A Niagara River boat launch about to undergo a $1.2 million transformation into a waterfront park will be a test site to see whether solar-operated trash compactors and other environmental features will work in Erie County parks.

Construction will begin this month on a project to add more green space, a dog park and environmentally friendly features to Black Rock Canal Park at the Ontario Street boat launch in Buffalo.

The county-owned park will include several features such as LED lights and landscaping designed to filter water to see if such features can eventually be incorporated into other county parks.

"Our goal was to really try to be creative with this park and use it as an opportunity to pilot some of the things that the other county parks might consider," said Maria R. Whyte, the county's commissioner of environment and planning. "Right now, we don't even have a recycling program in the other county parks. So I think our goal is to really identify in this particular project what works and what doesn't and how it can be transferred across the park system."

The project is the first phase of a multimillion-dollar plan for the boat launch envisioned by a group of volunteers who want to turn what has been a busy but worn-down recreation area into the latest waterfront park in Buffalo. They have been working for eight years to develop designs and to press for funding for the mostly paved site between the Niagara Thruway and the Niagara River near Black Rock and Riverside.

"A lot of the focus is downtown, which is wonderful, don't get me wrong," said Margaret Szczepaniec, chairwoman of the Black Rock Canal Park steering committee. "But we do have more to Buffalo's waterfront than just downtown. We are the northern-most point of Buffalo where people have waterfront access."

In addition to a new dog park, the first phase of the project will include demolishing a shuttered snack shop, replacing a paved strip along the river with a narrower road with a cul-de-sac, street lighting, parking and grass. The dog park will include a dedication to law enforcement K-9 dogs.

Planners have incorporated several environmentally friendly design features that county planners hope can one day be used in other county parks. Those include porous pavement in parking areas and landscaping designed to filter storm water before it reaches the river. Streets and pathways will be lighted by LED lights, and solar-powered trash compactors will be placed in some areas of the park.

[JUMP] The county's goal is to reopen a bike path along the river by early spring and to finish construction on the first phase by May. Future phases, which could include work to beautify the main parking lot and add a building and boat slips, are not yet funded or designed.

The boat launch and the bike path in the park will remain, and Szczepaniec said the new park will include educational features about birds that nest and migrate along the Niagara River.

The area drew community concern in recent years because of vandalism, graffiti and drug paraphernalia found around the closed snack shack. Despite its condition, it has remained a popular spot for launching boats and fishing.

"I just give the community all the credit in the world for really being the driving force behind this park and for recognizing this park's potential," Whyte said.

Money for the first phase will come from the Niagara River Greenway Fund, the State Environmental Protection Fund, the State Canal Corp. and the State Multi-Modal Program. The county has also borrowed $300,000 for improvements in the park.

"It never got the attention it needed," Szczepaniec said of the boat launch. "Not only will it get the attention it needs, it's going to become a crown jewel of Buffalo's waterfront."

email: djgee@buffnews.com

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