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Little details matter along waterfront It's time to bring the Central Wharf to Main Street

Renewed interest in our downtown waterfront has undeniably resulted in some improvement. Efforts continue to make the historic Central Wharf area more user-friendly with the addition of painted chairs, some imported white sand and a hot dog shack. Residents and visitors reacted positively to these changes, possibly because after the expenditure of untold millions of dollars in planning and design work, the public is starved for anything resembling progress.

The reality is that this portion of the Commercial Slip re-creation is a visual eyesore. To most urban planning, architecture, waterfront experts and lay people alike, the results to date are a tremendous disappointment.

Let's not kid ourselves that "lighter, faster, cheaper" initiatives represent a comprehensive short-term plan for what this area can be. The design and siting of the furniture, sand and hot dog shack would be just as comfortable on a suburban baseball field as they are on our spectacular, historic waterfront.

Not to mention that the site is obscured by unmaintained construction detritus and generally looks abandoned by whoever is the responsible caretaker for 10 months of the year, especially the "front door" Commercial Slip, which is always filled with unsightly debris.

A professional colleague told me that the mantra for New York City's Olmsted Parks Conservancy, often considered the gold standard among worldwide public space caretakers, is:

Don't tackle larger plans until you learn to "cut the grass and take out the trash." Our Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has taken tremendous steps forward to keep our park system meticulously maintained.

In that spirit, here are 10 elements that can help shape the lower Main Street waterfront as we move forward:

1. Enhance the gateways to historic streets. The entrance to the historic area at both Perry and Prime streets is obscured by cyclone fencing, unkempt rights of way, worn-out jersey barriers and ugly old signage. These elements have deteriorated over five long years of delayed progress.

2. Extend linkages to the Riverwalk and DLW Terminal. The downtown inner harbor has always envisioned Main Street terminating at the waterfront with activities on both sides.

3. Bring the Central Wharf to Main Street — i.e., turn the "back door into the front door." See No. #1 above. After five years, the cyclone fences, jersey barriers, construction debris and unkempt lawns still obscure and inhibit the access to a potentially attractive Central Wharf.

4. Simplify the lighting fixtures. Within a 1.5-block radius, I have spotted five different types of lighting fixtures. The whole City of Paris survives with three types of fixtures. There is something wrong with this picture!

5. Treat the base of the Skyway Piers.Whether we like it or not, the Skyway will be in place for at least another two generations. There are 14 points where the Skyway support piers intersect the Commercial Slip district. Consider consistent landscaping, lighting and graphics in some form to create visual appeal and consistency.

6. Screen the sewer substation and other utility "street furniture."The sewer substation has and will continue to occupy a very prominent location — and attack our visual and olfactory senses — for years to come. We must design ways to properly screen this element and any other utility impediment.

7. Enhance the condition of the water's edge. Guard railings, although a necessary legal requirement, hinder direct contact with the water. Almost all other major North American and western European cities have figured out ways to safely enable direct contact with the water, whether through stepping, amphitheater or other means.

8. Care about kiosk design. We must care about the look of even a temporary hot dog stand by carefully considering its design and siting. The current stand looks like an import from a suburban baseball field.

9. Improve the traffic sign installation. There are far too many directional and other sign elements terribly installed, which create a physical and psychological barrier to access and ease of use.

10. Develop comprehensive ideas for designing, placing and maintaining street furniture including trash, seating, fencing and landscaping. No. 10 highlights the smallest of details, the easiest to get right and offers immediate benefit to everyone. Our waterfront planners and leaders cannot move forward on bigger picture items until we learn lesson No. 1: cut the grass and pick up the trash.

Charles Gordon is principal of Charles Gordon Architecture in Amherst. He is currently involved in the design of more than $75 million in a variety of urban developments. Highlights include a new downtown waterfront residential community and a continuing advisory role in reshaping Buffalo's downtown inner harbor.