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Residents skeptical about city plan for neglected LaSalle Park

To many people, it should be one of the glittering jewels of the Buffalo parks system: LaSalle Park.

But the waterfront park – nestled between the Black Rock Channel and the Niagara Thruway, with an expansive view of Lake Erie – has turned into a rutty, pothole-pocked eyesore often littered with park debris.

Or, as one person put it, “Buffalo’s worst park in Buffalo’s best location.”

Now that’s set to change, thanks to an almost $1.2 million reconstruction job, although not everyone is totally pleased with the proposed plan.

Many nearby residents fear that the widening and straightening of the short bike and pedestrian path linking the park to the city’s waterfront community will encourage vehicular traffic. They fear that could turn the park road into a thoroughfare for commuters and people attending Sabres games and Canalside events.

City officials, though, insist that won’t happen, and they believe the improvements will increase both accessibility and safety.

Pro and con, the public will get to debate the latest plan for LaSalle Park at a public meeting from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Niagara Branch Library, at Porter and Prospect avenues.

The proposed project, designed by C&S Engineers Inc., has several main components:

• The repaving and reconstruction of the 1.65-mile road around the park, consisting of AMVETS Drive on the water side and D.A.R. Drive away from the water.

• The addition of almost 150 45-degree angled parking spots on much of that road, with clearly defined bike and driving lanes.

• The widening of the bike and pedestrian path, at the southeast edge of the park, connecting to the city’s waterfront. Much of that path is 8 to 10 feet wide; it would be widened to 12 feet.

• The partial straightening of that now mostly curved path, which would have a straightaway in the middle of the path.

• Playground improvements and picnic shelter replacements.

• A new hedgerow to create privacy for homeowners at the northern edge of Lakefront Commons.

“This is going to be a safer and more accessible park,” said Andrew R. Rabb, the city’s deputy commissioner for parks and recreation. “This project will make a much safer road, provide new amenities for a very popular picnic area and improve the connectivity of the shoreline trail.”

Some nearby residents, especially those on Lakefront Commons at the southeast edge of the park, remain skeptical. They’ve seen the park turn into an often-neglected eyesore.

Why has LaSalle Park, affording the best lakeside views of any city park, been allowed to deteriorate so badly?

Some critics have complained that people using the park, many of them from Buffalo’s West Side and lower West Side, lack the political clout of other constituencies.

The neglect inside the park may be symbolized best by a stretch of road in the park’s southeast corner away from the water. It’s so bad that drivers and bicyclists are greeted by a yellow, diamond-shaped sign warning, “ROUGH ROAD.”

One official likened it to “driving over a mountain range,” and it’s hard to imagine city residents tolerating such a rough section of road in a more beloved site such as Delaware Park.

Deborah B. O’Shea, who has lived in nearby Lakefront Commons for 28 years, knows what LaSalle Park could – and should – have been.

“This should be a crown jewel,” she said. “It is on a Great Lake, Erie, on a world-famous river, Niagara, and it has a fantastic vista on an international border.

“But it’s never been given the priority and respect that other parks have been given,” she added.

O’Shea called the new plan “inadequate,” even “disrespectful,” to park users, who cut across all demographic lines.

She especially doesn’t like the additional angled parking spots, including those between the parkland and the water, or the widened, straightened bike path that she fears will invite more vehicular traffic. Neighbors have noticed that the path already is used occasionally by motorized vehicles, including motorcycles, ATVs, scooters, motor bikes and even SUVs.

“I thought we were moving away from mixing motor vehicles with parkland,” O’Shea said.

Rabb, though, replied that the new plan, including designated lanes for bikes and vehicles, will calm the traffic, slowing it and making it safer for park users.

O’Shea also touched on a larger point: “I want more citizen involvement. This is more than about the waterfront village.”

The new, almost $1.2 million plan will be funded through a $980,000 grant from the New York State Department of State and a $200,000 Greenway grant. City officials hope to award the contract this fall, with construction starting next spring.

“Our goal is to have it done sometime next summer,” Rabb said.

Perhaps the key issue dividing the two sides on the new plan is the widening and straightening of the bike path. Critics fear that the straighter 12-foot-wide path will invite vehicular traffic.

There was earlier talk of widening it to 16 feet. Nearby residents at least are pleased that it’s now going to be 12 feet.

Those widths, 12 and 16 feet, are the new norm for bike paths, Rabb noted.

“At minimum, we try to have three 4-foot-wide lanes, one for bikes in each direction and one for pedestrians,” Rabb said.

He also pointed out that the straightening of that path would use less parkland and put part of the path farther away from nearby Lakefront Commons condos.

The new plan also calls for installing barriers at both ends of the bike path, including the use of both boulders and bollards – short posts used to block vehicular traffic, as seen outside federal buildings, hospitals and nursing homes.

At both ends, there would be multiple boulders at each edge of the 12-foot-wide path, with a pair of removable bollards in the middle, spaced four feet apart. Those bollards could be removed only by city and emergency officials.

The key question is how often they would be taken down, whether routinely or just for emergencies.

Waterfront residents fear the posts could be removed to relieve traffic for high-volume events, such as Sabres games, First Niagara Center concerts and Canalside events. More recently, some residents have heard that those bollards would be removed only two or three times a year.

But Rabb, from the city, said the only reason authorities mentioned “emergency access” is that waterfront residents requested it. Such an emergency might be an ambulance that can’t reach the residential community if Erie Street were blocked.

“There are no plans to have this routinely opened,” Rabb said of vehicular traffic. “And I am not aware of any plan to open it two or three times a year.”

That comment may ease the fears of waterfront residents, such as Frank M. Lysiak, executive director of the Waterfront Village Advisory Council.

“If it’s only limited to emergency vehicles, and if it’s never planned to be opened at all, that’s ideal,” Lysiak said.

Still, others, including O’Shea, don’t completely trust city officials.

A prime example came when workers “temporarily” removed the boulder that blocks vehicular traffic at the far southern end of the bike path, for the June 27 Ride for Roswell event.

Six days later, on Friday morning, that boulder still hadn’t been moved back into place.

“That suggests to me that they won’t walk the talk,” Jack Brodzik, a Lakefront Commons resident whose unit overlooks LaSalle Park, said Friday morning. “They were supposed to remove that boulder only for that day, but it’s still not there.”

Like other residents, Brodzik has mixed feelings about the new plan.

“I’m thrilled that they’re putting money into the park,” he said. “I just hope they listen to the public at these meetings.”