The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.
That kind of gift demands thinking big. It appears the planners behind the transformation of the park on Buffalo’s West Side, a $50 million-plus project, are more than up to the task.
Their vision of what will be called Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park will take full advantage of its prime perch along the Niagara River waterfront. The conceptual design unveiled by the Wilson Foundation and its partners in the project promises a world-class public space worthy of a city trying to accelerate its rebirth.
Highlights include a lagoon that helps provide more access to water, a playground in the center of the park, and a great lawn suitable for outdoor concerts that will have echoes of New York’s Central Park. And a portion of the land will be graded to create a hill for watching the sun set or taking a winter ride on a sled.
A new pedestrian bridge, replacing an overpass over the Niagara Thruway, will connect to the Lower West Side.
Choosing the landscape architect firm for such a project is like choosing a surgeon: You want someone who has done the procedure before. There are few more qualified than landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. His Brooklyn firm designed Brooklyn Bridge Park, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago and the Lower Don Lands in Toronto, among others.
Van Valkenburgh and Associates give the project the benefit of their expertise and creativity, but won’t impose their will on Buffalo’s largest waterfront recreation space. The Wilson Foundation and its partners, including the City of Buffalo and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, are making an all-out effort to include public input in the plans.
Nearly 1,200 surveys were filled out by members of the public last year, and some 400 people attended public meetings.
“I really appreciate that they are really, really listening to the community,” Marnetta Malcolm, part of the 21-member LaSalle Focus Group, told The News.
The park’s sports fields, Barkyard dog park and cookout facilities will be retained, with enhancements, thanks to comments from the public.
The park was named Centennial Park in 1932, as Buffalo celebrated its first 100 years. The city renamed it LaSalle Park in 1940, after René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, a French explorer who journeyed across the Great Lakes.
The design for the park aims to respect its past, as a gathering place for a true cross-section of Western New Yorkers, of various races, colors and religions.
Rather than try to make the 90-acre park into a copy of Chicago’s or New York’s great green spaces, Van Valkenburgh and Associates will transform Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park by making it look more like itself.