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The future of Ohio Street
Plan is gaining steam to convert roadway near Cobblestone District into attractive parkway, connecting the inner and outer harbors

Ohio Street – where weeds poke out of cracked asphalt, a foundation crumbles on a vacant lot and buildings sit abandoned – is a neglected remnant of Buffalo's industrial past.

That could change in the near future.

A plan gaining momentum would transform the underutilized street, near the Cobblestone District, into an attractive parkway with trees and flowers, decorative light standards, pocket parks, information kiosks, and biking and running lanes.

The goal is to establish the 1.4-mile street, which extends between Michigan Avenue and Fuhrmann Boulevard, as a major link between the inner and outer harbors.

The area's already changing quickly. Since the opening in June 2011 of Buffalo River Fest Park, the Ohio Street corridor along the Buffalo River, including the cluster of grain elevators dubbed "Silo City," has become a destination where some 130 cultural events are planned for this summer.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who led the push to make Fuhrmann Boulevard into a parkway, said the conversion could be done in 18 to 24 months at a cost of $11 million. The funds are available from federal highway dollars he's already secured that can be applied, as well as from the coffers of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a state agency.

"We have had this ‘lighter, cheaper, quicker' alternative, if you will, right in front of us, and it's time we do something about it," Higgins said. "It's just a smart approach to improving our infrastructure and access to our waterfront, and [it's] attractive in terms of potential private sector investment and life quality."

Public access to the outer harbor took a major step forward Wednesday, when the agency hired a company to make a parcel of 20 acres – six of them underwater – shovel ready and open to the public next summer.

The site will eventually include walking paths, picnic benches and a gazebo.

"It's the first parcel on the outer harbor really ready for development," said Thomas Dee, the agency's president. "It should be something cool – you will be able to bike in, Rollerblade in, walk in, jog in and approach the water's edge like almost nowhere else. … You will see views that haven't been seen there in 50 years."

There has been political movement in recent years to build a bridge between the inner and outer harbors. An environmental review process now targeted for completion by the end of 2013 has already narrowed the choices to Main and Erie streets.

With a price tag from $80 million to $100 million, and a Republican-controlled House, chances of that happening anytime soon are slim at best.

The parkway, however, is a complementary approach that decision-makers are coalescing around.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said he is looking at refurbishing the city street.

"I'm very open to it. It's something we have been looking at and working on with Congressman Higgins, and it very well could rise to a level where it becomes a priority," the mayor said.

Some board members of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. signaled their support after an outer harbor subcommittee supported turning Ohio Street into a gateway to the outer harbor.

"It makes enormous sense," said Sam Hoyt, the interim chairman. "The streetscape is very gritty and industrial. There's no ‘Welcome to the waterfront' message."

Higgins said a panel of local landscape architects and stakeholders in the Buffalo River corridor – including Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Valley Community Association and Rigidized Metal and grain elevator owner Rick Smith – would be asked to come up with design ideas.

Higgins predicted that the improved infrastructure would create new possibilities for existing structures, including Freezer Queen and Port Terminals A and B, and would attract new investors. Along with the plans being readied for a bridge, it would also provide an alternative to the aging and decaying Skyway, for which he expects a hefty repair bill to be needed in the next two or three years.

"You can't make a decision about something that is functionally obsolete without alternatives," Higgins said.

There are plans under consideration to improve Perry Street leading from Canalside to Michigan Street and Michigan south to Ohio.

Carl Paladino, whose development company owns six acres on Ohio Street, said a parkway on the street wouldn't affect his plans to build residential units with boat docks.

He said he would only do so if the Commodore Perry housing complex, which he said was in bad shape, was torn down.

"They're a problem down there and bring a bad element to the area. No one's going to want to move down there when you have all that rot," Paladino said.

But Clinton Brown, who hopes to resume his conversion of a former factory building into River Lofts at the Cooperage on Chicago Street near Ohio later this year, said the parkway "will help the transition from industrial crossroads to a residential and recreational community."

"It's increasingly a place where people do want to live," Brown said. "I get a call or email from someone at least once a week [inquiring about] a loft."

email: msommer@buffnews.com