NIAGARA FALLS – More than five decades after the New York Power Authority tore up miles of scenic land along Niagara Falls’ waterfront to build a highway, the state plans to spend more than $40 million to restore public access.
The plan announced Tuesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will remove 2 miles of the northern portion of Robert Moses Parkway and transform the four-lane highway, between Findlay Drive and Main Street, back into a park.
The highway stretches around the city, diverting traffic around downtown and cutting off access to the scenic gorge and the Niagara River. It has been called an urban design mistake almost from the beginning.
“Robert Moses Parkway was not a good idea to be placed where it was placed,” Cuomo said at an overflow press conference at the Niagara Falls Conference and Event Center. “We all knew it was a mistake and we are going to come back and redo it.”
According to Rep. Brian Higgins, who issued a statement from Washington, D.C., the power authority will fix what it broke, funding a $42 million project that “takes down the parkway and builds up this city.”
Cuomo did not elaborate on the power authority’s role, but thanked John R. Koelmel, chairman of the authority, and Gil Quiniones, president and chief executive officer, who were on hand for the announcement.
As part of the total project package, the power authority already has contributed $2 million for engineering and redesign work, which will open up 130 to 140 feet of park space between Whirlpool Street and the gorge, according to Thomas Donohue, principal project manager for Parsons Corp., who spoke previously to The Buffalo News.
Cindy Abbott Letro, chair of the Niagara Frontier State Park, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission, called Cuomo’s announcement historic.
It was touted as the largest expansion of green space since the Niagara Reservation was designed in 1885, turning the Niagara River Gorge and the Falls into a single destination, according to Cuomo.
“This is a day we all have been waiting for,” said Letro. “It’s been more than 50 years since the Niagara River has been accessible from Niagara Falls city streets.”
Lisa Vitello, chair of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board, has been fighting to have the highway removed for decades. She said that since 1990, the Niagara Heritage Partnership, followed by the Niagara Waterfront Revitalization Task Force, have fought to have it removed. Vitello was a member of both groups.
“You can bypass the city completely,” said Vitello of the 18.4-mile parkway that stretches from Niagara Falls State Park to Youngstown. “We did a pilot program and blocked off two lanes [of Robert Moses Parkway North] but now hopefully we can get rid of it completely.”
Kristen Grandinetti, a member of the Niagara Falls City Council, said she has been interested in the project for 15 years and said she was “over the moon excited” at Tuesday’s announcement.
“I cannot wait. I think it’s going to be a game-changer,” Grandinetti said. “This is going to open up the waterfront to Main Street and we can breathe life back into Main Street.”
Council Chairman Andrew Touma said, “Moses was a blockade to the gorge and it limited access to Main Street. Now it will create a dynamic where people can go from a greenway to businesses on Main Street.”
Cuomo said that for years, the state and city leaders have talked about removing the parkway around the city, but most felt the project was too big and too expensive.
“There’s nothing too ambitious for New York,” the governor said. “We are a state of people who were told ‘no, you can’t’ and we said ‘yes, you could.’ ”
“It’s a highway. It’s asphalt. It’s concrete,” Cuomo said. “You get a shovel. You hit enough times, it cracks. You pick it up and put in a truck and no more highway,” he told the crowd, which both laughed and cheered.
Mayor Paul. A, Dyster, also a longtime opponent of the parkway, said it was “illogical that something so great could be choked off by lanes of concrete that is scarcely used. Everyone has known the parkway was a mistake almost from the day it opened.”
Cuomo said that for too long, people have looked across the river at the Canadian side of the falls and wondered: Why not us? He said Canada achieved success through investment, hard work and partnerships, and New York wants to do the same thing.
“We have the same exact assets, but they had partners that were helping. The partner who should have been helping is the State of New York. They should have been more present and more active in Western New York,” the governor said. “The state government should have been there to help and it wasn’t.”
The project will be put out to bid by the end of 2017.
Vehicles will be able to access the city via Whirlpool Street, which runs parallel to the parkway. Whirlpool will be completely removed and reconfigured by the state as part of the project and there will be several access points for cars to park and pedestrian walkways to view the gorge.
In 2014, the state began an $18 million project to remove the south part of the parkway to connect residents to the Niagara River.
Letro said removing an outdated, underused parkway will finally allow people to “experience the wonder of Niagara Falls firsthand.”