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Nature, design meet at Canadian plaza U.S. officials impressed with new Peace Bridge gateway

The man who oversaw the design of the Peace Bridge's new Canadian plaza wanted it built with stone and wood -- nothing fake.

Those who cross into Canada here can see architect A. Silvio Baldassarra got his wish.

He even arranged some three dozen boulders -- each weighing between 40 tons and 90 tons and standing as tall as eight feet -- to build a fountain in front of the new customs building.

Baldassarra, vice president of NORR Limited Architects & Engineers of Toronto, said he remembers dispatching an employee to select the boulders from a quarry north of Toronto.

"I said, 'Don't come back with little rocks,' " Baldassarra said.

Spruce trees from Quebec provided the wood for a spectacular, asymmetrical roof over the large customs building.

Those from the U.S. side of the bridge couldn't help but note the disparity between the gleaming Canadian plaza and the maze of asphalt and traffic on the Buffalo plaza.

Josh Sawislak, senior adviser to U.S. General Services Administration Administrator Lurita Doan, attended Monday's opening ceremony as the Bush administration's representative. In his speech, he praised not only the "effort and skill" but also "the thought and care evident in the design."

"Let me assure you that Administrator Doan and [the General Services Administration], as well as our partners at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, are fully committed to a similar project on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge," Sawislak said.

He said he looked forward "to a day when we can stand together again and share these thoughts on the other side of the river."

Speakers at Monday's official opening praised those responsible for the look of the plaza, for their use of natural materials and for their thought behind the design. About 250 officials and dignitaries attended.

Skylights run the entire length of the new customs building, allowing natural light to filter down through a two-story atrium where travelers at counters fill out paperwork and talk with customs officers.

"There's a sense of being outside," Baldassarra said. "I think it makes you feel more at ease."

Rocks not concrete barriers -- were put in front of the inspections booths.

"It's gorgeous. We know the face of this border has changed dramatically and for the better," said John A. Lopinski of Port Colborne, a Peace Bridge director.

The $36 million upgrade of the Fort Erie plaza includes three new buildings: the Travellers Operations Building, the Peace Bridge Authority Administration Building and a shared facility for the Refugee Processing Unit and Peace Bridge Newcomers Centre.

Lopinski urged Americans anxious for plaza expansion plans in Buffalo to drive across the Peace Bridge to look at the Fort Erie plaza.

"It proves, if given the chance, that we strive for excellence," Lopinski said.

He sees more political support on the American side than ever before.

A lot of it comes from Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who cited environmental, economic development and transportation reasons for building a new U.S. plaza in his remarks during the opening ceremony.

The Peace Bridge recorded about 5.5 million car crossings and 1.3 million truck crossings in 2006, making it Canada's second busiest border crossing. But car trips fell 1 percent compared with 2005. And there are nearly 1 million fewer trips now than in 1999.

Uncertainty about delays -- even on days there's no congestion -- contributed to that decline, Higgins said.

"They don't know what to expect," Higgins said of travelers. "And that uncertainty leads to avoidance.

Adding capacity will alleviate actual congestion and remove any doubts travelers will have about delays, he said.

"Our work isn't done until we have a new American plaza," Higgins said.


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