The Grant-Ferry business district will become the first commercial strip in Buffalo to install video surveillance cameras on West Side street corners in hopes of deterring crime.
The $93,000 initiative is part of a long-range $1.5 million blueprint for transforming the aging strip into the "International Marketplace," an eclectic mix of more than 130 businesses that will be promoted across Western New York and even Ontario.
Within two months, 24 wireless stationary cameras are expected to be installed on light poles along Grant Street between Forest and Hampshire and on West Ferry from Hampshire to Herkimer. A surveillance center will be created at a police satellite office that recently opened at the corner of Grant and W. Delavan Ave. Staffers will monitor street activity all day and in the early evening, while video recorders will capture overnight activity. Street signs will inform commuters that the area is being electronically monitored.
Some area business owners and residents have long complained about suspected drug activity, prostitution, smash-and-grab incidents and other crimes along the commercial strip.
"The surveillance system will give us a pretty good snapshot of what's happening throughout the business community," said Ronald A. Carnevale, president of the West Side Business and Taxpayers Association.
Carnevale sits on the eight-member International Marketplace Advisory Committee, a panel that was created by Mayor Masiello to help to chart a revitalization plan for the neighborhood. The Grant-Ferry Business and Building Owners Association has also been an active partner in the planning process.
Carnevale thinks the video camera initiative could become a crime prevention model for the region.
"A lot of business districts are waiting patiently to see how this works on the West Side," said Carnevale. "Don't be surprised if other areas follow our lead."
Grant Street business owner Vincent D. Lorigo chairs the advisory committee and he said part of his research involved talking with officials in Baltimore, Md., a city that has been using video cameras along commercial strips for several years.
"They experimented with cameras in one district and they're now using them in multiple neighborhoods because they've been successful in making people feel more secure," said Lorigo, who owns The Meeting Place, a wholesale and retail grocery operation at 185 Grant St.
Olean tried it long ago
While the concept is new in Buffalo, Olean experimented with cameras for about a year in 1969. Olean Mayor Jim Griffin said he remembers as a child an advanced system of fixed and movable cameras that were installed on North Union Street, Olean's main business district. Warner Cable Co. picked up the tab and used Olean to showcase video surveillance capabilities.
Retired Olean Police Chief Michael Luty said the experiment attracted worldwide attention as public safety officials from foreign countries flocked to the Southern Tier.
"I think it worked out very well, but there were some people who thought it was an invasion of privacy," said Luty. "I think we were ahead of our time."
Officials from Buffalo Place Inc., the agency that manages the Main Street pedestrian mall, have also been studying the feasibility of installing video cameras in the central business district. No final decisions have been made yet.
Niagara District Common Council Member Robert Quintana said the Grant-Ferry camera project is being funded through the city's 1999 capital budget. Quintana, a police officer on leave, said he is convinced that the state-of-the-art wireless system will help deter crime and make shoppers feel more at ease.
Cameras part of wider plan
He said an executive director will be hired soon to oversee the International Marketplace office that will be located in the recently-opened C.O.P.S. Station at Grant and W. Delavan. The site was donated by Sam Ciccia, owner of Chi-Chi's Hardware and Tool Rental at 375 Grant St. Workers enrolled in the AmeriCorps-Vista program, a federally funded effort, will be used to man television monitors during normal business hours.
"And with our 24-hour videotaping capability, we can send a message to criminals that there will be no down time," said Quintana.
But he stressed that the video cameras are only one component of a more comprehensive approach to neighborhood renewal. In August, the Police Department dispatched its FLEX Squad to the Grant/Ferry neighborhood, making hundreds of arrests and issuing parking and traffic summonses.
The revitalization plan has also involved curb and sidewalk replacements, along with the purchase of new trash receptacles and street banners. The Community Development Department is expected to announce a housing demolition and rehabilitation initiative for the neighborhood in February.
Meanwhile, a marketing plan will be launched soon that will include television and print advertising, brochures and other tools for promoting the Grant/Ferry district as a retail mecca.
"The Elmwood business strip showed critics that a neighborhood commercial district can rebound. I think the same thing will happen in the Grant/Ferry area," said Quintana.
Is he concerned that installing video cameras on street corners -- along with signs that alert people to their presence -- might further stigmatize the neighborhood or create a "Big Brother is watching" backlash?
Quintana said he has only had positive feedback from West Side merchants, shoppers and residents. And Carnevale said the city Law Department has given the initiative the green light. City attorneys have said that there is "no expectation of privacy" in a public area.
Neighborhood supports effort
Lorigo said the surveillance initiative has overwhelming support in the neighborhood, especially because it is part of a broader effort and is not being billed as a panacea. He has been a businessman on Grant Street since the mid 1970s and he said is cautiously optimistic that the district can rebound.
"Twenty-five years ago, my wife would do all her Christmas shopping on Grant Street," he recalled. "Wouldn't it be great if we could bring some of that back?"
Delaware District Council member Alfred T. Coppola thinks the crime prevention effort makes sense. In fact, he is seriously considering a similar surveillance plan for Delaware Park. Coppola said he would like to use $10,000 in block grant funds to purchase three cameras to monitor the area around the park casino, the ring road and the old shelter house off Rumsey Road. He said parks officials could monitor activity from the main office located off the Scajaquada Expressway.
Coppola said he has no qualms about seeing cameras installed in parks and along commercial strips.
"If a few roughnecks ever try to start trouble with me, I want Big Brother to be watching," Coppola said.