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A rising tide targets the Moses Online petition drive gathering strong support from all corners

If signatures were wrecking balls, the Robert Moses Parkway would be history.

An online petition started by the Niagara Heritage Partnership, a local environmental group that advocates removing a section of the parkway between Niagara Falls and Lewiston, has garnered the support of 100 regional, national and international organizations.

They range from huge organizations such as the national Sierra Club to regional groups such as the Buffalo Audubon Society. The Niagara River and its shorelines have been designated a globally important bird area.

The growing petition contains the names of more than 5,000 individuals, including such high-profile people as conservation lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; David Suzuki, a leading Canadian environmentalist; and actor Ed Begley Jr., a Stella Niagara alumnus.

The list on the petition also now includes more than 30 Niagara Falls block clubs.

"Block clubs are the heartbeat of the city and a significant part of a grassroots recognition that total gorge parkway removal would be a giant step toward the city's revitalization," said Bob Baxter, a founding member of Niagara Heritage Partnership and its conservation chairman.

Also on board is the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the City Council.

"The endorsement by the advisory board is huge," Baxter said. "They have the common sense to say traffic should be encouraged to drive through business districts, instead of being directed to detour the city via the parkway."

The 20-mile-long parkway -- a stretch of four-lane concrete between the North Grand Island Bridge and Youngstown -- was constructed in 1961-62. It was one of the many projects of Robert Moses, the state's "master builder" responsible for 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges between 1924 and 1968, as well as the Niagara Power Project. He died in 1981.

Moses should never haved messed with Mother Nature, says Barbara Hubbard Clendening, of Glen Mills, Pa. "Niagara Falls is a true gift from God," she said. "Something should be done to repair the damage to that gift. Leave politics out of it and just do it."

Many share her feelings.

Residents from across the region and tourists from Florida to California have added their support to the Niagara Heritage Partnership.

"It's time to put Robert Moses in the file of 'bad ideas,' " said Mary Beaty of Brooklyn.

Ronald Underberg, of Dallas, who grew up in Williamsville and still considers the falls "a spiritual and natural mecca," acknowledges reality while hoping for something better.

"It may not be possible to enclose the falls and gorge in a half-mile radius of natural and indigenous preserve," he said, "but anything to make that magical area akin to how it looked centuries ago would benefit man and nature alike."

Ellen Jones, a visitor from the Isle of Man, off the coast of Great Britain, expressed it simply: "Please keep Niagara beautiful."

Also stating her position on the parkway succinctly was Elaina Pasquale of Lewiston: "It looks like crap, get rid of it."

To commuters and tourists driving between Niagara Falls, Lewiston and farther north to Youngstown, the Robert Moses Parkway is an essential link. To thousands of others, the parkway is an underused relic of a bygone era and no longer has a place on the Niagara landscape.

After 10 years of arguing about the fate of the Moses, the two sides are showing signs of possibly getting along. For the first time in several administrations, Niagara Falls has a mayor dedicated to the environment.

"We desperately need to address the parkway issue," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. "We cannot delay it any more."

Dyster has made parkway removal one of his highest priorities, but he said it cannot all be done at once. A good start, he said, would be to remove a two-mile section between Main Street and Findlay Drive, just south of Whirlpool State Park.

Mayor Richard F. Soluri of the Village of Lewiston, for a long time the staunchest opponent to removing any part of the parkway, said recently he's "ready to compromise" and will go along with the city proposal to remove the two-mile stretch.

That's not good enough for the Niagara Heritage Partnership, which wants to remove a 6.5-mile section of the parkway that runs along the top of the Niagara Gorge from Niagara Falls to Route 104 in Lewiston.

In its place, the Partnership seeks a return to a natural environment of indigenous trees, grasslands and wildflowers, with hiking and biking paths along the entire length.

Michelle Vanstrom, a Main Street businesswoman and naturalist who lives in Youngstown, envisions a heritage trail between Niagara Falls and Lewiston that would re-create the natural setting of the Underground Railroad, a network of safehouses that led hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom in Canada between 1850 and the end of the Civil War in 1865.

"Heritage tourism would be a tremendous money-maker for the area," Vanstrom said. "We'll put the native plants back and return that section of the gorge to what it used to be. That way, visitors and residents alike could truly experience what the people on the Underground Railroad went through."

Vanstrom, who owns two business in Niagara Falls, is a member of the board of directors of the Main Street Business Association. The parkway carries traffic away from her business, as it does all businesses along blighted and largely boarded-up Main Street.

"We all want people to stay longer in the area," she added. "A heritage trail is a way to do it."

The Pine Avenue Business Association, which represents 250 businesses in the relatively prosperous Little Italy section of Niagara Falls, is already in favor of parkway removal.

"Every time people use the parkway, they automatically are detoured away from the business districts," said Mary Jo Zacher, executive director of the Pine Avenue Business Association. "Traffic is what keep keeps our businesses alive. We want people to drive down Pine Avenue, and down Main Street, too. We all support each other."

Baxter said support from the business community "signifies a growing awareness of the important contribution parkway removal will make to the revitalization of Main Street, Pine Avenue and to Niagara Falls in general."

Lisa Vitello, a lifelong resident of the city and ecotourist chairwoman on the Niagara Falls Tourism Board, has said it before, but she wanted to say it again:

"You don't build a four-lane highway alongside a natural wonder of the world, and if you do, you don't leave it there."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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