Tag Archives: Devil’s Hole

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?

Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Tracking

31 Oct

If only natural resources had endowments. Mountain ranges and canyons. River and lakes. Lonely rocky beaches on cold, grey ocean shores. An endowment, in our monetized culture, would allow funds to be available for protection and clean up, access and restoration, enhancement for ease of recreation and enjoyment. Too good to be true? Amazingly no; it’s the situation Western New York is blessed with along the Niagara River now, and we’re only partially getting it right.

A quick rehash on the Niagara River Greenway Commission: created out of the NYPA relicensing agreement, this public body serves two functions. First, it sponsored and certified a report and plan on how to conserve, restore, develop and promote the Niagara River, from Buffalo to Old Fort Niagara. Plan complete, it now reviews projects from host communities and organizations for consistency with the plan, though it doesn’t spend any money itself. NYPA holds the purse strings, in the form of four committees, whose jurisdictional responsibilities are blurred, and procedures and competence vary widely.

But here’s the most important part. At $9 million a year, this is the biggest pot of development dollars in Western New York that no one talks about.

The Greenway Fund’s report card, from its three years of existence, is definitely mixed. Much has improved in the last year, so the grade at its two year anniversary would be far worse. Since I started reporting on the Greenway a year ago, the information on NYPA’s website has gotten considerably better. The committees have had three years to spend $27 million. Significantly less than that has been allocated, though following the exact dollar amounts is challenging, as reporting is spotty and inconsistent. Much has improved, though there is much more that needs to be done.

Meanwhile, questions continue to be raised about the direction and appropriateness of the fund’s chosen projects. The Chairman of the Greenway Commission himself, Bob Kresse, has publicly noted that while dollars are finally beginning to flow, they are being spent on items outside of the spirit of the Greenway Report’s vision, though not the letter of its unenforceable law. The $9 million a year was supposed to go for ecological restoration, and the creation of a unified greenbelt. Instead, it is being spent by local towns and municipalities on deferred maintenance of town parks, on restrooms and asphalt overlays. Kresse doesn’t have the power to stop it, and is asking for the law creating the Commission to be amended.

In the meantime, work is finally beginning on some good projects, in keeping with the original vision. The area the Greenway covers is broad and diverse, so I have selected three projects, from different geographical areas, to start tracking regularly, to provide a face to an obscure and complicated process.

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

The most basic requirement for a unified greenway is a physical trail that runs its entire length, for biking, running and walking. Unfortunately, there is a very large hole in the current right-of-way, and in the most sought after spot. Currently, from the south, one can bike from the North Grand Island Bridge to Niagara Falls and on to Devil’s Hole, but no farther. Likewise, one can travel from Youngstown to Lewiston, along the lower river, but no further. The escarpment stands in the way, and there is no (official and legit) connection along the river from the Upper to the Lower. If any section begs for public access, it is this dramatic piece.

A Greenway project is finally fixing that, after nine (9!) years of debate, planning, controversy, and waiting for funding. Work begins this fall. 

Grand Island: Fisherman’s Landing – $400K (all Greenway funds)

The Town of Grand Island had the misfortunate of requesting funding from the Buffalo and Erie County standing committee, the poster child for delay and mismanagement. Now that the committee has finally hired Bank of America and the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo to watch and spend its money, dollars are flowing to build this park near the South Grand Island Bridge.

I recently had the chance to speak to Mary Cooke (R), councilwoman on Grand Island’s Town Board, about the project. The town wrote the grant to request funding in 2007, and received official approval in 2008, to remove the old decaying and graffiti-ed waste water treatment plant, plainly visible to all commuters just south of the massive bridges to Tonawanda. For two years the town waited for the committee to decide how to spend its money, until it finally arrived in mid-2010. A public meeting was held in July, and from the input, some additional green features have been added to the already planned park and fishing spot. Work is now slated to begin in 2011, two (if not potentially three) full construction seasons late.

Shoreline Trail Signage – $205K (all Greenway funds)

A trail is more than the packed dirt, rock or asphalt, that physically connects one location to another. It is also has its own sense of place, and is a thing unto itself. In the grandest examples, the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail, the ubiquitous yellow and white blazes are iconic themselves. So when the trail is finally complete from Brant to the northern mouth of the Niagara River, a key unifying feature will be the signage.

I attended a public meeting on October 19th about the plans for the signs. I will admit, I have little opinion about the exact color scheme, geometrical design, use of non-profit partner’s branding logos, or exact layout of informational versus directional signs. I am interested in them being complete, helpful, and installed. The process for the current crop of signs began in April of this year, and in June of 2011, a pilot section, from Scajaquada Creek to Isle View Park in North Tonawanda, should be installed. Designing the logo alone took six (6!) years, and replicates work done in labeling and branding the Riverwalk section (big wheeled bike, anyone) in Buffalo less than a decade ago. Unfortunately, only the pilot section is currently funded. But we are only three years into a fifty year funding protocol, so there is time (but not too much) to get this right. When complete, the signs will be identical, and thus bind together, 120 miles of shore-side trail.

I will provide regular updates on these projects as developments occur. If there are any other projects you would like me to stay on top of, dear Reader, so not hesitate to contact me (form in the upper right of this page).

Escape the Urban: Devil’s Hole

12 Sep

The dramatic natural beauty of  Western New York does not continually dominate the senses. We are not Vancouver or Denver, with large and impressive ranges of rock looming at all times. We aren’t Seattle and Portland, where “The Mountain” is a constant companion. Views in our hilly Southern Tier are regular moraine ridge-lines, often swallowed by thick second-growth forest. We’re even a deceptive water town; with so much industry and so few natural access points, our expansive lake feels further away than it should.

But this doesn’t mean we lack for picture-esque vistas – it means  you have to search them out. They hide along escarpments and in gorges, inverted mountain ranges that they are, and reward only after a little work. A perfect example is Devil’s Hole, just down the gorge from Niagara Falls, itself the least obtrusive natural wonder I have come across.

Along with Zoar Valley, Devil’s Hole has a bad reputation locally for being a dangerous place, as the occasional hiker is killed every so often from a fall. The last time I hiked Devil’s Hole, I was met with news cameras on the way back up: “Are you nervous about hiking here with your children the day after someone died?” was the question.

Well, no. Responsible hikers stay on the trail for many reasons, and safety is just one of them. Erosion control and protecting fragile or recovering habitat are others. In Zoar Valley and Devil’s Hole, the established trails are not only safe, but some of the nicest places to go close to the City of Buffalo.

Last weekend I took my brood, which includes a wife and four sons, down Devil’s Hole to the Niagara River. It’s a perfect hike for a family: there is enough to look at for the older two, i’ts easy enough for my pre-schooler, and it’s short enough for the toddler who rode on my back in a Kelty the whole way. He didn’t squirm to escape until we were nearly back up to the top.

The hike starts in the wash of an old ice-age era wash, a previous tributary of the Niagara River when the Falls was still several miles north, and later a waterfall itself that has since dried up in the wake of the receding ice sheet and the draining of Lake Tonawanda. Depression-era improvements on the trail, in the form of those ubiquitous cut stone stairs, lead you down into the gorge.

The Niagara Power Project rises like an Aztec Temple above the forest canopy, when viewed from the gorge wall. The sheer rock face gives way to rolling mounds of dirt debris, covered in maple, eroded down over the centuries from above. The drop into the gorge is not far, only 300 or 400 feet, but it is enough to provide a workout with a child on your back. Soon you finish your last staircase, and are walking along the Niagara River.

The bed just above the river’s edge is the old Niagara Gorge Railroad, a tourist railway that seems now like a recipe for trouble, and finally succumbed to rock slides in 1935.

From the Devil’s Hole access point you can walk to Whirlpool State Park and further. The trail is flat and pleasant, shaded by cottonwoods that are usually more at home along lazy rivers in America’s interior. This day, though, we turned soon and returned, contenting ourselves with a short hour-long hike and a view of the seagulls fishing in the churning rapids just a couple feet away.

No one would mistake Devil’s Hole for wilderness. The foot traffic is significant, and Whirlpool Jet Boats ply the river regularly. But I would be remiss if I did not conclude by taking the State Parks to task for their maintenance of the trail. I make a habit of picking up trash from any trail I hike, with the intention of leaving the place cleaner than I found it. After a hundred feet or so, I gave up in Devil’s Hole. The debris was constant, and the graffiti was inexcusable. Yes, I know it is a busy place, and I hiked on Labor Day, at the end of tourist season. But despite budget and staff cuts, there should be enough resources to at least walk the trails once in a while, and pick cigarette butts and candy bar wrappers off of a wonder of the world.