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Peace Bridge dispute spurs Brown into Albany talks

The suddenly contentious issue of demolishing houses for Peace Bridge plaza expansion moved to the inner sanctum of the State Capitol in Albany on Wednesday in discussions involving Mayor Byron W. Brown and top levels of the Cuomo administration.

Several sources with knowledge of the situation said Brown and Cuomo administration officials addressed a demolition issue that has opened a serious rift between City Hall and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, while also spilling into a courtroom.

While no details of Brown's meeting with Cuomo's inner circle were available, administration officials did not deny that an expedited demolition process for plaza expansion remains a top objective. They also did not refute earlier reports that the mayor's hardening position against the demolition of seven houses along Busti Avenue came as a surprise in Albany.

But Cuomo administration officials also dismissed any idea that Brown was asked to travel to Albany to discuss the situation, indicating he was at the State Capitol on previously scheduled business and dropped by the Governor's Office. Mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge did not return a call seeking comment.

Over the last few days, Brown has steadfastly called for a "timeout" on plans to demolish the homes, even firing off a letter to the governor that sided with neighbors along the proposed plaza. He asked Cuomo to intervene and delay the planned demolitions, calling the move "premature."

"The community has raised a number of valid concerns, and many unanswered questions remain," Brown said in his letter to Cuomo.

But that prompted Higgins to publicly fire back, revealing a growing rift between two of Erie County's top Democrats. And on Wednesday, he expressed great displeasure with the latest Peace Bridge delays -- and pleasure that the governor had appeared to intervene.

"I think it represents forward progress, and that's a good thing," Higgins said. "It's a very good thing that the governor of New York has explicitly made clear his support for this project."

Higgins noted that Brown's recent delay in the demolition of homes for the Peace Bridge plaza expansion comes just as Canada and the State of Michigan announced plans for a new $2.1 billion span linking Windsor, Ont., with Detroit.

"The fact is, they just have their act together," Higgins said regarding leaders in Michigan who pushed for the bridge project.

The second span linking Detroit and Windsor will mean a huge economic boost for Detroit, the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research reported.

The project would create about 6,000 construction jobs in Michigan in each of the first two years of work and an additional 5,100 jobs in each of the last two years. Related state highway projects would support 6,600 more jobs during the four-year construction period.

Almost 1,400 permanent jobs will result once the new span is open, and an additional 6,800 jobs will come from economic spinoff activity, the center estimated.

"It's like a Detroit stimulus plan," Higgins said.

A new Peace Bridge -- and the sort of huge economic boost that Detroit is about to experience -- might have come Buffalo's way if the Peace Bridge project hadn't been bogged down in endless and needless delays, Higgins contended.

"We're missing out because we're not where [leaders in Michigan] are at in terms of preparation," he said.

Noting that Canada fronted Michigan $550 million to use as its match for upward of $2.2 billion in federal highway funding, Higgins said: "If Buffalo were as far advanced, we could be competing for that money."

Noting that he understood neighborhood concerns about a new Peace Bridge plaza and increased truck traffic on any new span, Higgins said it's important to keep the focus on the bigger picture.

Increased congestion on an 85-year-old span could have a hugely negative impact, since the Peace Bridge is the economic lifeline that brings Canadians to Western New York for innumerable reasons, he said.

"You want to lose the Buffalo Bills? Don't build the bridge," he said. "You want to lose the Buffalo Sabres? Don't build the bridge. You want to lose JetBlue and Southwest? Don't build a bridge. You want to devastate the retail economy of Western New York? Don't build a bridge."

New discussions about the fate of the boarded-up houses on Busti Avenue have also become the focus of litigation, after a preservation group obtained a temporary restraining order Tuesday that prevents the Peace Bridge Authority from moving forward with demolition.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture obtained the order from State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia. The group views the homes as historically significant and has called for public input and an environmental-impact study.