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One bridge with two approaches New Canadian plaza opens, as U.S. continues growth debate

Those entering the newly redesigned Peace Bridge plaza in Fort Erie, Ont., see a gateway that is distinctively Canadian.

The shape of the roof over the new customs building reminds travelers of a canoe. Limestone appears in buildings and the landscape, like the rocks that line both sides of the Niagara Gorge. Water shoots up from between boulders near the inspection lanes.

"A fountain isn't necessary, but it shows our commitment to a first-class plaza," said Ron Rienas, the Peace Bridge Authority's general manager.

Monday, dignitaries and Peace Bridge officials will mark the $36 million project's completion in a ceremony at the plaza.

But what of the American gateway?

Despite improvements in recent years, motorists who leave inspection lanes still navigate around tractor-trailers waiting for U.S. customs clearance.

Construction of a new American plaza could begin by the end of 2009, and the new structure could be as distinctive as the one just built in Fort Erie, Rienas said.

But for that to happen, the Bridge Authority needs "leadership from City Hall," Rienas said.

In fact, the authority has won Mayor Byron W. Brown's support to enlarge the existing plaza.

"We decided to support moving forward with the traditional plaza at the existing place," Brown said. "We thought it was critically important to get the project on track."

That plan uses the current plaza and additional properties in the area between Busti Avenue, Niagara Street and north of Vermont Street.

The whole project, including a companion bridge and the American plaza, would cost an estimated $315 million. That includes $25 million for community enhancements and mitigation measures for the neighborhood.

Community debate and lawsuits over the authority's proposal for a "twin span" bridge in 1998 delayed the expansion project for several years.

Then the authority waited two years before the federal government abandoned a shared border plan, in which U.S. customs and immigration screening would have shifted to the Canadian side of the border.

That shared border idea died last month, and though the authority was disappointed by the setback, it is now in a "full go mode" for the bigger, more expensive plaza, said Paul J. Koessler of Buffalo, the Bridge Authority's vice chairman.

That's encouraging news for those who want a better looking and better organized plaza -- even if it means a bigger one. But it worries those who favor shifting the plaza north or those who want to hold out longer for a shared border solution.

For years, many activists and political leaders have called for moving the plaza and connecting roads north, away from Frederick Law Olmsted's Front Park and the historic Fort Porter site, where a pre-Civil War facility was razed to make way for the original 1927 bridge.

But the northern option will not be pursued anymore.

"It's disappointing there won't be a northern option," said Jeff Belt, who has been active on the Peace Bridge issue since 1999 and who sat on a design jury that backed a two-tower cable-stayed companion span.

"If you're going to do a major gateway expansion, which I've always supported, build for the next 50 years, not for the next five. And the only way to build for the next 50 years is to take a good hard look at that northern plan."

Belt estimates the northern option could handle more traffic and restore more parkland.

But Rienas said the northern option would negatively affect the neighborhood.

Most traffic crossing the Peace Bridge into Buffalo heads south. So sending cars and trucks north into the plaza just to have them turn back south makes no sense, he said.

"We determined with the City of Buffalo through a long process that a northern plaza alternative had far too much impact on the community," Rienas said. "It'd be much larger and longer."

Brown said he doesn't want the bridge project delayed by further debate over the plaza location.

"It'll only create additional delays," Brown said. "Even though I think it would have been great to capture and restore additional parkland, [the northern option] is not going to be carried forward."

"We know that the mayor was in full support of a northern gateway during his campaign," said Patrick McNichol, a spokesman for the New Millennium Group of Western New York.

"The benefits of a northern alignment and the potential devastating harm of a southern plaza are the same now as they were then," he said. "If the mayor has changed his mind, I suppose the public would like to know why."

An ongoing environmental review will analyze what the environmental, economic, and human health impacts of the bridge would be, and until the review is complete, it would be premature for the Bridge Authority or City Hall to choose a traditional plaza alternative, now, McNichol said.

Those opposed to expanding the current plaza will focus on what economic benefits the West Side will receive and what steps can be taken to minimize respiratory problems for nearby residents.

The authority has already taken steps to improve traffic flow across the U.S. plaza, including adding more inspection lanes and shifting tollbooths to the Canadian side of the crossing.

A new U.S. plaza would further reduce congestion, resulting in fewer trucks idling on the plaza, Rienas said. That would mean residents on Buffalo's West Side should breathe cleaner air, he said.

"The best thing you can do for the neighborhood is keep the trucks moving," Rienas said. "By not doing anything, you're stuck with what you've got."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

Monday: West Side neighbors in limbo.

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