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Editorial: A lush necklace for the sturdy old city

Something new for Buffalo: Following the examples of other urban centers, including New York City, a well connected group of advocates is planning to transform an abandoned railway into Buffalo’s newest park. It’s a wonderful idea.

Like Manhattan’s popular and charming “High Line” along the island’s west side, Buffalo’s park will be built on an abandoned, elevated rail bed, running 1.5 miles between Canalside and the SolarCity plant in South Buffalo. Magical may be too fanciful a word, but you get the idea.

The idea is to create a 25-foot-high nature trail running along the old Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad line. If it happens – as backers insist it will – the city would join 19 other urban centers in North America’s High Line Network which, in addition to New York’s park, includes the Bentway in Toronto and Chicago’s “606.”

“We’d like to be number 20,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy. And, in that, she has powerful supporters, including Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a politician with a history of making things happen. “This is going to get done,” said the congressman, whose dogged efforts produced the city’s Canalside district.

It’s a perfect fit for the new Buffalo. The city understands that its venerable old structures – even the ones that are worn and in need of repair – are latent sources of pride and renewal. At one extreme, think of the once-crumbling Richardson Complex. Its main building has now been restored as a beautiful hotel and will soon include a center for architecture. It has also become a gathering place for community events, such as the light show and concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that drew thousands of people to the campus in July.

That’s just one example. Canalside is another. It wasn’t an old building, it was a waterfront wasteland – valuable urban property whose potential was squandered for decades. Today it’s one of the hottest spots in Buffalo, with year-round attractions.

Larkinville is a reimagined neighborhood, its old structures put to creative new uses. Around downtown, including the now-reviving Niagara Street, vacant buildings are being repurposed, bringing jolts of energy to a reawakening city.

Buffalo’s proposed high line park promises to become another such asset – a lush necklace draped on the shoulders of the sturdy old city. It takes something discarded and on the verge of uselessness, and turns it into an asset that will enchant residents and visitors alike.

Work awaits. While early funding is in place – from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, M&T Bank and individuals – more is needed. The amount is uncertain and will depend to a large extent on the results of a design competition planned for summer.

Backers hope entrants in that competition will include environmental architects and land use planners from across North America. None of them, we suspect, would mind designing a park that would be nestled among many created by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Communities have long made use of abandoned rail beds, of course, as walking and biking trails. Snowmobilers use them. But only 19 places on the continent have turned elevated rail beds into public parks. If the city isn’t exactly in the vanguard of this engaging trend, it is wise enough to recognize an opportunity.

That, too, tells the tale of the new Buffalo.

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