An attempt by the city administration to make a historically significant park overlooking the upper Niagara River available for development was up in the air late last week.
Mayor Irene J. Elia on Wednesday put a request on Monday's City Council agenda to give up DeFranco Park on Main Street near Whirlpool and Porter Park on Buffalo Avenue near Quay Street. By late Thursday, Corporation Counsel Ronald D. Anton said he understood Porter Park had been dropped from the request. But Elia and City Administrator Albert T. Joseph said they knew nothing about the removal.
"There's a developer who wants to develop it. Sometimes you have to make concessions," Joseph said.
At least one Council member disagreed.
"I certainly don't want to see any more of our history taken away. We've already lost enough history," said Councilwoman Barbara A. Geracitano.
Porter Park, which comprises about 2 acres abutting the Robert Moses Parkway, contains the remains of a stone chimney that was first built in 1750 by the French as part of two small forts that protected the upper end of the portage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
The French burned the forts when the British captured Fort Niagara. In 1760, the British built another fort and constructed a mess hall around the chimney. After another fire, Gen. Peter B. Porter, a member of the prominent Niagara Frontier pioneer family, built a large house around the chimney in 1838 that stood until 1880.
The chimney was moved twice to nearby sites to accommodate industrial demands, the last time in 1939 when the Carborundum Co. needed to expand to fulfill wartime contracts. The city moved the chimney to its current location in Porter Park in 1942, according to information provided by Senior City Planner Thomas J. DeSantis.
Anton said the request to make the parks available for development came from Nancy Joseph, executive director of NFC Development Corp., the city's banking arm. He said he believed she had withdrawn it in anticipation of opposition. Joseph could not be reached to comment.
The request would appear to be at odds with another item on the agenda, asking the Council to support a 50-50 matching grant application to the state for a $181,500 feasibility study for the Niagara Gorge Discovery Project.
The project would include interpretive centers and museums downtown and along the gorge and river corridor. The centers would be linked by pedestrian trails and focus on the city's natural, historic, industrial and hydroelectric heritage. The resolution is sponsored by Councilman Paul A. Dyster.
"It was deemed best to sever them so they both don't go down," Anton said, explaining that more opposition was expected over Porter Park than DeFranco Park "because it has more historical or familial ties."
The possibility of selling DeFranco Park has surfaced several times in the past. The park, at Main and Whirlpool streets, is considered by some as a prime downtown location. In sight of the Rainbow Bridge to Canada and overlooking the Niagara River Gorge, it is considered attractive for development and a potential asset to the tax rolls. The park fell into disuse as the neighborhood around it shrunk. Park equipment has been moved to other city parks.
"The administration has been reviewing the city's various parks and has reached the conclusion that some of these properties will be more valuable to the city under other uses without diminishing the recreational opportunities available to citizens and visitors to the city," Elia wrote in her request to the Council.
Anton said he knows of "three extremely legitimate developers in the sense that they have money or have access to it" who have expressed interest in DeFranco Park. He said if abandonment of the park were approved, he expected the city would invite public bids.
DeSantis said the land, about 2 acres in size, was left over from construction of the Robert Moses Parkway and given to the city by the New York Power Authority.
He said any disposition of public property must be approved by the Planning Board. When the property is parkland, it also must be approved by state and federal park agencies, DeSantis said.