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Can Tonawanda and Amherst work together on Niagara Falls Boulevard?

On one side of Niagara Falls Boulevard is the Town of Tonawanda. On the other side, Amherst.

Throughout their histories, those two neighbors quietly went about their business building up their respective sides of the boulevard with everything from homes and small stores to giant retail outlets, from little neighborhood plazas to a mall.

The result is what you see today – a congested mishmash that makes for a less-than-appealing streetscape.

But Niagara Falls Boulevard can be better.

At least, that’s the thinking of one Amherst lawmaker who’s calling for the two towns to come together and devise a plan for one of the region’s busiest commercial corridors.

Guy R. Marlette will ask his colleagues on the Amherst Town Board to invite Tonawanda to the table and create a joint planning commission for Niagara Falls Boulevard.

“If we had better communication, perhaps quarterly meetings, we could kind of get on the same page of how we want Niagara Falls Boulevard to look in the future,” said Marlette.

“It would be more of a seamless approach, as opposed to ‘We’re doing this and they’re doing that.’ Some continuity would be important to the overall aesthetics and overall development.”

Amherst has made a similar offer in the past, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Maybe this time will be different.

“I would definitely be open to that,” said Tonawanda Councilman John A. Bargnesi Jr. “That would be great, seeing quite a bit of development has already taken place on their side of the street and most of it we were never notified about.”

It would seem the towns are way beyond the point of mapping out a plan for a boulevard that has already been built out. But there’s an argument that now is the perfect time, with signs that the aging corridor is primed for redevelopment.

Most notably, a four-story hotel has been proposed on the Tonawanda side just south of Ellicott Creek Road, between Thistle and Forbes avenues, raising the ire of nearby residents who say the building would be too tall.

Just recently, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority recommended Niagara Falls Boulevard as the route to extend the light-rail system to serve transit riders along the bustling Amherst-Buffalo corridor and connect the University at Buffalo and Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

A unified approach

In Amherst, Marlette pointed to signs that the boulevard is looking tired.

The corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue was once the site of a gas station, but that spot has been vacant for years and now serves as an unsightly entrance into Amherst from Buffalo. Marlette wants the town to investigate taking the parcel by eminent domain and turning it into a passive park.

While fielding complaints about that property, the conversation turned to the broader issue:

What can the towns do about Niagara Falls Boulevard?

“It’s kind of a mixed bag on both sides,” said Marlette, who grew up on the Tonawanda side of the boulevard. “It doesn’t flow well. I think we need to get kind of in sync so that area has the right look and feel.”

The stretch between Kenmore Avenue and Eggert Road is largely residential. Maybe the two towns can discuss ways to calm traffic along that section, or provide incentives to help some of the homeowners update their properties, said Marlette, who is running for the Erie County Legislature.

Along the boulevard’s dense commercial strip, there may be opportunities for the two towns to unify zoning, building codes or height restrictions, Marlette said. Parking, signage, landscaping and vehicle access in and out of boulevard driveways are other potential topics, he said.

It may take years – and teamwork by state, county and town governments – to make a difference, but it might prevent more haphazard development or avert other neighborhood battles down the road, he said.

“Because when the fight begins,” Marlette said, “it’s almost impossible to make changes.”

Tonawanda’s small lots

In Tonawanda, the height of the proposed Holiday Inn Express stirred up residents from nearby Dexter Terrace concerned about their privacy. Tonawanda’s Planning Board recently tabled a decision on the plans, until the developer comes back with a smaller, three-story design for the hotel.

Bargnesi, who has been actively involved in the hotel controversy, said the boulevard is a reflection of how development patterns have changed over the decades.

The boulevard is poised to change again.

“I think on our side of the street, there are parcels that are readily available,” Bargnesi said. “They’re small, shallow parcels – that’s why the Amherst side was developed much faster and much bigger than our side – but there are quite a few of them that might be appealing.”

“There are some challenges there,” Bargnesi said, “but I think these parcels will become more and more attractive.”

Previous attempt

The need for joint planning along Niagara Falls Boulevard was raised more than 20 years ago by former Amherst Supervisor Daniel J. Ward. At the time, Ward acknowledged that Amherst didn’t do a very good job in planning many of the developments along the boulevard. He asked Tonawanda to take part in a joint project to improve boulevard parking, traffic flow and appearance, but nothing ever materialized.

In fact, it was Ward who raised the issue again in a recent email to elected officials from both towns.

“This is a huge commercial complex as well as major arterial traffic thoroughfare,” Ward said. “I think we can do better.”

Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana did not return a call from The Buffalo News seeking comment on the overtures from Amherst.

Marlette, meanwhile, plans to ask the Amherst Town Board on Monday to seek a joint planning board for Niagara Falls Boulevard.

“At the end of the day, if this produced nothing but good conversation between two municipalities, it would be successful,” Marlette said, “but I think there will be more than just good conversation.”