Three big excavators knocked down eight vacant houses on Busti Avenue Saturday, ending a long legal fight and perhaps starting the even longer-delayed expansion of the Peace Bridge plaza.
The houses started coming down in the morning, less than 24 hours after a federal magistrate lifted a temporary restraining order that neighbors and preservationists had sought to stop the demolitions. By the end of the day, they were rubble.
Officials with the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, which owned the houses, most of them since the 1990s, has said it will landscape the eight contiguous properties between Vermont and Rhode Island streets in the short-term and then use the land for a possible future plaza expansion. Details of that new plaza, though, have not been made public.
The magistrate’s decision Friday was a significant victory for the authority, which was about to begin demolition in June, until the neighbors and the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture obtained a temporary restraining order.
The order ended in a 23-page decision from U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
“While the properties in question may have some historic value, they are also unsafe and crime-ridden,” McCarthy wrote. “Therefore, the public interest would not be furthered by the granting of a preliminary injunction.”
There was no further legal recourse for the Campaign, said its vice president, Daniel Sack.
“There’s nothing left,” Sack said as he stood on the Busti Avenue sidewalk watching the demolitions unfold on a chilly Saturday morning. Sack was joined by other preservationists and neighbors discouraged by the demolitions.
More optimistic Peace Bridge officials also watched the houses come down.
“We are going to have a beautiful, landscaped buffer between the plaza and the neighborhood in the short term,” said Sam Hoyt, a member of the Peace Bridge authority board. “We’re going to send a message [that] you’re not entering a ghetto when you cross into the great city of Buffalo.”
Excavators tore down several houses simultaneously, as workers watered down the debris to prevent dust, and crews prepped other houses for demolition, including the Storms-Wilkeson House at 771 Busti Ave., a city landmark.
Columbus Parkway resident Geno Russi lives on the block behind the demolished homes, and said he was happy to see them come down.
“We’ve been waiting for 15 or 16 years,” he said. “Now we’re going to have some green space where our kids can play.”
Russi moved to the neighborhood in 1982, and said about five years later, talk of expanding the plaza began.
The houses would never have been allowed to rot for that long in a suburb, he said.
But the houses have deteriorated under the authority’s ownership, said Jason Wilson, director of operations at Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
“Only in Buffalo will they invest heavily in outdated infrastructure in a residential neighborhood,” Wilson said.
He was referring to the plaza the bridge authority wants to build that would encourage more truck traffic at the bridge.
The bridge authority is completing $50 million in projects on its current plaza, including a $20 million renovation of a Customs Commercial building, a ramp to provide quicker access to Interstate 190 and a widening that will allow traffic to approach Customs booths more quickly.
The land where the eight Busti homes were torn down Saturday is intended for a larger plaza, something Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made a priority.
Cuomo’s office last year announced efforts to purchase the vacant Episcopal Church Home, a large property at Busti Avenue and Rhode Island street, and announced the city’s willingness to abandon two blocks of Busti Avenue to make way for a larger plaza.
Neither of the transactions has yet materialized.
The plaza expansion plan was developed after a proposed second bridge across the Niagara River was declared dead by the federal government in January 2012.
Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, whose district includes the neighborhood around the bridge, said Saturday that he learned the demolitions were under way from reporters.
Rivera supports the city’s sale of Busti for a plaza expansion if the sale proceeds are reinvested in his district and if the bridge authority unveils their expansion plans, he said.
“I’ve asked the Peace Bridge for the plans for the new plaza, including set-backs, roads,” he said. “We still want to see the plan.”
Hoyt said no decisions on an expansion or relocation of the duty-free store have been made, but he insisted no gas station will be built, as has been rumored.
Preservationists and neighbors sued the bridge authority in State Supreme Court in June, but the lawsuit was moved to federal court, at the request of the authority.
McCarthy heard lawyers discuss for two hours on Dec. 17 such issues as whether the authority has to follow state environmental review laws and whether the demolition of the homes is part of a larger project.
The judge also questioned whether the Campaign and several Peace Bridge neighbors were qualified to bring the lawsuit, though his ruling states that he believes they are.
The plaintiffs argued that the demolitions threaten historic structures, such as the Storms-Wilkeson House and two others that the state Historic Preservation Office had identified as eligible for listing as historic structures on the National Register, and are part of a larger expansion project, making a lengthy environmental review necessary.
The state office had said the houses had reached the end of their structural life, and re-use by the bridge authority would be unreasonable.
“The properties are currently in a dilapidated condition, and could not be restored without considerable expense, which the Campaign has not offered to undertake,” McCarthy wrote. “I further note that the Campaign did not voice any concerns when the demolition plans were discussed at the public forum on April 4, 2012.”
Neighbors are concerned about the health effects of diesel fumes related to bridge activity, said Kathy Mecca, president of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association. Future litigation to stop the expansion is possible, she added.
“There is no goodness that comes out of this act,” Mecca said. “The homes should have been restored.”