A construction vehicle’s crane goes up and down, pounding into the sidewalk. Bang. Bang.
As a Metro bus tries to turn, its driver is wincing. Quarters are tight.
With a car occupying half of the congested Fillmore Avenue, the bus’ turn seems impossible. The sedan goes in reverse, and the bus squeezes by, narrowly avoiding the car.
It’s another busy summer day on Fillmore Avenue.
What started out as a mission to beautify a one-mile stretch of the East Side area and turn it into a destination where people could enjoy shopping, and feel safe, has turned into a controversial operation.
Some community members say the area has taken a step back, while the city says the street simply looks rough at the moment because the project is unfinished.
Richard Cummings, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, said the city has neglected the project.
The Chamber identified the need more than five years ago and, with the help of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, obtained federal money to revitalize the streetscape.
In total, the project – which is also receiving money from the state, city and Buffalo Sewer Authority – will cost $2.24 million.
Issues have arisen amid construction, including: hazardous driving conditions; a poor painting job on new sidewalks, which are cracking; ditches that have not been sealed off; and businesses losing money.
“The quality of what we’re trying to do is being defeated by the design,” Cummings said.
The city emphasized that it has held seven community forum meetings and received support throughout the construction process.
“The vast majority of this project, these ideas, are the ideas of what the residents in the community want to see,” said Department of Public Works Commissioner Steven Stepniak.
Stepniak admitted there have been some problems, but said they will be resolved by the time construction is complete.
“We have a letter with the concerns” of residents, he said.
We are addressing those,” Stepniak said. “A couple things are being adjusted.
“There are minor alterations that can be done to make the project very successful. They can be handled. They aren’t insurmountable.”
The Black Chamber of Commerce says the neighborhood was supposed to improve greatly and become a hub that residents were proud of – a place where people in Western New York would enjoy stopping for ice cream or making a shopping trip.
But they say the city has not been committed to the project. Cummings said the city would never tolerate these issues on Elmwood or Hertel Avenue.
“We made some statements about how we were going to really beautify the community,” Cummings said. “And people are saying, ‘Hey, I don’t see any beautification.’ In fact, they’re kind of upset.
“And it’s upsetting to us because we’re seriously trying, but nobody seems to want to beautify the East Side.”
Perhaps the biggest issue, in the Chamber’s mind, is the newly obstructed flow of traffic. The added “bump-outs,” which extend the sidewalk area about five feet into the street, have limited traffic to one lane in each direction.
Large vehicles – from Metro buses to garbage trucks – have a tough time navigating the street. Making turns on and off of Fillmore is daunting.
Tire tracks are on many corner sidewalks and are especially evident at the intersection of Fillmore and Urban Street, where several sets of tires have left their mark.
“The bump-outs serve no purpose other than to remove space,” Cummings said.
The city says the bump-outs were added to slow traffic and keep the area safe around Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Stepniak said some of the bump-outs that have been identified as problems will be scaled back.
James S. Faulkner, a nieghborhood resident, said the change to the sidewalk/street area does not make sense.
“This has never been a street where the traffic is out of control,” Faulkner said.
As a result of the changes, Cummings said, traffic has been backed up during rush hour, especially when buses stop to pick up passengers.
Though most of the money was awarded by the federal government, the city has handled its distribution and the operations.
Watts Architecture & Engineering, the independent firm with offices in Buffalo and Syracuse that was contracted by the city, declined comment for this story.
As sidewalks and entryways to businesses are in the process of being redone, there are open ditches on Fillmore that have not been blocked off.
Sandria Banks watched as a group of children walked along the edge of one such hole, about three feet deep, at the corner of Fillmore and French Street. Like many of the ditches, it was not fenced off or marked.
“That right there – what’s stopping those kids from falling?” she asked.
“That’s being addressed, too,” Stepniak said of the ditches.
The project is slated to be completed Aug. 1, City Hall spokesman Mike DeGeorge said.
Cummings is doubtful.
“It keeps being pushed back," he said. “They may even extend it out further.”
Work began last summer and paused for the winter. Stepniak said there was one dispute between the contractor and a consultant, but it has been worked out.
“Juneteenth was our target date. We set an aggressive target date,” Stepniak said. “Delays aren’t really unusual because you get certain things that are asked to be done in the process.”
Light red paint that has been plastered on the new sidewalks runs onto the curbs in splotches down most of the street. That’s another issue Stepniak said will be resolved.
Cummings is dubious.
“As to whether they’re going to come back and clean this up or not, I doubt it,” Cummings said. “It’s very poor workmanship. It’s poor monitoring and managing because somebody should have picked this up.”
Businesses in the area – the Chamber was hoping to stimulate revenue with the revitalization – say they have lost money because much of the street is unwalkable.
At VIP Barber Shop, the driveway was dug up and its entrance was filled with gravel. The gravel has since has fallen through a grate, creating a large hole near the front of the business.
“It’s just a mess,” said Llewelyn Daniel, who owns the shop. “It’s been rough for people to get in here.”
“Who gave them permission to do this?” Faulker said. “Have you ever seen anything in Buffalo like this?”
There are drainage issues, too. A number of drains have been sealed off; water lays on the street when it rains.
“Someone took a shortcut doing the drainage and only put half of them back,” Cummings said.
“It did cause some drainage issues,” Stepniak said. “A lot of it is going to be addressed during the paving process. It will change the profile of some of the road.”
The entry to the Buy Fresh Mart convenient store has been redone, and cars low to the ground have a tough time entering without scraping their bumpers.
Michael Miller’s Volvo was damaged when he pulled into the Mart. He filed a claim with the city, but it was rejected.
Sydney Brown, a Chamber member, said claims have been rejected because the city has said they are unsubstantiated.
DeGeorge said there were 15-20 people at each of the community meetings and he has received positive feedback from residents.
He emphasized that the project is not finished and he is confident residents will be satisfied when it is complete.