John Oehler moved to Buffalo’s waterfront 13 years ago because he wanted to walk and bike along the lake.
Since he moved there, life on the waterfront has improved as new attractions have been added – with one exception.
Oehler and his Waterfront Village neighbors are trapped in their homes nearly a dozen times every year when organized races and walks go on for hours on weekend mornings, blocking the only way in or out of their neighborhood.
Like the day he was a half-hour late meeting friends for a Buffalo Bills game.
“I had the tickets,” he said. “There were thousands of runners on Lakefront Boulevard.”
Waterfront residents have gone public with their complaints about traffic during events, which will begin again in a few months. And their case has been bolstered by Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, who lives in a waterfront condo and has raised the issue on the Council floor. He and his neighbors are asking the Brown administration for a solution.
Both residents and event organizers have horror stories resulting from the street barricades put up on race days:
• A run last summer trapped residents for hours, until the city improvised a temporary escape route.
• Sanitation workers got stalled for two hours one weekend day, unable to get to garbage totes lined up on Marine Drive.
• Frustrated residents trapped in their homes have abused race volunteers with profanities, according to one event organizer.
“We’re sort of held hostage during these events,” said Frank Lysiak, executive director of the Waterfront Village Advisory Council.
Lysiak and others who live in the 350 units at Waterfront Village know that they inhabit a popular address and said they are more than willing to share the city’s shoreline for special events.
But while waterfront residents have had to contend with these types of events for years, the problem has gained new urgency following an incident last August when no motorist could enter or leave Waterfront Village for hours.
They were trapped because Lakefront Boulevard dead-ends to the north and a race barricade blocked it on the south at Erie Street.
The city came up with a makeshift solution that involved having residents drive along a bike path to reach LaSalle Park to the north in order to get out.
“It’s not only a health and safety issue, which it is, it’s also an issue of quality of life,” said Joe Mascia, who lives at Marine Drive Apartments across Erie Street from Waterfront Village. The apartment complex, managed by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, is home to between 1,200 to 1,500 people, he said.
Residents said they need to know when the races are being held so they can plan ahead if they need to catch a flight, go to church or work, or if they are expecting visitors. In one instance, when garbage collection at Marine Drive was scheduled on a Saturday, the truck had to wait for two hours, said Mascia, a Housing Authority tenant commissioner.
Some race organizers don’t notify residents at all. Organizers of the larger events, such as the Ride for Roswell, send mail to each residence in affected ZIP codes, while others notify each homeowners association or put signs next to the sidewalk a week before the race.
“At best, you better be a quick reader,” said Pridgen, who said he pays to park his car overnight at a nearby hotel when he knows a race could block him in the next morning.
Pridgen had wanted a moratorium on such events this summer, until learning that several runs have already been scheduled. Now he is waiting for the Brown administration to come up with a solution.
Race directors said that they try to work with residents but that their volunteers on occasion have been on the receiving end of abuse from confrontational motorists.
Residents, meanwhile, said that volunteers can be inflexible when it comes to letting vehicles pass and that police officers experienced in directing traffic are needed on event days but that these issues can be addressed.
“It’s a fixable concern,” Lysiak said.
Waterfront Village starts at Lakefront Boulevard and can only be accessed from Erie Street, which can be shut down to traffic while events are going on. There are at least 10 running, walking or cycling events already planned there between May and November this year, according to a list provided by the Waterfront Village Advisory Council.
On one occasion, during the Color Run in August, a 90-year-old neighbor had to get to her son’s funeral, which involved a call to Pridgen, who called Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak, who came down and created the makeshift route for the woman through LaSalle Park.
“It was a good solution, but it was kind of crazy,” said Andrew Graham, who lives at Harbour Pointe Common and sought Pridgen’s help with the situation. “I think probably the city will think twice before they undertake to totally block the streets off like that again.”
The city is working on solutions to address residents’ concerns, Stepniak said in a written statement.
Other neighborhoods also experience street closings for special events, but the waterfront attracts an inordinate amount of activity.
Pridgen described a scene last year in which he could not leave and drove slowly up to the barrier, beeping his horn and flashing his lights.
“I was a tad bit defiant,” as he drove up to a race volunteer, he said. “I had to get to work. I was stuck in the house.” The volunteers were not inclined to let him pass, but he stuck his head out the window to let them know he wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.
When Heritage Centers stages its 5K run/walk every year, organizers know to put only their most seasoned volunteers near Waterfront Village.
“We’ve had people swearing and yelling at our volunteers,” said Sue Navarro, development coordinator for Heritage Centers.
The race brings people downtown who wouldn’t normally be there, Navarro said. “It’s beneficial to the community,” she said. “We’re showing off a great asset.”
The organization, which works with people with developmental disabilities, raises between $80,000 and $90,000 every year at the race..
No notice is given to residents, and Navarro suggested that the city do that through its online events calendar.
The volunteers are conscious of the importance of letting motorists through when possible, Navarro said.
“It’s only a 5K, it’s short. We have tried our best to respect people there.”