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Kayakers take a close look into the future with 'High Line' river tour

Many of the kayakers who explored the Buffalo River Saturday during a morning paddle knew little about the linear park that will follow 1.5 miles of an abandoned rail line through South Buffalo.

But that would all change after the two-hour water paddle designed to give residents a close-up look at waterfowl, wildflowers and the rich industrial vista that will serve as the backdrop for the new attraction. Think Manhattan’s High Line, Philadelphia’s Rail Park or Toronto’s Bent Way. The trails are being planned by Western New York Land Conservancy in partnership with several non-profit organizations including Waterkeeper Alliance, that sponsored Saturday's tour.

“They’re called urban infrastructure projects, so it’s not just a rail trail, it’s way more than that. It’s closer to an urban park. Each one is unique because it has to respond to the needs of the individual community," said Nancy R. Smith, executive director of Western New York Land Conservancy.

Envision twin nature trails on berms 30 feet tall — one for walking, the other for cycling — that will connect Canalside and RiverBend (across from Tesla, Inc.), joining neighborhoods like Perry, First Ward and the Valley. The urban corridor is expected to include public art displays, gardens, parkland, benches and wide-ranging land and waterscapes.

Saturday’s river paddle created a pleasant buzz among the kayakers.

Mudit Singhal, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy, and his girlfriend, Tracy Jiang, a registered dietician, spend much of their spare time exploring. Earlier in the week they hiked the Niagara Gorge to learn about invasive plants during an event sponsored by the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“Buffalo is doing a great job, particularly in the cleanliness of the water,” said Singhal. “I always try and educate my students. I like to learn and then pass the knowledge on.”

 

Guy Christopher, 70, of Lewiston, and his wife, Beverly Seyler, became instant fans of Buffalo’s linear park project.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Seyler said. “We’re familiar with the High Line, but I think the natural features here will be greater than in Manhattan.”

Buffalo’s linear park will be built along the old Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) Railroad line that helped make the city the second-largest rail center in the United States, said Don Owens, a soil scientist and rail historian.

“We had the Great Lakes, but we didn’t have any connection to the East,” said Owens. “The grain and steel industry spurred the development of an active railroad line in Buffalo from the 1880s to 1962, when the double-track DL&W rail line was abandoned and most of the railroad bridges were removed. This line also carried many passenger trains, including the Phoebe Snow, which was the flagship train for the Lackawanna Railroad. It carried coal, too."

Key to its success is creating an inclusive, community-driven plan involving neighborhood advocates, park leaders, municipal officials and residents, said Smith. That is why the conservancy and its partners are teaming up for a series of events that included Saturday’s paddle.

A recent collaboration with the Perry Community Garden was sponsored by Grassroots Gardens WNY, an organization that helps revitalize neighborhoods by establishing community gardens, and Groundwork Buffalo's Green Team, a group of high school students engaged in community service.

“I was there Wednesday with other volunteers to clear the garden of weeds, add two beds and plants,” said Smith, who brought 400 pounds of soil and compost to the Perry garden in her vehicle.

“It was a blast. I received an email from a priest in the neighborhood who reached out after watching us work,” Smith recalled. “That’s exactly what we want to have happen.”

And it will continue to happen. The conservancy will soon partner with the Old First Ward Community Center to place a mural on a small utility substation on Alabama Street between Mackinaw and Miami streets, Smith said. The brick building owned by National Fuel will be visible from the elevated trails.

Part of the proposed DL&W High Line passes over this bridge over a large rail yard in South Buffalo. Nearly 100 entries were submitted into a design competition for a new recreation path. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

The Land Conservancy drawing inspiration from the 11th Street Bridge Project underway in Washington, D.C. It is one of 19 throughout the country in which municipalities have reused underused and abandoned infrastructure in creative ways to introduce green space into their neighborhoods. The highly successful urban projects in the High Line Network redefine what a park can be, according to the organization’s website. “These hybrid spaces are also public squares, open-air museums, botanical gardens, social service organizations, walkways, transit corridors and more,” according to the organization's website.

The bridge connects two demographically different communities separated by the Anacostia River that flows from Prince George’s County in Maryland into Washington, said Smith.

“There is a very affluent community on one side and a community with a lot of economic challenges on the other. The bridge will be a linear park and will connect the two,” explained Smith. “So far $138 million has been raised. What is important is that they have a progressive, equitable development plan created to include the immediate neighbors and what they want."

A $50,000 grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is now being used to create an equitable development plan prepared by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, Smith said. This phase will take approximately one year and require an additional $200,000 to complete. The name of the project is expected to be unveiled in October, she said.

“We wanted to be Number 20 in the High Line Network,” Smith said. "And for the first time ever they’ve expanded the network to include 40 projects from across the country, and we are included. We’ll take everything we learned and will create a plan that isn’t just ideas, and we will continue to gather input from the community while we do it.”

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