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Rebuilding waterfront, bit by bit

Peter Zink doesn't mince words.

He's describing the way he remembers a vacant lot on the banks of the Buffalo River the last time he drove through the Old First Ward.

"This used to be really dumpy," Zink says of the riverfront land.

Not anymore.

Zink and his wife, Nancy, are standing under the brilliant sun on a pristine boardwalk in River Fest Park. They're looking out over a neatly mown lawn and symmetrical wooden pergolas. Hot pink roses and sprigs of purple flowers mark the entrance. Signs depict historic images along the river.

The Zinks, retired Lancaster residents, have come to this stretch of Ohio Street because they've heard about the transformation from an overgrown lot to a small riverfront park.

They want to see it for themselves.

"I've heard about waterfront development since the '50s, and nothing ever, ever, ever happened until the last few years," says Zink, who remembers hearing stories of the grain elevators where his father once worked after emigrating from Germany.

It's not just this one park. While the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has been dilly-dallying for decades over what to do with hundreds of acres of land on the shores of Lake Erie, change has already taken root along the water.

Buffalo is finally discovering that we don't need pipe dreams to reshape neighborhoods and reclaim waterfronts. What we need are attainable goals, steady progress and people who are willing to work together.

Sounds simple enough, but around here, just getting rival factions to work together can be as difficult as building a new bridge to Canada.

River Fest Park is proof that a reasonable approach to changing the waterfront works.

The Valley Community Association had one simple goal when it set out to find a place along the river where it could hold its annual River Fest: getting a view of the water. But with most of the riverfront land privately owned, the group faced a challenge.

"Buying, that was the farthest from our imagination," said Peg Overdorf, executive director of the association.

Six years and more than 15 grants later, the association opened the park in time for last year's River Fest and to welcome the new Queen City Ferry to its dock.

People call it Peg's Park because of the way she shepherded the project to completion, but ask Overdorf, and you'll begin to understand just how many people came together to make the park happen.

"It's all about partnerships," Overdorf said. "People probably turn the other way when they see me coming, because I could have never, ever accomplished any of this stuff if I wasn't asking people for help all along the way."

It's little more than two acres, but this is how change has happened along the water -- whether new green space at the Union Ship Canal or plans to turn the Ontario Street boat launch on the Niagara River into Black Rock Canal Park.

Upstream from River Fest Park, crews were busy last week finishing the landscape of Mutual Riverfront Park at the corner of Hamburg and South streets to prepare for its grand opening June 12.

The land was a trucking site when the New York Power Authority bought it in 2009 as a storage site for its ice boom.

That could have been just one more eyesore cutting off access to the river. Instead, the Power Authority agreed to work with the Valley Community to build a $2.3 million park there with a boathouse, museum and boat launch.

Hundreds of acres may seem like an unmanageable task to rebuild the waterfront. But acre by acre, it's already getting done.