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No more ice cars? New wall aims to control waves on Route 5

Chances are we’ll still see the random “ice car” from time to time in Ed Hoak’s lake shore parking lot.

But that gantlet of water, ice and debris that Southtowns motorists run through along Route 5 in front of his Athol Springs restaurant will be going away as early as next year.

The state and federal governments intend to take the sting out of Lake Erie’s waves crashing along the shore across from St. Francis High School during strong storms. They will be building a wall and buffer along the lakefront next year.

“I’m kind of surprised it took this long,” said Cory Downey of Hamburg.

Downey, a St. Francis High alumnus, rents a first-floor shoreline property in the 4100 block of Route 5 and watches the havoc that tempestuous lake waters wreak on the stretch of highway between Big Tree and Camp roads during strong storms.

Stormy weather – especially when west and southwest winds buffet the shore here – causes waves to slam into a roughly 15-foot high concrete seawall. That sends the lake waters up and over onto Route 5. The deluge can momentarily stun unprepared drivers.

And, when the temperature is at or below freezing, the roadway can freeze almost instantly.

“It’s a dangerous situation,” Hamburg Police Chief Gregory G. Wickett said.

What’s more, there are signs the large 91-year-old concrete sea wall is showing its age.

Sink holes in the earthen embankment near where the former Foit’s Restaurant once stood recently developed. Those areas are now fenced off.

“If you take a good look at this wall, it could pass for the Alamo,” said Hoak. “It was built in 1926.”

Hoak has paperwork from 1993 showing plans for a project similar to what the Corps of Engineers is proposing now. He expects it will be built this time.

It has to, he said, before the lake just takes what it wants.

“It’s just going to slice (the wall) like a piece of pie,” Hoak said.

What you’ll see

“Anchor stone” boulders – up to three-feet in diameter – will comprise part of a nearly quarter-mile-long revetment to be constructed from the south end of Hoak’s restaurant around to residences in the 4100 block of Route 5, according to Corps of Engineers documents.

A revetment is just “a pile of rocks in front of the wall,” explained Corps of Engineers’ project engineer Austin Nilsen.

A fall windstorm in 2015 stirred up Lake Erie, tossing high waves and debris into Hoak's restaurant and over onto nearby Route 5. (Buffalo News file photo)

The rocks will cushion the waves as they approach shore, absorbing their energy, Corps officials said.

“It starts 30 to 40 feet in front of the sea wall,” Nilsen said. “We need to excavate the sand in front of the wall and set the rocks on the bedrock.”

A double layer of the anchor stone boulders will be individually put in place on top of an underlayer of smaller stone that will range from 6 inches to a foot in diameter, according to Army Corps’ renderings. The underlayer will average about eight feet in depth, Corps' officials said.

“The reason we’re involved is it’s a shoreline protection problem,” said Kelly Polashenski, project manager for the Corps of Engineers. “It’s a hazardous condition, which is why we are trying to address it.”

The large rocks will recede over that 30 feet or so from a roughly 10-foot wide “splash apron” pad that will catch any small spray coming off the lake and double as a concrete pedestrian walkway connecting the shoreline between Downey’s place and Hoak’s.

A short wall with a protective rail or fencing will separate the pad from Route 5 traffic, Corps officials said.

On the water side, the boulders will sit about 1½ feet above the walkway (about mid-calf height), providing a natural buffer between the walkway and the lake.

Expect the walkway to gain instant popularity with extreme weather enthusiasts and TV crews who often scramble to the spot during lake-effect snowstorms and windstorms to grab pictures or video of Mother Nature’s fury.

And, as close to the “action” as they’ll be, Route 5 motorists should be a lot more protected.

“Hopefully, this will do the trick,” Wickett said.

Danger and damage

Wickett estimates the quarter-mile stretch of Route 5 is closed to traffic at least “3 or 4 times” every winter.

It seemed to happen more often – and for longer periods of time – last winter thanks to the timing of the storms and higher-than-average lake water levels.

Last Dec. 15, the roadway was closed to traffic for a full 24 hours.

Once the project is finished, officials said there will be:

  • Safer travel
  • Less rush-hour detours for commuters on the main artery connecting the city of Buffalo with the Southtowns
  • Cost savings for Wickett’s police department and crews from the state Department of Transportation who often stand post during road closures.

It will also be good for businesses like Hoak’s, which can see customers dwindle without passing traffic, not to mention all the damage.

Since 1949, Hoak’s has borne the brunt of the lake’s fury from the logs, ice and rocks it tosses toward the restaurant.

“Almost every window in the place has been broken, and half of them on the second floor too,” Ed Hoak said.

The famed ice car outside Hoak's Restaurant in Hamburg, pictured in January 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

Plus, all the ice that develops when wind-whipped waves crash into the building, and over into its parking lot on especially cold days, also creates problems (and international attention).

Google "Buffalo ice car."

In January 2016, Justin Yelen's Mitsubishi Lancer garnered appearances on the Weather Channel, "Good Morning America" and even media in the United Kingdom when pictures of his vehicle went viral on social media.

How the ice car went viral

Because the Corps of Engineers project ends at the southern end of Hoak's property, Mother Nature will continue ice-sculpting in the restaurant parking lot and the west-facing lake side of the building.

"The 'ice car' turned into what our windows look like," Hoak said. "The ice is six inches thick."

Start time

As the Corps of Engineers finalizes its designs, state transportation officials are nailing down sale and lease agreements with private landowners.

There are at least eight of them, which own slivers of about 8 to 10 feet of land between Route 5 and Lake Erie in the affected area, according to Erie County property records.

Three of them include Ed Hoak, his wife and the restaurant. St. Francis High School is another.

“Anything that can protect the restaurant and the street and the people, I’m for 100 percent," said Kevin Hoak, Ed’s son.

Once the land is secured, specifications can be finalized and the Corps of Engineers can solicit bids for the project. That’s expected later this year with construction in 2018.

Last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation gave its blessing, approving a water certificate for the project.

The federal and state governments are splitting the project's costs, which are estimated to be up to $6 million, with the federal portion to be 65 percent.

State transportation officials didn’t respond to The News’ request for comment on this story.

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