If there are many more flashes of enlightenment around here, it will put our dumb-and-dumber development reputation at risk.
A public push reclaimed history and created a waterfront park at Canalside, dodging the “magic bullet” of a big-box retailer. Hamburg pumped up the quaintness quotient of its village with road changes that put people first, cars second. Downtown revival continues on the backs of such grand old buildings as the Lafayette Hotel, rescued from the wrecking ball.
What’s next, government stepping in to save an iconic building from destruction? Oh, right, that already happened.
Village officials in Williamsville eight years ago bought the 1811 Water Mill, the character-dripping, substance-and-symbol link to the community’s past and future. The $450,000 sticker price was hefty, although state grants lifted most of the load. But the value of an irreplaceable piece of the past and a centerpiece for development made it worth every cent.
Measure that against the millions of dollars it cost to create (and then maintain) the five-lane thoroughfare of Main Street. It turned the village into a commuter byway, sliced a charming commercial district in half, turned street-crossing into an extreme sport, and lays an ongoing hurt on local businesses. All of it done in the name of “progress.”
It takes a lot of time, sweat and money to ease the pain of such mistakes. More and more places – Williamsville among them – are reaching for the remedy bottle.
Brian Kulpa came to office with an urban-planning degree and an enlightened, back-to-the-future sensibility. Stocky, with a shock of curly black hair, Williamsville’s mayor sees the 1811 Water Mill not as a millstone, but the hub of a Main Street redesign. Nestled in the crook of a dogleg street a half-block from the hum of Route 5, and backed by glorious, creek-gifted Glen Park, the mill is a postcard-worthy destination. It’s an oasis just steps from a 40,000-vehicles-per-day highway.
“It’s a natural anchor in the core of the village,” Kulpa said. “People want a gathering place.”
Standing Wednesday in the mill doorway, supported by rough-hewn beams dating from Thomas Jefferson’s day, Kulpa gazed upon a grim-but-recoverable landscape of telephone poles, a parking lot and a spaghetti nest of utility wires.
Happily, officials are not devising a development plan behind closed doors, to force-feed down the community’s throat. Tuesday’s public meeting was a shoot-the-breeze session, with no podium in sight. It is another change to business-as-usual around here. Enlightenment comes not just in what gets done, but how.
“You have to build consensus, ask people what they want,” Kulpa said. “The top-down approach doesn’t work.”
Commercial reuse for the mill seems within reach. A second prospective tenant surfaced last week, a longtime village ice cream retailer/manufacturer. The mill eventually will be back in private hands, with preservation protections.
“It gives us identity of place,” Kulpa said. “That’s what we’re after.”
Enlightenment. At long last, it’s getting to be the rule around here, not the exception.