A local urban design expert gave a stark description of what's gone wrong with development in several downtown districts at Wednesday's kickoff of a new speaker series on smart growth.
"My presentations usually address sprawl and new development not done the right way," said George R. Grasser, president of the nonprofit Partners for a Livable Western New York. "You have no sprawl and no new development so we have to look at your situation a different way."
Grasser, a local developer and retired real estate attorney, said the city has suffered from poor planning, bad aesthetics, a sour economy and "a disenchantment with government because of its inability to improve the situation."
The free speaker series called "Revitalizing and Romancing the City" drew a 70-member audience on its first night in Niagara Falls Public Library. The event is organized by the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society and the Main Street Business and Professional Association, and financially sponsored by Community Preservation Corporation, a national nonprofit organization.
City Administrator Bill Bradberry, a member of the preservation society, said he hopes the series will attract participants from many sectors of the community, including business, tourism and planning so that a new dialogue can begin.
Grasser said Niagara Falls is one of the last declining industrial cities to begin redevelopment, but has the advantage of a natural wonder and millions of tourists who visit each year.
He focused his comments on downtown, Third Street and North Main Street, and used notes and photographs he took as he walked or drove around those neighborhoods several weeks ago. The areas were chosen because if they are improved "in the right way they will give your city the biggest bang for your buck," he said.
In one photograph, Grasser showed a fire hydrant placed oddly in the middle of a sidewalk on a newly reconstructed section of Third Street. He also drew attention to the vacant Rainbow Centre Outlet Mall and unattractive storefronts or buildings.
Grasser encouraged the audience to think about a concept called "walkable urbanity," which he said is a very important feature of any viable downtown or city neighborhood.
He suggested that streets should be more interesting with attractive store windows and pocket parks to attract pedestrians.
Fred K. Heinle, assistant vice president of the Buffalo office of Community Preservation Corporation, was on Wednesday's panel and suggested the city consider Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, where mixed-use buildings have created a thriving, desirable community.
"Make sure the upper floors are filled with apartments," Heinle said. "It's a slow, methodical process but we've got close to 1,000 new units in downtown Buffalo and the [people are] now looking for stores, restaurants, places to walk their dog."
Grasser also addressed Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the private company that was given the rights to 142 acres of downtown land 10 years ago but has yet to build any new development. He recalled a brochure printed by the company seven or eight years ago that described a large amount of public participation that went into developing the company's plans for downtown.
"But if you look at your downtown today, you can easily understand that stakeholder participation and glitzy brochures do not alone assure results."
Grasser suggested the city should do everything possible to help developers be successful, but require performance standards in time, money and construction. He said elected officials should be encouraged to attend the rest of the speaker series, which includes a time for audience interaction and a panel to brainstorm solutions.
The speaker series will continue with topics ranging from housing to retail, and each are held from 7 to 9 p.m. each Wednesday until June 6 at the Niagara Falls Public Library, 1425 Main St.