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BRIDGE DIVISIONS ARE STILL A CHASM, BUT WE MAY FINALLY HAVE A WAY ACROSS

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is playing a constructive and possibly critical role in the struggle for consensus on a new Peace Bridge. After evaluating competing plans and interests over four months, it has made some basic recommendations and offered a process that may lead to wider agreement.

The Partnership is acting as part mediator, part catalyst. It is also spending some of its own money to hire design professionals and to create a forum.

A core position of the Partnership is to reject the idea of a new bridge site, keeping the U.S. landing of any new bridge on the same general site where the Peace Bridge touches land now.

That site may well not be the best one. The community never had -- or took -- the time and expense that would have been needed for full evaluation of either taking a back corner of LaSalle Park or going downriver.

But the Peace Bridge Authority's attachment to the current site, as well as the city government's unwillingness to be flexible about its neighborhood planning, were bound to lead the Partnership to its present conclusion -- that time and money would be lost in pursuit of a new landing spot. Controversy uses up both.

Yielding on the site question also gives the Partnership a better chance of bringing the Bridge Authority, which owns and controls the bridge, into the more public and inclusive discussion process of an inclusive design workshop (or "charette").

The Partnership is not suggesting that the Buffalo area give up on the idea of a "signature" bridge -- a new span memorable and beautiful enough to become a regional symbol. It wants the possibility of replacing the Peace Bridge Authority's unsatisfactory plan for mismatched "twin" bridges to remain in play.

Bruno Freschi, the University at Buffalo architecture dean, and T.Y. Lin, a venerated bridge designer, are still at work on plans for a cable-stayed bridge that might do the job.

But consensus is a long way off. The Partnership may bring it closer.

The organization is hiring its own design consultants -- a road expert and a landscape planner. Their job is to address problems of traffic, space and park encroachment on the U.S. plaza. They should strive for excellence.

And the Partnership is also offering to organize a workshop, or charette, to bring together representatives of the different interests and points of view to look at plans together. By recommending use of the charette process earlier advocated by Jack Cullen and his SuperSpan supporters, the Partnership offers a chance for broadened participation and compromise.

The issues to be presented in the charette should not be too narrowly defined. Many elements in this community should have the chance for input on broad design concepts about the bridge and the U.S. plaza. There must be room left for creative thinking.

A particularly important consideration is what will happen to Front Park, the Frederick Law Olmsted expanse that has already been half lost to roads and the current bridge plaza. Partnership officials talk of incorporating it into an impressive gateway to the United States linked to the bridge plaza. The design consultants must explore this creatively and sensitively. The park is, after all, an integral part of Buffalo that the wider world should be hearing about -- the city of architectural treasures.

In the end, of course, the Peace Bridge Authority has the power of ownership over the bridge and nearby land that it controls. We hope the five Canadian members of the board will be sensitive enough to American concerns to buy into the charette process.

The timetable for completion of the design team's work and the forum over the next month or six weeks is uncomfortably tight. But it recognizes pressure from the authority to avoid delay.

The Partnership has not resolved the questions. But it has stepped in to provide a process that may lead not only to agreement, but ultimately to a better bridge and U.S. plaza.

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