Can South Transit Road, a commercial strip that looks like thousands of others on the outskirts of towns from Maine to Mexico, be transformed into a vista of retro-look stores that plunge the mind's eye back to the 19th century?
Not easily and not overnight. But newly elected Town of Lockport Supervisor Marc R. Smith and other town leaders plan to give it a try.
They've enlisted the help of City of Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker, Pendleton Supervisor James A. Riester and other political and business figures to work on a unified design strategy for what many in the Lockport area call simply "The Transit."
"The Transit" is six miles of Route 78, running from the Tri-Way Bridge over the Erie Canal in the heart of the city, south past Ruhlman Road, where the city ends and the town begins. It runs through the burger-joint and chain-store section to Robinson Road, where the road becomes the border between the towns of Lockport on the east and Pendleton on the west, all the way to Tonawanda Creek, the border with Erie County.
That's a gateway to Lockport, Smith said during a recent interview, and it's where the sprucing-up idea can begin to take shape.
"For people coming into Niagara County, it's not very attractive," said Lester J. Robinson Jr., chairman of the Town of Lockport Planning Board.
Smith said his design role model is Ulrich City Centre, the retro commercial complex Ulrich Development Co. is building on Main Street in the City of Lockport. The red-brick building with a cupola and lots of trim sits well with town leaders.
"I'm not sure we need to narrow it down to one style of architecture," Smith said. "We can zero in on a time period, say 1825 to 1875, where there are various styles that would fit in."
"Brick, white trim, a few columns, a little gingerbread on the thing," Robinson said. "I think that would be more the type of front we'd be looking for."
Smith, an insurance agent who took office in January after two years as a town councilman, said Town of Lockport Councilman David H. Knight got him started two years ago on thinking about community transformations.
"Marc and I have even gone out to Ohio to look at some developments, like Legacy Village south of Cleveland," Knight said.
On its Web site, Legacy Village in Lyndhurst, Ohio, calls itself "Cleveland's premier lifestyle shopping experience [which] appeals to people of discerning taste from the moment they arrive." It's a three-story, upscale, indoor-outdoor mall which goes easy on the usual mall standbys.
Smith, who will address the town Planning Board at 3 p.m. Tuesday about his proposals, said he is in the process of forming a focus group "that would explore the idea of having a common design concept on Transit Road." Members are expected to include Tucker, Riester, Knight, city Corporation Counsel and unofficial architecture critic John J. Ottaviano, Pendleton Councilman Joseph Frawley, engineer James Sacco of Pendleton, construction executive and city Planning Board member Glen Miller, and others yet to be identified.
Tucker said the idea of altering the city's zoning ordinance to incorporate common design concepts is not out of the question. But, he said, "I don't want to do it in a way that puts an additional burden on [business owners]. I guess the best thing to do is sit down with them."
Smith said he's interested in "virtual planning," which does not mean a computer simulation. It involves the municipality choosing a site and a design and then finding a business that wants to use the site and construct the building the way the town wants it.
"It's having everything turnkey for the developer and then having the developer come in and put up the project you want the way you want it -- the design, the color," Smith said.
Obviously, the plan would have to be tweaked depending on what the business turns out to be, but Smith said the design guidelines are critical.
"We have a great deal of space available, both on our side and in Pendleton, for a couple of signature projects," Smith said.
"There's still a lot of open land, especially south of Rapids Road, on both sides, Pendleton and Lockport," Knight said. "There's some land that could turn over, too; some small businesses that would probably sell out in a minute if something big comes along."
Robinson said some houses would be eventually displaced.
Riester said, "It would be nice if we had a theme, so it's not helter-skelter." He said Pendleton doesn't have any major projects cooking right now on its side of South Transit, although there are a couple of commercial buildings planned for Donner Road, which intersects with South Transit.
"We just hope that Pendleton will really follow through," Robinson said. "We've got a lot of ideas, like putting in service roads off of Transit."
Service roads would run parallel to Route 78, and drivers would follow them to the driveways of the businesses that might someday be built. Service roads are common in Ontario, with nearby examples being the ones along the Niagara Parkway and the Queen Elizabeth Way.
"If you've got 10 businesses in a row and you have 10 accesses off a four- or five-lane highway, you've got a problem," Robinson said.
"I think there's a lot of tools we can use. It's up to us to work together," Riester said.
Tucker agreed, saying he has an excellent relationship with Smith.
"I'm ready and willing to work with Marc Smith on anything," the mayor said. "I applaud him for having some vision. We're ready to assist."
>Changes under way
Robinson said the town has already started to brighten up the Transit strip by requiring 40 percent green space on new projects, and even on renovations to existing ones.
For example, Robinson, said, Mighty Taco is going through a makeover at its Lockport location and is planning to place grass and shrubs in front of the eatery, while parking is to be restricted to the side and rear.
Other plantings were required on the new Starbucks building, which also includes a Kay Jewelers and a Radio Shack, and at the Dunkin' Donuts that replaced the abandoned former Burger King.
"It's coming, but it's kind of slow," Robinson said.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the Town of Lockport was transformed rapidly from a rural community, which it still is on the edges, to a concentration of subdivisions, trailer parks and strip plazas. Most of this occurred under the 33-year tenure of Supervisor Floyd D. Snyder.
Snyder, who died in office in 1995, was a friend to development and building up the town's tax base, but Robinson acknowledged Snyder wasn't always very fussy about design.
The town's laws are starting to reflect differing values.
In 2004, the town held up Wal-Mart's request for approval of a supercenter on the Lockport Mall site because it wanted to complete work on an addition to the zoning overlay district -- a special zoning law for South Transit Road -- requiring all "big-box" stores to obtain a special use permit from the Town Board, in addition to normal Planning Board approval.
Robinson said the town also passed a law giving itself the option of banning all billboards along South Transit Road within the next several years.
"It's going to be a big argument," Robinson predicted.
Smith's design ideas would be a whole new kettle of legislative fish.
"Our zoning ordinance doesn't touch on architecture," Robinson said. "As far as the design goes, this is new."
Still, the Planning Board is throwing its weight around anyway. For example, a new Rite Aid store at Lincoln Avenue and Davison Road had to include some decorative white columns in its red brick design.
"I've never seen a Rite Aid with white columns," Robinson said.
The board also sought greenery at the new Starbucks that opened a few months ago.
"Once it's spring, their plantings are going to look really nice," Robinson said.
>Clashes to come
But the coffee house is next to a McDonald's and in front of a Save-a-Lot food store, so there are limits to the aesthetic value of the site -- limits that point out a glaring problem with the notion of a common design theme for South Transit Road.
There's so much there already, buildings that clash not only with the concept of a 19th century look, but with each other.
Smith said the town may help businesses retrofit their looks with cash.
"It's amazing what you can do with some construction materials," he said. "We want to have incentives in place for people to make changes when it comes to that."
He said these incentives would take the form of grants or low-interest loans, perhaps through the town's existing Industrial Development Agency. The town's ability to offer tax incentives is slim because there is no general town tax and no property is exempt from the user fees for refuse pickup and other services.
The outcome of the Wal-Mart supercenter application -- which could come to a vote in June or July, according to Smith -- will be something of a measure of how the new policy might work.
Wal-Mart's request to demolish most of the Lockport Mall and replace it with a combination supermarket and general merchandise store is pending before the town Planning Board.
Robinson said the board has already requested a retro style of design for the exterior, and Wal-Mart didn't say yes or no. Smith said the inspiration came from an article Knight showed him about the design of a Wal-Mart being rebuilt along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"The facade on that Wal-Mart looks quite similar to the City Centre [that] David Ulrich is building," Smith said.
Robinson said Wal-Mart has delivered about 1,000 pages of responses to questions to the Planning Board, the Town Board and the public asked during the scoping process. He said the Planning Board will likely call a special meeting devoted exclusively to Wal-Mart sometime in the next month.
Soon after that, there will be another public hearing and a 30-day public comment period on the plans.
Smith hopes the Wal-Mart project will be the beginning of something special -- and retro.
"Once we get a little bit of differentiation," he predicted, "we're going to be a huge draw."