When the $60 million Outer Harbor Parkway project was completed last fall, planners touted it as a long-awaited step in the transformation of an ugly Fuhrmann Boulevard into an Olmsted-style parkway that provides greater access to the waterfront.
But since the splashy opening ceremony, many of the trees, shrubs and other vegetation that were planted in medians on Outer Harbor Parkway have begun dying.
A South Buffalo resident who took part in the public planning for the reconstruction of Route 5 knew there were big problems a couple of months ago when she checked out the medians during a ride down the boulevard.
"I was pretty shocked to see how much of [the plantings] were not going to make it," said Marge Ryan, president of South Buffalo Alive. "My first indication of the problem was when I saw a beautiful evergreen tree that had turned brown."
It appears as if nearly 600 trees and shrubs have died, said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Susan Surdej. While this only represents about 5 percent of the plantings, she acknowledged that the distressed trees mar the aesthetics of the boulevard in numerous locations.
Some new species of trees and shrubs will be planted this fall, and some might be planted in different locations, Surdej said.
Project planners have been aware of the problems and are taking steps to address them, said City Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak. The massive reconstruction is a state project, Stepniak explained, adding that the construction contract includes a guarantee that any dying trees or shrubs will be replaced.
To that end, city and state officials recently toured the parkway.
"They're flagging and tagging everything that needs to be removed," Stepniak said. "They did a thorough walk-through and discussed the need to plant more hardy species."
What went wrong?
"Sometimes, people underestimate the harshness of the environment down there," Stepniak said of Buffalo's outer harbor.
Fuhrmann Boulevard is wide open, battered by savage winds and covered by tons of road salt during the harsh winter months.
"It's a tough area for plants," Stepniak said. "You have a lot of weather issues, and you have a lot of salt issues."
City and state officials are still assessing the toll and mapping out a plan for replacing the dying vegetation, Stepniak said.
Ryan, who took part in numerous public planning sessions prior to the project, said residents and experts talked about the harsh conditions and thought that adequate steps had been taken to select plantings that would survive.
"We all know what it's like down there on a really bad day," she said. "I thought [project planners] took that into consideration when they picked the species to plant."
One possible problem could be that many of the plantings went in last year during extremely hot weather, Ryan said.
Tucker Curtin, who owns Dug's Dive, a lakefront restaurant and bar located in the Small Boat Harbor, said the medians along the parkway are in full view of his patrons and the sight has not been pleasant this season. Part of the problem, he said, is that until about a week ago, maintenance had been shoddy.
"A median might look good on a piece of paper. But the reality is that they're very difficult to maintain," Curtin said.
Stepniak agreed, stressing that the city is in the process of preparing requests for proposals from outside contractors who might be interested in performing maintenance duties.
In the interim, city crews have been cutting grass and performing other chores along the new parkway. Stepniak said the city has held off on hiring an outside maintenance firm because state crews are still performing work in the area.
"We're moving forward to deal with permanent maintenance," Stepniak said. "We realize the importance of keeping the [medians] properly maintained."