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NIAGARA FALLS - Two of the most breathtaking viewing areas on the American side of Niagara Falls will be closed to visitors from now until next spring to accommodate more than $3 million in improvements.
Workers on Tuesday fenced off access to the Three Sisters Islands and Luna Island viewing areas to begin the improvements. The work is being financed primarily by Niagara River Greenway funds provided by the New York Power Authority under its relicensing agreement in 2005 for the Niagara Power Project.
State parks officials and local representatives in the State Legislature were on hand Tuesday afternoon in the Top of the Falls restaurant on Goat Island to announce the beginning of the reconstruction.
A state program called NY Works is investing $2 million for restorations at Three Sisters Islands that include a new trolley shelter, expanded parking area, new pedestrian walkways and overlooks, enhanced landscaping and new railings.
The allocation for Luna Island includes $1.187 million for new pedestrian walkways, overlook improvements, enhanced landscaping, new benches, light posts and railings.
Artists' drawings of the finished projects show walkways edged with natural barriers of stone and vegetation to encourage visitors to walk on the pathways and not to stray onto the adjoining grassy areas that have become worn down and somewhat unsightly. The drawings show bright park areas and inviting vistas worthy of the falls themselves, which are among the most popular tourist attractions in the world.
The work that began Tuesday is the second round of a multiyear commitment of $25 million to restore Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the nation. Other work at the park under that commitment includes rehabilitation of Terrapin Point and Prospect Point, reconstruction of the Cave of the Winds area and design work to replace the deteriorating American Falls Bridge between the mainland and the islands in the river above the falls.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office in Albany said the work would enable "the many visitors who come each year to see the falls to have a much improved experience as they take in the beauty of one of America's most iconic natural wonders."
Sam Hoyt Sr., the former Buffalo assemblyman who is vice president for regional development for Empire State Development, represented the governor at Tuesday's announcement. He said the work would "preserve these treasures for future generations and continue to provide all New Yorkers with a place to enjoy the great outdoors."
Mark Thomas, Western New York director of state parks, represented State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, who said last year that it would require about $85 million to completely revitalize Niagara Falls State Park, which has fallen into disrepair because of deferred maintenance under tight state budgets.
Thomas said Three Sisters Islands and Luna Island "are very popular vantage points in which patrons can get up close and personal with the falls and the mighty rapids of the Niagara River."
Luna Island is at the brink of the American Falls, where visitors sometimes can experience the mist and the velocity of the water rushing over the edge.
The Three Sisters Islands, connected to one another by pedestrian bridges, are ideal vantage points for viewing the turbulence of the rapids just above the falls.
The State Legislature was represented by Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblyman John C. Ceretto, R-Lewiston.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster said it was of critical importance "that we act as stewards of the [park designer] Frederick Law Olmsted vision while maintaining the park and preserving the integrity of this incredible natural waterfall."
Scott Lawn Yard of Sanborn is the contractor on the Three Sisters Islands project, and Mark Cerrone Inc. of Niagara Falls is doing the work at Luna Island.
The park, which is listed on the state and national registers of historic places, attracts more than 8 million visitors a year.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com