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Public art project stuck in the 'bureaucratic labyrinth'

On a midsummer day in 2009, Cornelia Dohse-Peck sat with a group of fellow artists and activists in Sweetness 7, a West Side coffee shop, to brainstorm ways to improve the look of their community.

With the 2011 National Preservation Conference coming to Buffalo in October, the city's economically and racially diverse West Side was in need of a little visual uplift. So, with the same outside-the-box thinking the longtime artist has applied to several public art projects that dot the West Side, Dohse-Peck sized up the challenge and offered an unorthodox solution.

"I just thought, what do we have an abundance of?" said Dohse-Peck. "Pavement!"

And off she went.

With the help of Chuck Massey, Shannon Callan and other activists and West Side residents, a plan soon came into focus: Using traffic paint, the group would create patterned and multicolored crosswalks at five intersections along Grant Street where none currently exist, thereby improving both pedestrian safety and the neighborhood's visual landscape.

Sounds like a win-win, right?

But today, some 20 months after the initial idea, the project has yet to be approved by city officials. Last summer, the city's volunteer Arts Commission greenlighted a pilot version of the project to be completed at Auburn Avenue and Grant Street. But the project is currently gummed up in Buffalo's Department of Public Works.

Steve Stepniak, the department's commissioner, said his office is working to ensure that the project would be safe for cars.

"We are looking into the thought of doing those crosswalks," Stepniak said. "We are talking to people from the [New York State] Department of Transportation to make sure that we're not violating any rules. We like the concept, we just want to make sure it's a safe concept."

The winter weather, Stepniak said, is preventing the department from properly testing the paint. That, in addition to some perceived communication problems and the deliberate pace at which city government moves when it comes to art, has resulted in a growing sense of frustration among project organizers.

"When you have gotten the community involved in helping create designs, when you have gotten a design approved with the Arts Commission, when you have some funds in place so you've been able to buy some paint, you have volunteers waiting in the wings, all you need is for some approvals, to set a date [for painting] and get some buses rerouted. That's all we need," Massey said. "So yes, we need the bureaucracy to move a little quicker. I think it's something that everybody would agree would be a good thing."

In a positive sign for the project organizers, Stepniak said in early February that city traffic engineer Eric Schmarder is working on the project and that the department "should have an answer in the next couple weeks what we plan on doing." He also said he fully expects it to be approved by summer, a timeline that would allow the organizers to have the paintings ready in time for October's major conference.

The Arts Commission, a volunteer board charged with vetting proposals for art projects and conserving the city's existing art, views itself as a gatekeeper for public art.

But Dohse-Peck's project, beset by communication issues and seemingly relegated to City Hall's back-most burner, points up the need for the commission to broaden its role to include better advocacy for worthy projects.

Catherine Gillespie, the Arts Commission's chairwoman, said she sympathized with Dohse-Peck's frustrations.

"I do understand the issues. It is frustrating. I've been on the other end of things like this," Gillespie said. She added that the Arts Commission is working on a way to provide a more concrete explanation of the steps to apply for and complete a public art project. This, she said, would include forming a standing committee with members from the Department of Public Works, the Arts Commission and the Parks and Recreation Department to allow for faster approvals, fewer meetings and a way to make applicants "feel like they're not running all over City Hall."

And though Dohse-Peck's project has gotten piecemeal help from Niagara District City Council Member David Rivera's office, the Arts Commission and others, it has lacked what anysuccessful public project needs: a dedicated and savvy advocate who can navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of city government and into reality.

The volunteers, whose only desire is to improve the city's visual landscape with money they've raised themselves, deserve no less.

"We have the paint. We have the rollers. We have the volunteers," Dohse-Peck said. "We're ready to go."


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