NIAGARA FALLS – New York State may at last be preparing to undo the namesake project of its “master builder.”
New plans for the Robert Moses Parkway – which whisks tourists into and out of Niagara Falls and separates the city from its precious waterfront – could spell the end for the controversial stretch later this week.
State officials are mum on the plans, but government and business leaders hope Wednesday's announcement will include the removal of the four-lane highway along the upper Niagara Gorge rim from the waterfalls to the northern city line.
It's a change locals have been screaming about for decades – and one that could create a new tourism corridor while saving residential neighborhoods that are slipping into decay.
“The Robert Moses Parkway has become the Peace Bridge of Niagara Falls,” said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. “It's become symbolic of our inability to get big projects done. So managing somehow to get something done on the Robert Moses … would be very, very positive psychologically, as well as practically.”
The state does not have funding set aside for the project and is by most accounts years away from any type of real construction.
But Dyster and others say that could come quickly if New York decides to grant the city its decades-old wish of removing the concrete ribbon that walls off pedestrians from the gorge.
Business owners are skeptical – the state has announced grand plans for the roadway before – but excited about the possibilities.
“It'd be great,” said Rick Crogan, president of the Main Street Business Association. “I would reap the benefits of it, I would see development. … Just the potential of the empty buildings that would become storefronts or the empty houses that would have kids living in them. That's what we're going to see.”
As it stands, the Moses stretches from the North Grand Island bridges through Niagara Falls and north to Lewiston and Youngstown. The stretch bringing tourists from Interstate 190 to Niagara Falls State Park would remain but would soon include a lower speed limit and pedestrian access points to the Niagara River.
But the northern stretch – from the Niagara Falls tourism district north to Lewiston – could be removed under new plans the state will unveil at a public open house from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Conference Center Niagara Falls, 101 Old Falls St.
The highway was built by the state Power Authority – and named after Moses, its chairman – during the 1960s as a way to provide unparalleled views for motorists across the Niagara Frontier.
But along with the collapse of the Schoellkopf Power Plant and the flight of city residents to the suburbs, the road project would eventually become identified as a major factor in the decline of business and residential life in the Niagara Falls core.
“Those three things, all working together, brought about very dramatic changes to the North End of the City of Niagara Falls,” Dyster said. “And for most of the years since, there's been a consensus, at least within the city, that trying to undo those changes is a prerequisite for moving forward with the revitalization of that part of the city.”
After years of complaints, the state has taken up the task in recent years with public meetings and the unveiling of six designs for the northern stretch, ranging from total reconstruction of the roadway to total removal from Niagara Falls to Lewiston.
After public comment, the state has narrowed those designs and will present them Wednesday. Another round of changes and public comment will follow, with construction to take place within a few years in the best-case scenario.
Meanwhile, city leaders, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, are all trying to corral funds for a project that could top $100 million. They and many residents just want state officials to make up their minds so a plan can begin to take shape.
“Even just arriving at a decision on what we're going to do would have a positive effect,” Dyster said. “[You'd see] more people moving into the neighborhood, more people investing in the neighborhood.”
Crogan, the business leader, did so six years ago, moving from Atlanta after hearing the promise of a redesigned waterfront along the Niagara Gorge.
He sees the removal of the parkway – and the proposed creation of a two-lane park road set back from the gorge rim – as a key to connecting both residents and tourists to the untapped asset that is the gorge.
“Eco-tourism is so big, with the younger generation that's graduating college now, they believe in that stuff,” Crogan said. “There's so much opportunity for restaurants, shops, you'll have hiking stores, all that stuff on side streets.”
“How cool [would it be to] be able to walk to the gorge again?” he asked. “It's just a whole different lifestyle we're not accustomed to that we've lost for years.”