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Amherst State Park, a 'hidden gem,' gets some shine

Frequent visitors to Amherst State Park and town officials alike describe the 80 acres of public open space as a "hidden gem."

Now, the park nestled among dense neighborhoods between Main Street and Sheridan Drive is getting some attention.

Construction of a stone dust trail connecting both sides of the park is nearly complete. Work to restore a historic stone staircase popular for wedding and family photos is expected to begin later this month. And efforts by the town to demolish a deteriorated structure in the area are gaining traction.

The projects are seen as a way to raise the park's visibility and improve access for families with young children in strollers and people in wheelchairs.

"It's just an absolute hidden jewel in the town," said Brian J. Armstrong, assistant municipal engineer for the town. "To think you've got this much undisturbed space in our town, once people find it they can't believe it's here and they can't believe how large it is, how quiet it is."

And the additions come just as the Amherst Town Board last month adopted an update to its recreation master plan, in which more trails and pathways and protection of open green space were identified as top priorities.

"In Amherst we have limited open space," said Elizabeth Graczyk Dagostino, the new chair of the Amherst Conservation Advisory Council. "So much of Amherst has been developed over the last 20, 30 years. The fact that we have this beautiful space as a landmark, keystone spot is incredible."

Creekside path connections

The new 8-foot wide stone dust trail replaces an uneven footpath on a former dirt service road. From a trailhead near the historic St. Mary of the Angels Motherhouse, a former convent on Mill Street that is now senior housing, visitors walk south and cross a bridge over Ellicott Creek that offers a serene view.

The new trail continues through a meadow, over a mill race and winds up behind the new Sisters of St. Francis convent on Reist Street. Remaining work on a 25-foot section of boardwalk over the mill race is expected to be completed this month.

"This gives people who wouldn't normally be able to access places like this some way of accessing it," said Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa, an architect and urban planner. "It's purposefully built so that we're connecting Reist to Mill and giving people opportunities to be active in this area."

Since the town purchased the motherhouse and surrounding land from the Sisters of St. Francis in 2000, the park has been popular for the passive pursuits of bird watching, photography and angling. But the hope is the new trail will attract others looking for a stroll through nature, or a tranquil place for a conversation.

Wendy Muni of Williamsville walks her dog, Oliver, on a new trail in Amherst State Park. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Wendy Muni of Williamsville and her dog, Oliver, were among those utilizing the new trail one afternoon late last month. She likes spotting the deer and red-tailed hawks.

"I've only been coming here for three years and I've definitely seen some improvements, which is great," she said. "When I first came here I was surprised how it really wasn't accessible. You could only really go to a certain spot then you had to stop."

Jose Olea of Williamsville who was using the new trail with his dog, Magic, said the park is a "hidden gem."

Another section of trail was designed and put out for bid but never funded for construction due to the high cost. That section would wind north along Ellicott Creek's east bank from Glen Park in Williamsville, behind Village Glen Tennis Club to the bridge.

Still, the town's Conservation Advisory Council plans to install tree markers along the route this year, to create at least a visual connection between Glen Park and Amherst State Park.

"If we can get it at least marked now, we can get people out and enjoying it," said Graczyk Dagostino.

The unfunded section is listed in the town's capital improvement plan for 2019 but would need to be resubmitted by the Planning Department and funded by the Town Board to move forward.

"We have Ellicott Creek and its tributaries winding through the town and it's something that should be accessible," said Kulpa, who took office in January. "We should provide that access."

The $320,000 Mill-Reist trail project also included replacement of 380 feet of sidewalk along the park's frontage on Mill Street and creation of 29 new parking spaces along the park's exit to Mill Street for visitors to the town's veterans memorial.

"When they have events three or four times a year parking is a real chore," said Armstrong.

Staircase and orchard

A historic stone staircase in Amherst State Park is set to undergo a restoration this month. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The historic stone staircase was a popular place for formal photos with the 1928 late gothic revival style motherhouse towering in the background. But as the staircase fell into disrepair it was cordoned off and surrounded by orange snow fencing about four years ago, Armstrong said.

Work is set to begin this month on a $128,835 project to restore the staircase by selectively removing and resetting the existing stones. New tread stones will be added and set so the staircase will be safe again for public use.

The cheek wall cap stones will be reset and missing cap stones will be replaced. The stone planter bed at the bottom landing of the staircase will also be rehabbed.

A smaller secondary staircase nearby will also be completely reconstructed. Finally, the existing dilapidated concrete sidewalk between the two staircases will be completely removed and replaced. The Town Board awarded the construction contract last month and Armstrong said the project will be completed this summer.

The staircase descends into the remnants of an orchard that provided fruit and nuts for the retired nuns living in the motherhouse. They made jams and jellies from the peach, plum, pear and prune trees, as well as apple pies and applesauce from two varieties of apple trees, said Lois Shriver, a former chair of the town's Conservation Advisory Council.

"Some Saturday mornings everyone enjoyed a very special breakfast," Shriver said by email. "Early in the morning, the novices were sent to gather prunes from the orchard. Everyone knew what that meant. Their wonderful treat would be fresh prune kuchen prepared by one of the sisters. I was told it was delicious."

Town officials want to restore a fruit tree orchard in Amherst State Park to its original splendor. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

About $6,000 was included in this year's town Highway Department budget to begin restoration of the orchard. In the meantime, the town Conservation Advisory Council in September hopes to plant the first of 22 weeping willow trees on the perimeter of the orchard to help with flooding issues in the low-lying park.

"I think it'll create a really nice aesthetic in the park," said Graczyk Dagostino.

Boiler house and garages

The boiler house adjacent to the motherhouse provided laundry and heating for the convent. But the town-owned structure has sat vacant since the town acquired it nearly 18 years ago and deteriorated to the point that it likely can't be saved. The town is looking to unload it.

"It's not parkland," said Maggie Hamilton Winship, the town's director of strategic planning. "It's not connected to the park. It sits between two privately owned senior living facilities and it doesn't make sense that it's just sitting there crumbling."

The town in February 2017 received a $500,000 Restore New York grant from Empire State Development toward demolition of the boiler house, which has environmental hazards of asbestos and lead. The total estimated cost of demolition and abatement is $750,000.

However, the boiler house is considered a "contributing structure" that landed the orchard and motherhouse on the State and National Historic Registers in 2002 and the state Historic Preservation Office has yet to sign off on the demolition.

The town is seeking to have a 2004 structural analysis updated by an engineering firm to show the state office that Amherst has done its due diligence before demolition proceeds.

The boiler house is a town-owned structure that provided heating and laundry to the adjacent Motherhouse convent. It has sat vacant for at least 18 years and may be demolished. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Meanwhile, the town late last year issued a request for proposals from developers interested in purchasing the boiler house property, which includes 1930s garages with ornate brickwork that are in good condition.

Acquest Development submitted the only proposal, which calls for redeveloping the garages into one-bedroom apartments and using the boiler house land as an accessory to Acquest's nearby Park Creek Senior Living Community, said Michael Huntress, Acquest vice president.

"Our interest is obviously further development of the project we have to the north, which is senior apartments and assisted living," he said. "We've been working with the town for the last couple years and hope to renovate some of the garage that is still in decent condition. The balance of the property will likely be demo'd."

'A pretty special place'

Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa, right, and Assistant Municipal Engineer Brian Armstrong cross a mill race in Amherst State Park on a plank that serves as a temporary bridge until a boardwalk is completed this month. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Town officials said they're trying to be selective with enhancements to Amherst State Park and not leave too much of a man-made mark. The state owns the land but the town manages the park.

"It's been a real challenge to be sensitive and take down as few trees as possible," said Armstrong. "We're really just reconnecting people with the space they were using but make it in a way that it's a lot more accessible to more types of people."

Graczyk Dagostino said her group is working on bringing educational programming and events, including guided tours, hikes, scouting activities and snowshoeing, to the town's largest natural conservation areas parks.

"Amherst State Park is, obviously, because of its size and location, a great one to promote within the community," she said. "That's where we're headed."

Kulpa said completion of the trail and start of work on the stone staircase coinciding with the summer months is advantageous. But don't expect to see much more than the recent subtle touches.

"The goal is not to do a lot," he said. "We're not trying to put benches and lighting in. We're hoping people will treat this like every other state park and carry in, carry out – avoid litter. It's a pretty special place."

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