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Eyesore spoils entrance to Wright gem

Frank Lloyd Wright's Rowing Boathouse will join a growing list of Buffalo architectural attractions when it opens in late summer or early fall on the Black Rock Channel.

But getting there from Porter Avenue will require dodging an eyesore -- a concrete block garage sitting amid camouflage-painted vehicles, tall weeds and barbed wire on a state-owned parcel directly in front of the gem Wright designed more than a century ago.

Under a complicated land swap negotiated by County Executive Joel A. Giambra nearly five years ago, the National Guard's truck depot a few hundred feet from the water's edge was supposed to be long gone by now. But a change of Buffalo mayors and rigid military priorities apparently have conspired to thwart the plan.

The first exchange of real estate was successfully completed in 2002, when Buffalo State College handed over part of its Great Lakes Research Laboratory property, on a site known as Cotter Point, to the nonprofit corporation that is building the boathouse.

In turn, the college was expected to take over the plot occupied by the depot, which the state had agreed to move. It never happened, and chances seem remote that the drive to the boathouse will be beautified for the first wave of rowers and tourists.

In early 2002, the county proposed relocating the military depot to a city-owned water pipe warehouse near the pumping station and LaSalle Park. Then Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's city Water Board approved the transaction, but its implementation was held up by the required environmental reviews, said County Attorney Lawrence K. Rubin, who at the time was county commissioner of environment and planning.

And then, after Byron W. Brown succeeded Masiello, City Hall did an about-face. The new administration felt the depot would not be "an appropriate use for parkland or waterfront land," Rubin said. City officials declined to comment.

Alternative sites have been suggested, but none passed muster with the state Department of Naval and Military Affairs, which wants the depot used by National Guard engineering units to stay within a short distance of the Connecticut Street Armory.

Despite its ramshackle appearance, the facility is vital in training "engineer-soldiers" for combat duty abroad and snow removal at home, said Eric Durr, Military and Naval Affairs Department spokesman.

"We need Erie County to find or build a suitable facility within a reasonable distance of the armory," Durr said. "Once that happens, we're prepared to move."

The incomplete land swap is also holding up Buffalo State's plan to build a new research laboratory and boat-building shop where the military depot now stands. The county agreed in 2002 to pay the college $800,000 for the boathouse site if the military depot stayed put.

Stanley Kardonsky, vice president of finance and management, said the college is willing to wait for the original plan to fall into place.

"Having worked in state government as many years as I have, delays are something you get used to," he said. "I'm optimistic that the process will work its way through by the end of the year. There's no one who doesn't want to see it happen."

If Buffalo State takes over the military parcel, it will demolish the concrete block building and may straighten out the narrow two-lane road leading from Porter Avenue to the Wright boathouse and the West Side Rowing Club, Kardonsky said. The route curves and dips sharply as it skirts the depot.

"My guess is we'd significantly improve access," he said.

Giambra said he is disappointed that the Military and Naval Affairs Department has been unwilling to consider moving the depot to a site farther from the waterfront.

"It's not a high-tech security operation unless you consider snowplowing part of national security," he said but added, "I believe this thing will get resolved."

Boathouse backers are intent on finishing the $5.4 million project, said Theodore E. Marks, president of Frank Lloyd Wright's Rowing Boathouse Corp.

"Our part of the deal is done," he said. "We're square and ready to go.

Wright designed the boathouse in 1905 for the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but it was never built. Many Wright scholars regard it as one of his most remarkable creations -- a visionary concept that led to other important works, particularly world-renowned Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa.

The two-story cast concrete structure will function as both a working boathouse for the West Side Rowing Club and a tourist attraction that will pull in many of the same people who come to Buffalo to see the Darwin Martin House, Wright's Graycliff and other architectural landmarks.


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