Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Update [UPDATED]

20 Jun

This is the latest in a series of articles on the Niagara River Greenway Commission – here are the previous entries on the history of the group, an analysis of their systemic challenges, delays in spending money, and last October’s project tracker.

With construction season finally upon us in earnest, it’s time to check in on some local, outdoor-related work. When last we looked in on the Niagara River Greenway Commission and their annual $9 Million pot of money, I picked out three projects to follow, geographically separate and indicative of the spirit with which the effort was organized. To briefly review, the Commission was formed in 2004 to write a unifying restoration and public recreation plan for the Niagara River corridor, from Buffalo to Fort Niagara. After the NYPA relicensing agreement of 2007, it was given general oversight responsibility to implement its plan but few enforcement tools, including the actual spending of money. That is left to four Standing Committees, that have various levels of competence and gusto. In four years, far less than the $36 Million available has been spent, but instead of trying to untangle the dizzying array of issues on every project, let’s look at the three I chose, and how they succinctly epitomize the overall effort:

Grand Island: Fisherman’s Landing – $400,000

The reclamation and redevelopment of land is fundamental to any restorative work. In the case of Fisherman’s Landing, immediately to the west of the South Grand Island Bridge, the biggest news relates not to what is being constructed, but what is no longer there.

This small spit of waterfront used to be home to a closed and graffitied water treatment station, walled off and crumbling concrete. Pieces of that relic are now being torn out daily, and according to Town Councilwoman Mary Cooke (R), Fisherman’s Landing will be open this season.

While everyone is excited to see the excavator bucket finally in the ground, the road to this point was overly long. Fisherman’s Landing was one of the first projects submitted to the Greenway Commission in 2007, but the town made the hard-to-anticipate mistake of submitting the work to the Buffalo and Erie County Standing Committee. That board took three years to simply meet, agree to open a bank account and hire the Community Foundation to write the checks and keep the books. Once the money flowed in 2010, the project underwent a series of redesigns, as the state decided to no longer require Grand Island to use this area as a last minute chlorination discharge point. Removal of that redundant and out-dated infrastructure yields a cleaner and smoother space, but it also delayed construction past the 2010 season. A $400,000 clean up three years behind schedule is an apt symbol of much of the Greenway work. In this case, at least we are only a couple months from completion.

Shoreline Trail Signage – $205,000

In addition to acre by acre environmental restoration, the Greenway Commission was charged with unifying the space in a coherent fashion, and enabling and encouraging citizen use. Little does more to solidify the concept of a trail in a users mind than consistent and comely signs.

Many thanks to Tom Dearing and Rachel Chrostowski in the Erie County Planning Dept for info and graphics

Compared to other Greenway projects, this one has been relatively smooth and straight forward thus far. The logo and interpretive element design has been arduous (six years of tweaking, as I reported last time), but since the last public meeting in October, the signs have been finalized and are currently in production. They will be installed in the pilot section, from Scajaquada Creek to the Tonawandas, in August and September, only a month or two behind the timeline presented last year. In future years (2013 at the earliest for Greenway funds, per Tom Dearing), additional sections of the trail can be marked.

At this point, however, the Greenway FAIL begins to creep in. This project was funded by the Buffalo and Erie County Standing Committee, and so has binding authority for Greenway trails in Erie County to look a certain way. In addition, since it was the county that applied, they have more power to mandate logo and sign usage, even if they use other (state, county, DOT) funds. But no such influence expressly exists across the border in Niagara County. The Greenway Commission itself can recommend but not mandate, and Erie County has less influence than that. In practical terms, this means that the signs that tell you that you are on the Greenway could change in design once you cross the border, undermining any effort at unification and branding.

Trail from Devil’s Hole to Lewiston – $2 Million ($210,000 of Greenway funds)

At least the trail exists in the Tonawandas, however, to have varied signage. I have no picture for this project because nothing has happened. The gap remains between the Village of Lewiston and Devil’s Hole, the essential bit along the escarpment that would connect large trail systems above and below. For bikers wishing to be able to travel from the Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo to Fort Niagara via safe, dedicated path, there is only this section standing in the way. The ability to travel by foot or bike the entire length of the Greenway seems to me the most basic and fundamental requirement possible.

I contacted Supervisor Reiter of the Town of Lewiston several times for this piece, as he was quoted extensively in a Niagara Gazette article on the subject last September. I only received a brief “the state is holding us up” comment via cell phone after several calls and emails to his office. This wouldn’t be the first delay – Congresswoman Slaughter first secured funding for the project ten years ago. More to come, hopefully during this brief construction season.

UPDATE: Jerry Zrmeski has an article in today’s Buffalo News on the stalled, FAILed Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission. Halfway through its charter it has barely met, much less begun work on a plan to “lay out ways to promote the area’s natural and historic assets, from the Falls to Fort Niagara, as a unified and nationally significant destination.” An astute watcher of WNY may ask themselves: 1) isn’t the Niagara River Greenway Commission already supposed to be doing that, 2) why do we need another dusty, forgotten, or competing plan, and 3) (as a commenter at the Buff News website asks) if Niagara Falls was in Higgin’s district and not Slaughter’s, would the work be funded already?

6 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Update [UPDATED]”

  1. Jesse June 20, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    How the hell do some signs (I don’t care how many!) cost $200k and 6 years??  Smells like corruption, to me…

  2. Brian Castner June 20, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    @ Jesse – they are doing many miles of trail, and I bet those big signs cost several thousand each. Now, the six years of design and planning fees is another story.

  3. RaChaCha June 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    @Jesse Last year I was on the committee that worked on the signage standard, and I can tell you firsthand there was no corruption involved — otherwise I might have a few more dollars in my pocket 😉 Much of the funding went to consultants who worked with the committee and the community to refine the standards and produce final design work (always expensive) — and for fabrication of the initial demonstration signs (all-custom fabrication, which tends to be expensive). I’d say the funding was actually stretched a fair amount by the in-kind planning and design input from the committee members and the Erie County Dept. of Environment & Planning.

    The standards are based on work that was done several years ago, before the Greenway legislation and funding program came into being. A major reason for the delay is that when the Greenway came on the horizon a few years ago, Erie County decided to hold off on final design/deployment of this signage until it could be done in conjunction with and compatible with the Greenway planning — also knowing the Greenway funding would be coming available.

    Disclaimer: I’m not speaking for the committee & don’t construe my comments to imply I’m in love with the design (when it comes to design work I tend to be hard to please). And yeah, I’m with you about how long it takes to get even basic things done sometimes — but folks kept plugging away at this, didn’t let it fall of the radar screen, and got it done.

    @Brian — thanks for this update! And the updated update!

  4. Jesse June 22, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    @Guys: “Much of the funding went to consultants who worked with the committee and the community to refine the standards and produce final design work (always expensive)”

    Smells corrupt. 🙂  I wonder what the “consultants” get on an hourly basis.

    200k for some signs is a good canary-in-the-mine indicator of why sh!t can’t just get done any more.  If the Greenway signs need consultants (!) and blow through 200k, how much are the signs gonna be on the new Peace Bridge? (ok, that’s facetious)  I try to imagine America being built on the model we use today and it’d just never happen.

    Funding (read: earmarks!), consultants, committees, public input, blah blah blah.  I look at that and imagine a set of gears grinding to a halt and seizing, gunked up with mud.

    Brian, your updates are great – something I’m not seeing anywhere else, and I’m sure happy there is (or will be) a trail stretching all the way along the waterfront.  We’ll be using it with our kids summer and winter (skiing out along Lk Erie with the wind whipping is awesome).  I’m just frustrated with projects involving government that end up mired in the legal / political morass.

  5. Brian Castner June 23, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    @ Jesse – the good news is that the lakeside trail is on the planners books and they are working on it. The bad news is that it is mired in that legal/political morass, but hey, that’s the public input process. The more you try to streamline it up front the more you open yourself to lawsuits and delays on the back end.

  6. RaChaCha June 23, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    @Brian a great pithy statement about the tradeoffs/risks of too much input/planning vs. not enough.

    @Jesse What you express is a great reminder about what a planning/design process can look like to someone not in the nitty-gritty or who is getting a glimpse. Think about it from the extremes: some public official could just open a catalog or go online and order some stock trail signs — which would look like roughly half-size street signs — stick them in the ground on erector-set metal poles and say “all done signage.” But they would be laughable in comparison to what exists on the Canadian side (from what I hear), and they wouldn’t give trail users (especially and increasingly here, international visitors) the kind of information & experience they want and expect. On the other extreme, I think I can say without telling any tales out of school that there was some feeling among those involved that the standard doesn’t go far enough in terms of reflecting the world-class significance of the Niagara River corridor (the design/standard is in many ways based on the Genesee Riverway Trail signage in my hometown).

    But above all, something needed to get done within the given budget — which is the case with any planning/design/development effort — and the signs and signage standard represent good work. It will be great to see them get rolled out this year.

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