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HOPES RISE FOR THIRD STREET RENEWAL

It took days for Michelle Calato to scrape off all the gunk left on the glass of the 1930s art deco mural in her new Third Street property.

Once covered with drink specials and liquor advertisements, the 6-by-45-foot frame is now a prominent feature on the wall of Cafe Etc., a martini bar that opened in July 2002.

Its images of Paris, the New York Harbor and a New Year's scene look fresh and clean again, a perfect symbol of the hopes the city and residents have for Third Street. They hope the strip can one day soon reclaim its feel as an entertainment district.

Cafe Etc. has been joined during the past few years by new Third Street bars - Club 427, Club Malibu, Shadow Martini Bar and the Third Street Taproom - as interest in the historically popular downtown street has grown.

Lifelong residents of the city remember the street's arrival as an entertainment destination in the 1930s, evolving through the years into a restaurant district in the '70s, then a Chippewa-style strip in the '80s, attracting thousands of Canadians and college students.

Third Street's most recent identity, characterized by boarded-up buildings, wide, barren pavement and tiny sidewalks, is about to evolve yet again.

City officials and business owners are hoping a state-funded $3.2 million facelift for the four blocks of Third Street, between Rainbow Boulevard South and Main Street, will help spur even more growth, with the major emphasis on the northern two blocks on the stretch.

An architectural consultant hired by USA Niagara, the state's Niagara Falls development office, is planning to take the storied street from concrete jungle to urban village with a drastic streetscape renewal.

New and old ventures alike have also been offered help from the city and state in the form of grant money to encourage building improvements and additions.

"For me it's the nail on the coffin of the cynicism this little town has developed over the last 20 or 30 years," Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello said at a public meeting.

The state's Third Street Entertainment District program will get under way in just four months.

Meanwhile, a current Water Authority water main replacement program on the street - something that needs to be completed before the street is refurbished - was made possible only when the city agreed to pitch in the cost of temporary resurfacing.

That was an essential step because USA Niagara's construction schedule is aggressive, said Mark Mistretta, lead designer of the Amherst-based Wendel & Duchscherer architectural firm hired for the project.

Construction is set to begin in March or April and wrap up by July, just in time for the tourist season, Mistretta said.

The street work is to transform Third Street between Niagara Avenue and Main Street into an attractive, pedestrian-friendly strip of shops, bars and restaurants.

Large gateways will signal to people they are entering a new type of area, setting it apart from the Seneca Niagara Casino and Conference Center Niagara Falls, Mistretta said. Signs highlighting what businesses are available are also being considered.

The stretch will be narrowed to calm traffic. Sidewalks will be widened to make room for park benches and outdoor seating for restaurants and bars.

The width of the driving lanes on the south end of Third Street - in front of Seneca Niagara Casino - will be narrowed to 12 feet, with 8-foot drop-off and parking lanes. The entertainment district will remain a two-lane street and also be tighter.

Much of the confusing and abundant signage typical of that area will be consolidated, taken out of the main walkways and given a uniform texture.

Another big difference: trees and large planters will line the street to make a parklike effect. The new trash bins, lampposts and park benches also may have a coordinated theme of dark green.

Although many business owners and city officials praised the plan at a recent meeting where final drawings were presented to the public, not all were satisfied.

Many spoke out in favor of the project's north boundary being extended up to the Aquarium of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center on Whirlpool Street, and the Robert Moses Parkway.

Dr. Anthony Mastroianni, who has a medical and dental office on Third Street, said he received a letter from Yarussi Construction Co. to inform him work on water lines would begin the next day. Mastroianni wanted to know if he would get more advance notice of street renewal construction in front of his office.

Residents were informed that work will occur on one side of the street, one block at a time, so construction will only be going on in front of each place of business for a short time.

Joe Spagnolo, a concerned resident, was worried there would be too much congestion with the roads being narrowed.

"We actually want traffic," Mistretta replied. "We want it to be a little more crowded. If there's a little bumper to bumper, so what?"

Another point of contention that flared up between city officials and residents was how to pay for the upkeep of the new trees.

No state funding is included for long-term maintenance of the streetscape. Mistretta said it would cost about $5,000 per year.

City Administrator Daniel S. Bristol said that cost could be covered through a business improvement district or special assessments.

Although some business owners are opposed to added assessments, Bristol said it's a price that must be paid for the improvements.

"To keep it bright and shiny, that might happen down the road," he said.

As concerns are addressed, construction crews get to work and businesses gear up for their grand entrance next summer, the real measure of success will be whether business owners on Third Street feel confident, said Merideth Andreucci, president of USA Niagara.

The Entertainment District plan "demonstrates the government's commitment to making this street a prosperous street."

Andreucci said the fact that the city and her staff have worked together on the project is a positive signal to the community that they will get done on time and under budget.

"It will say, "You can do business in downtown Niagara Falls.' "

As proprietors begin to spruce up their storefronts - many are applying for grants to add kitchens and patios - some say the hard work has already been done. Almost every property on the street has been purchased.

Perhaps one the street's best assets is its current business owners, many of whom opened shops years ago without knowledge of a new streetscape or influx of state dollars, but love the city and are simply here to stay.

"We've put a lot of our own sweat and money into this," said Steve Fournier Jr., co-owner of Cafe Etc., whose father owned the bar, once known as Rockwells, before him.

Calato is pleased with the work she and Fournier, her husband, have done on the interior of their business but can't hide her excitement at the prospect of having enough room in front of her bar to have outdoor seating by this summer.

Down the street, Nirmal Singh Kandola and his wife, Surinder Kaur, are serving a full Indian menu out of their Crown India Buffet restaurant.

Their first Third Street venture had been the old Tajmahal Restaurant - the first Indian restaurant in the city - which they opened in 1995 at a time when no one was paying attention to Third Street.

That building burned down last March, but they've got plans to rebuild and expand, and their new nightclub, Club 427, has been attracting about 500 college students on weekends.

Frank Smith, owner of Third Street Liquors, hopes to hold festivals on the street.

He ran electric connections out of his own storefront two years ago for a wine festival held there. Now residents and proprietors are pushing for underground electrical and outside water hookups to be included in the street improvements so there can be more outdoor activity.

"It's going to be a bonus," Fournier said, "as long as everyone works together."