservations about project costs (expected to be millions of dollars), legal issues, and overall practicality.
“I said, ‘In a perfect world, it would be great. But I don’t see us dropping all the lines and taking down the signs,’ ” Welch said.
“It’s not just them taking it down (on Center Street), it’s the people that have a pole like in their backyard,” she added. “We still have to have those lines.”
Welch and Simonson were part of a committee that looked into Lewiston’s signs and utilities some 20 years ago.
“It wasn’t just the grid lines, then you go into the (phone) and cable and everything else,” she said. “It was very, very expensive – back then.”
Department of Public Works Superintendent Terry Brolinski said any process to remove or relocate utility lines would be “Mammoth; huge; huge – especially on a state road.”
“You’d have to go through the state, first, get all their permits and everything. And then you’ve got to remember you’ve got water lines, gas lines, electrical lines already in there. And all these trees,” he said. “All those transformers are on the poles. Now they’ve got to be ground units. Where are you going to put those?”
Brolinski explained, “I can’t see how they’re going to do it, because, in my mind, the more electric you put underground, the more problems you’re going to have trying to fix services and things of that nature. Because you’re going to have to put your services underground. Now you’re tearing up more.
“Financially, I think it’s huge. Just from what they’re saying at (765) Fairchild (Place) for one pole.”
Welch said the cost to replace a utility pole at that site was negotiated down to $6,500.
“I can’t even think of what it’s going to cost to do (Center Street),” Brolinski said.
Simon(son) Says So
If you ask Simonson, he’ll tell you that, if there’s a will, there’s a way.
In terms of cost, he said “If other communities can do this – by the hundreds – Lewiston can do it, too. It’s just a matter of will.”
He noted, “It’s a good time to (take action on this report), because the infrastructure money with the federal government has not been decided yet – it hasn’t even been voted on yet. But it will. Someday, that infrastructure money will be voted on, and it’s going to be a trillion or two. And the communities that have their acts together and have their plans – their shovel-ready plans together – are the ones who are going to get the money.”
As far as the DOT rejecting suggestions, Simonson said, “Did they say that before the streetscape project? I don’t think so. Lewiston pretty much got everything it wanted in that last streetscape project.”
In an email, NYSDOT Regional Public Information Officer and Assistant to the Regional Director Susan S. Surdej, P.E., wrote, “DOT follows federal standards for appropriate sign usage and placement, and installs safety and directional signs only after carefully considering the necessity for each sign. If a municipality has a concern, they could contact the Department. The Department would then initiate a study and evaluate each sign based on the federal standards.”
Simonson said, “It’s time to join hands with the state DOT and work together to create a plan that everybody can live with, and everybody will be happy with. I think that’s possible. I think it’s very possible. And if the state of New York knows that this is our priority, and we have the support of our state representatives, I think everybody can sit down at the table. And I think we can make this work.”
Addressing the DPW concerns, Simonson said, “Underground utilities are less maintenance, not more. They are more reliable, because they’re not prone to weather incidents. There are a lot of advantages.”
“As I also mention in the report, not everything needs to be underground,” he said. “A lot of things just need to be re-placed.
“Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls is the perfect example. Pine Avenue put all the utilities behind the buildings.”
Welch said removing items from Water Street is more feasible.
“I’ve always said at least maybe we could get the waterfront lines down,” she explained. “I asked (village Engineer) Mike Marino today; I said, ‘Mike, you’re doing phase 5 of the Lewiston Landing’ (redesignation). I said, ‘I want you to put the wires in it.’ I said, ‘I want money to take all the wires down on the waterfront.’ ”
She added, “It’s eye pollution – especially on the waterfront. I go to my daughter’s – she has a beautiful new development – not a wire; it’s all underground. We don’t we have that. We have all the existing that has to come down.”
“I mean, everybody wants to see (less signs and utility poles on Center Street). But it’s just not feasible, right now, for us to do that, or try to do it,” Welch said. “It just would cost so much money, and it’s so much to go through.
“Down the road, we’ll see. I’ll do a little at a time and, hopefully, get the waterfront done.”
She also pointed out the village was successful in limiting the number of new yellow crosswalk signs on Center Street.
“The prior board – DOT came in with all those yellow signs. The prior board, they got them down to what you see now. It could’ve been a lot more than that,” Welch said. “We’re conscious of it, but there’s only so much we can do. That’s a state highway, and they have to put their signs up where they see fit.”
In his report, Simonson provides detailed, step-by-step actions that can be taken to craft a resolution, find money, and change sign styles and verbiage. He also lists locations similar to Lewiston, and the actions those municipalities took to become clutter-free.
Simonson said, “The physical report has been provided to the village – enough copies for the Village Board, the Planning Board, the Zoning Board, the Historical Preservation, DPW and police. Enough copies have been distributed to the Town Board for the board, (plus) planning, zoning, historical on the town level, and DPW.”
The report also can be downloaded HERE.
Simonson said he’s received positive feedback from Lewiston’s cultural organizations.
“Step two for me is to talk to the various stakeholders – I’m talking about the governments and the nonprofits – and try to build a consensus for what we want to do, in terms of what our priorities are,” Simonson said. “This is going to be a drip, drip, drip thing. Do I expect the world to change in two weeks? Absolutely not. It’s just going to be kind of a continuous process.”
“It’s a big deal just to get the people to open their eyes and say, ‘Yeah, I never noticed that before, and it looks terrible.’ That’s a big deal,” he said. “Once they have that awareness, that’s the first big step.
“My job in the next month or two is just to create the awareness; then it’s going to be try to create a consensus; and then create some priorities; and then create some action plans.”
Simonson admitted, “This is not going to change overnight; we’re not going to undo decades of sign abuse overnight. This is going to take a long time to right the ship.”
Lee Simonson has created a report that states signs and utility poles are tarnishing Lewiston’s historic and aesthetic qualities. Some of the worst offenders, he wrote, include the “spider web” on Center and South Fifth streets; the gantry entering the village; the northbound alternate; and obtrusive lines behind monuments. (Photos courtesy of Lee Simonson)