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Fireworks Over the Peace Bridge Demolitions

This bucolic scene is not the future of the Peace Bridge and its expanded US plaza.

Court documents and other missives concerning the proposed demolition of eight houses on Busti Avenue to make way for an enlarged Peace Bridge plaza and new Duty Free store flew fast and furious this past week. Some as far away as to Albany.

Including a letter from Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown to Governor Andrew Cuomo suggesting holding off on the demolitions in the light of “valid concerns” of community members and the Public Bridge Authority’s continued refusal to make public its plans for the demolition site. The mayor’s letter garnered quick responses from several other area politicos, as well as from the PBA. Another letter to Albany was from local environmental attorney Arthur C. Giacalone challenging the PBA’s theory that, as a bi-national entity, it is exempt from state and local laws regarding the demolitions.

In addition, last week the PBA released a “segmented” environmental assessment that detaches, disconnects, the proposed demolitions from any other “potential” bridge plaza projects. The result is that the proposed demolitions—which have been generally acknowledged to be for the enlargement of the plaza for construction of a larger Duty Free shop, with expanded parking for trucks and other vehicles—sound more like the creation of a new park, a neighborhood recreational greenspace.

The segmenting idea also makes clear the PBA rationale—or substantial PBA rationale—for not disclosing its plans regarding the expansion of the plaza and new Duty Free store. For if it revealed such plans, there would be reason to lump those next-step plans together with the demolition proposal into a more comprehensive and meaningful plan involving more significant environmental considerations, such as the introduction of diesel traffic and emissions deeper into the residential community, likely exacerbating ill health effects among a populace already demonstrating an unusually high incidence of asthma, due in part at least to current bridge-related diesel emissions. In the segmented assessment, the demolitions can be said to have only minor environmental impacts. Talking about the demolitions apart from any further plans, they sound like the creation of greenspace.

“The Project is limited,” the PBA environmental document avers, “to Demolition of up to eight former residential structures (and existing accessory structures) on Busti Avenue…The Project will remove the blighting influence of mostly long-vacant and boarded up houses and complete the conversion of the entire block to open space for additional buffering between the neighborhood and the Plaza.” The reference in the phrase “between the neighborhood and the Plaza” is apparently to the present plaza. What the document is not saying is that the supposed buffering open space would only remain buffering open space for as long as it took the PBA to get underway the next step in its plan, whereupon the so-called buffering open space would itself become plaza and the location of the new and enlarged Duty Free.

The document claims that the proposed demolitions will “create additional greenspace and recreational opportunities for neighborhood children.” Opposition to the idea of expanding the plaza to create parking space for diesel trucks in conjunction with a new Duty Free store has focused on respiratory ill health effects especially among children in the Peace Bridge vicinity. A study by the Buffalo Public Schools nurses in schools on the West Side identified asthma rates among pupils as high as 30 percent in one school and 23 percent in another school. The plaza expansion proposal would introduce diesel traffic deeper into the West Side residential area and likely increase diesel emission impacts on the community.

Another contention of the PBA environmental assessment is that several of the houses projected to be demolished are structurally unsound, to the point, in at least one case, the landmarked Colonel S. H. Wilkeson mansion, of being unsafe to enter. This does not jibe with the fact that a few weeks ago the PBA was offering any or all of these structures, free of charge, to anyone who would care to remove and relocate it or them to another site. Were they making such an offer regarding inherently unsafe or dangerous structures?

Toward the end of the environmental assessment, the document acknowledges that although further plans for the proposed demolitions area are “wide ranging and in various states of preliminary planning and design,” one “potential” further project is expansion of the plaza footprint and construction of a new Duty Free store. Making it sound like one of a score or so of ideas that maybe turned up at a brainstorming session one day. Of no special weight or importance.

Giacalone’s letter to the New York State Department of State argued that, contrary to the PBA’s contention that as a bi-national entity it is not subject to New York State or local laws in the conduct of its internal operations and thus performed the environmental assessment on the proposed demolitions “on a voluntary basis,” the proposed demolitions are not PBA internal operations, and “voluntary” self-regulation is inadequate to insure the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Specifically, Giacalone’s letter demands that the Department of State compel the PBA to obtain appropriate permitting for the planned demolitions from an appropriate permitting agency. In making this demand, Giacalone contends that the PBA is in fact a “State agency,” based on the New York Code of Rules and Regulations definition of a “State agency” to include “a public benefit corporation whose board of directors includes any member appointed by the Governor.” Two of the American (versus Canadian) members of the PBA board are appointed by the governor.

Furthermore, relative to the PBA’s argument for demolition of the Busti properties in part based on the deteriorated condition of the properties, Giacalone’s letter states: “Given the fact that the PBA acquired 7 of the 8 properties between 1995 and 1998, and allowed the housed to deteriorate…it would be hypocritical and self-serving for the Peace Bridge Authority to proclaim that emergency conditions exist that necessitate the immediate demolition of the properties…”

Byron Brown’s letter to the governor called the plan to demolish the properties “premature” in the light of “significant community concern related to the propose plaza expansion,” noting also the PBA’s “lack of transparency” in that it “has yet to make public its current proposal” and that it has declined to attend meetings of a “working group” of residents, public officials, and other stakeholders in the matter. In conclusion, the letter requests that the governor “join me in appealing to the PBA to make its expansion plans public and fully participate in the working group progress.”

Ironically, in terms of the mayor’s request to the governor on the basis of the PBA’s “lack of transparency,” the “working group” that the mayor refers to is apparently the group involved in what was referred to in a previous Artvoice article as “a series of ‘private’ meetings among Peace Bridge area residents and elected and unelected officials.” The mayor’s letter notes that the state and the city “partnered” in the formation of the “working group.”

Swift and strong reaction to the mayor’s letter from several politicians, more tempered reaction from the PBA. Congressman Brian Higgins reaffirmed his support for the demolition plan: “The issues surrounding these actions are not new, have been long discussed, and should not encounter any further delay. The Peace Bridge project has been stalled without good reason for two decades. Inaction and inertia is no longer an option. Western New Yorkers want and deserve progress. The time to move forward is now.”

The promptness of Higgins’s response came as a surprise to Artvoice, which had asked him months ago, as the congressional representative for the district comprising the Peace Bridge neighborhood, to comment on the respiratory health crisis in that area and the preservation issues involved in the demolitions plan. Still no word from the congressman on any of those matters.

State Senator Mark Grisanti, whose territory does not cover the Peace Bridge area, jumped in nonetheless in support of the demolitions. “As a senator for this region,” he said, “I support Governor Cuomo and the Peace Bridge Authority’s plan.”

A PBA spokesman said, “The Public Bridge Authority continues to believe that the upcoming demolition of several long-vacant and dilapidated homes on Busti Avenue is in the best interest of the surrounding community, and will bring certainty to an issue that has long plagued the Columbus Park area.”

A response to the mayor from a neighborhood resident, Peter Joe Certo: “Thank you.”

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