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LaSalle Park is crying for a makeover

Here’s what passes for “traffic calming” today in LaSalle Park: Someone has taken red spray paint and written “SLOW” in giant red letters along the park’s main drive.

It’s hard to tell whether it’s graffiti or a warning put in place by someone official. Either way, it alerts drivers to the conditions ahead, where you might as well be driving off-road. As you turn the corner, just where the road fills with cars and vans during Saturday morning soccer tournaments, the asphalt buckles and swells.

Up ahead, you’ll find an old concession stand, its restrooms closed and the windows permanently shuttered. A chain-link fence pens in overturned picnic tables, a heap of unused equipment and debris.

Need to use a restroom? Take your pick of a few port-a-potties that dot the landscape. But to get there, you’ll have to walk across fields that occasionally sink into deeper grass.

Sound like some out-of-the-way site? Try prime waterfront park, a place accessible to both people who live in nearby waterfront condos and the residents of low-income housing just a short walk across a pedestrian bridge that hovers above the Thruway. It’s a place where the city has already spent $6 million in recent years to build one of Buffalo’s most popular pools, a splash pad and a dog park, as well as other improvements.

But for all that work and all that attention, it still feels woefully neglected, especially when you look at the work that has been done a mile south at Canalside.

“It’s such a beautiful park, and it’s really forgotten,” said Cherelle Warren, a North Buffalo resident who was watching her 3-year-old son and nephew run around the LaSalle playground Friday afternoon.

Warren was in the southern half of the park that abuts some of the city’s most expensive residential waterfront real estate. Far from the new pool, it is tough to see the city’s commitment on this end of LaSalle. Graffiti stains a wooden picnic shelter. Rocks fill a sinkhole. Concrete barriers block off an old seaplane ramp where kayakers launch. Two pieces of playground equipment are missing the parts that once made them fun.

It’s easy to see why residents at a recent public meeting were skeptical about a $1.2 million plan to rebuild the park road, and upgrade the playground and shelters. Some are concerned about the details of the plan. Others worry that the city would dump the money into reconstructing the road and call it a day, forgetting about a long-shelved plan to turn the park into a place that would really make residents proud.

It’s a legitimate worry, but one that Andrew Rabb, deputy commissioner of parks and recreation, disputes. Fixing the road conditions, he said, won’t prevent more work from happening in the park.

“Our proposal was never meant to replace the master plan from 1998,” said Rabb, who also is eager to re-establish a steering committee that will give residents more of a voice on the future of the park.

For a city that once lost control of its own parks, the work on the pool and the north end of LaSalle Park is a credit to Mayor Byron Brown and city leaders. But the rest of the park is a far cry from what we expect on our waterfront today.

The city has come too far to squander this opportunity.