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THE PARK AND THE ZOO

In proposing an expansion of the Buffalo Zoo into Delaware Park, County Executive Joel A. Giambra has latched onto at least half of a great idea: ridding the park of a golf course that isn't very good and that doesn't belong there, in any case.

As to the other half of Giambra's vision - the part in which the zoo eats into the eastern edge of the park, south of the existing zoo and between the park's ring road and Parkside Avenue - the county executive faces an uphill battle. He will have to make a powerful case that this community needs a larger zoo more than it needs to preserve a magnificent and historic park that has already suffered repeated incursions. Giambra has shown himself to be a leader with his eye on the ball, and so he deserves a chance to make his case. Nonetheless, it's a tough case to make.

The golf course was an early intrusion on the park, which dates to 1870. A small, nine-hole course was built around the turn of the century, and expanded to 18 holes in 1915. It's been there a long time, but it's been an uncomfortable fit.

The golf course dominates the park's signature open meadow area, discouraging sunbathers, perambulators, contemplators and other traditional park users and, even worse, threatening to inflict cranial devastation upon those who dare trespass. As popular as golf has become, the mere existence of the course puts a vast section of the park's primary space off-limits to thousands of residents.

As part of his plan, though, Giambra proposes to remove the golf course, build a new one near the Tifft Nature Preserve and open the park meadow to those who might hope to throw a Frisbee or simply to stroll across the broad and restful pastoral landscape envisioned by the acknowledged American master of such urban-escape scenes, Frederick Law Olmsted.

It's the right idea, one that recognizes that Buffalo's future lies in making the city an attractive place to live. Big-ticket projects like convention centers or gambling casinos may also be important - or not - but the city's resurgence ultimately depends on people wanting to live here.

That, in fact, is the conflict that arises in the proposal to expand the zoo into the park. Giambra sees a larger zoo as a tool to raise the city's profile as a tourist stop, a plausible goal given the millions of tourists who annually bypass the city on their way to Niagara Falls. But to do it, he has to cut into the park - not the meadow, but a section that includes the Parkside Lodge and the lawn-bowling area, both of which are undergoing expensive renovation, as is the zoo itself.

So the question arises: What should this community value more, a larger, more attractive zoo that could help draw visitors to the city, or fidelity to a vision of Delaware Park as a cohesive whole, one whose maintenance and improvement make this city a better place to live?

Or, perhaps more usefully, the question should be asked this way: Which will hurt more, containing the zoo within its existing borders or subtracting from the city's premier park?

It's not a huge section Giambra covets - just 10 of the park's 365 acres - but it does mean chipping away once again at a treasure that has already endured repeated offenses. The park has been bisected by the Scajaquada Expressway. Its edges have been nibbled by the Erie County Historical Society and Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It has been insulted by pollution that forced administrators to shrink the size of the lake and, in a supreme irony, abused even by the zoo, whose walls changed the character of the park's border, a crucial component of Olmsted's vision.

Little in a city that desperately needs change should be considered inviolate, but if Olmsted's creation is not, it should be close to that. Giambra may be able to make a case that his proposal is a net addition to the city, but the case will have to be clear and convincing.

As things stand, Buffalo has a second-tier zoo and, despite gradual erosion, a world-class city park. The zoo already is working on long-needed improvements within its existing perimeter. With that project and the proposal to remove the golf course, both facilities could be significantly improved without endangering the unique park that lies at this city's heart. On its own, that sounds like a success.

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