NIAGARA FALLS – Nearly nine years after a prominent businessman was fatally injured when struck by a car in front of his Pine Avenue restaurant, a crosswalk and traffic signal have been installed.
City lawmakers and family and friends of Mario W. Antonacci gathered Monday afternoon to dedicate to his memory the crosswalk in front of the Como Restaurant, perhaps the most iconic restaurant in the Falls.
Many people considered the amount of time it took to install the light and crosswalk excessive, and there was never a consensus that they were needed.
The effort to get a traffic light installed on Pine, between 22nd and 23rd streets, began in 2008, said Councilman Samuel F. Fruscione, the City Council’s most outspoken advocate for the project.
In early 2011, the city’s Traffic Advisory Commission told city lawmakers that it did not support installation of a traffic light and crosswalk; the commission said that improving street lighting in the area – which has since been done – would help correct problems.
In November 2011, then-City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka told lawmakers his research indicated that the pedestrian volume and number of traffic accidents were not high enough to warrant a traffic signal. He also pointed to a recommendation from the state Department of Transportation not to install the signal and federal guidelines that were not met in this situation.
At that time, Fruscione told Skurka that the Council was “expecting a traffic light.” Councilman Charles A. Walker called it a unique situation requiring special consideration.
The Council eventually changed a city law that would have prevented a traffic light in that location because of the proximity of existing traffic lights. There were already signals at 24th Street and Pine to the east, as well as at 19th Street and Pine to the west.
Poles for the traffic light were installed last fall, but other work on the signal was just recently completed, and the light was not turned on until Monday. The installation cost the city about $85,000, Fruscione said.
The pedestrian-activated crosswalk, officially known as “Mario Antonacci Crossing,” was designed to give pedestrians a designated and protected route to cross Pine, including between the restaurant and the Veterans Administration clinic across the street. The Cristoforo Colombo Society, which draws large crowds, is also located across the street from the Como.
Members of the community, including representatives of the Colombo Society and the Pine Avenue Business Association, had called for the traffic light because they said they were concerned about pedestrian safety, especially in the 2200 block of Pine.
Antonacci’s children said that at least six people, including their father, have been struck by cars within several hundred feet of the restaurant. That included two women in their 70s who were struck in November 2010, though not seriously injured. Earlier in 2010, another pedestrian was hospitalized after being struck in that area of Pine.
Antonacci was struck Dec. 31, 2004, as he was getting to work a little after 6 p.m. on a dark and drizzly New Year’s Eve. Instead of taking up a parking spot in the customer lot next to the restaurant, Antonacci parked across the street, his daughter Marion Bartley said.
Her father was walking quickly and wasn’t looking where he was going “because he was always so excited about going to work,” Bartley said.
The driver of the vehicle that struck him – a young man coming to dine at the Italian restaurant with his friends – was looking for a parking spot, she said.
The accident left Antonacci with more than 300 stitches in his head and many broken bones. His injuries also required multiple surgeries. He remained hospitalized in the trauma unit of Erie County Medical Center. Antonacci was 77 when he died April 4, 2005, from his injuries.
Though it took longer than they would have liked, Antonacci’s family members said they were grateful for the city’s actions.
“It’s a great thing that my father’s memory will maybe help the safety of this community,” Bartley said.
Attending Monday’s ceremony were Antonacci’s four children – sons Louis, Frank and Mario II, along with daughter Bartley – as well as about two dozen other family members, friends and onlookers.
The Como Restaurant was founded in 1927 by Francesco Antonacci, Mario’s father. There have been five generations of family members involved in the restaurant, with one of the latest being 16-year-old Ciara Downey, who works in the deli.
“Mario was an anchor here in the City of Niagara Falls. Not only with his restaurant, but his personality brought thousands of people here to visit the City of Niagara Falls,” said Fruscione, who was joined at the ceremony by Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian and Councilman Robert A. Anderson Jr.
Fruscione, who called Antonacci a “great Italian-American,” has made his own Italian heritage a political issue as recently as the September primary.
Fruscione also characterized the length of time it took for the crosswalk and traffic light to be installed as the result of legal battles with the administration of Mayor Paul A. Dyster. Fruscione and Dyster are political foes.
Dyster said that there was no “battle” with the administration, but rather with DOT officials who said the proposal did not meet standards for a new signal.
The agency had told the city that one or two high-profile accidents were not enough to necessitate a signal, Dyster said.
Despite that, there was an outcry from the community, and the city was able to make it happen, the mayor said.
The city wants “Pine to be a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood,” Dyster said, though noting that the crosswalk will be effective only if pedestrians use it.
During the approximately 45-minute Columbus Day dedication ceremony, a Buffalo News reporter counted at least five people crossing Pine Avenue in front of the Como without using the crosswalk, which was no more than 20 feet from them.