Matthew Westerholt’s question is simple: What’s going to end up in his backyard?
Westerholt, 27, awoke two Saturdays ago to the sound of demolition crews preparing to tear down eight houses on Busti Avenue behind his Columbus Parkway home.
He left for work at 10 a.m. By the time he got home at 4, the houses were gone. All that was left were piles of broken beams, chalky bricks and crooked trees.
The Peace Bridge Authority wasted no time after a federal judge lifted a restraining order against demolishing the houses, moving in wrecking crews and knocking down the houses in less than 24 hours.
The agency says it will landscape the Busti strip. Beyond that, the future is unclear.
“The certainty of any plaza expansion, it just can’t be given,” said Matt Davison, a spokesman for the Peace Bridge Authority.
The way Davison explains it, the agency is at the mercy of federal budgets and dried-up border funds. Since a decade-long process to vet a new bridge was scrapped, the authority has refocused its efforts on scaled-back renovation projects mostly within its existing footprint.
But there’s no question that dreams of an expanded plaza and duty-free shop persist and that the land on Busti and the nearby vacant Episcopal Church Home would play a role. The governor even swooped into town last summer to nudge a plaza expansion forward with an announcement of a preliminary agreement to transfer part of Busti Avenue to the bridge authority.
And still, the Peace Bridge Authority is reticent about details of such a plan.
“We have a bunch of different ideas, some that we’ve put on paper, some that we haven’t, in the hundreds, almost, about what could be done over there,” Davison said. “But no plan has ever been approved by our board of directors, which would be the first step toward us actually starting an environmental review, taking a plan out to the public and really announcing it.”
It’s a problem that’s plagued neighbors of the Peace Bridge for decades. How do you plan for the future when the future is anything but certain?
Westerholt doesn’t ever remember a time when uncertainty didn’t hang over his tree-lined neighborhood. He grew up on the block where he is now raising his own children and said it feels like he’s heard “a million plans” for the bridge in his lifetime there.
Now that the Busti houses are down, the biggest question for Westerholt is the health impact of any future plan to expand the bridge plaza.
“What are they going to do with this open space now?” Westerholt asked, “And am I going to have trucks in my backyard?”
A block away, Esther Alessi remembers her mother and her aunt going to meetings about the future of the Peace Bridge in the ’80s. Now, it’s Alessi and her husband who live in the Victorian on Busti that her grandparents moved into in the late ’30s.
Last summer, they thought about selling, but only four people came to look at the property in six months on the market. It’s a tough sell when you can’t say for certain what will be built down the street.
“I’m hoping whatever happens is a plus for our neighborhood,” Alessi said.
Meanwhile, questions left unanswered will continue to take their toll.