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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From The Week That Was

Buffalo says NO SLIDE FOR YOU!

Killing a Playground

One day, more than 10 years ago now, Bruce Beyer spied out through window a bulldozer excavating a vacant lot on the block behind the building at Clinton and Emslie streets where he and his wife, Mary, live and operate a woodworking shop. Beyer asked the machine’s operator what he was doing, and the operator said he was preparing the lot for construction of a new house.

“I told him no one in their right mind would want to build a house on that lot,” Beyer said this week. The previous owner of the lot had burnt insulation on the site, Beyer told the bulldozer operator, and buried transformers contaminated with PCBs there, too.

The bulldozer operator informed the developer of the potential contamination, and soon an alphabet soup of agencies was involved: the EPA, the DEC, the Coast Guard. The lot made the Superfund list, and the federal government spent $190,000 cleaning up PCBs and other contaminants.

While the agencies were hovering over his neighborhood, Beyer asked the EPA and the Coast Guard to test property that lay between his building and the contaminated lot, to see if the contaminants had migrated. He and his wife and some neighbors had been entertaining the idea of building a playground there. The EPA gave the lot a clean bill of health, and with that assurance, Beyer and his neighbors secured $10,000 from the Common Council to purchase playground equipment, which they installed themselves.

“Kids are there all day in the summertime and into the evening on school days,” Beyer said. “We’re a poor neighborhood. This is all there is.

Except it isn’t anymore. On Tuesday, workers contracted by the city’s new parks department came with power saws and began cutting down the playground equipment and chucking it in a truck. Beyer rushed out to stop them, but they’d taken down half the playground before he convinced them to hold up while he tracked down who had given the order.

Beyer says the parks department’s Andy Rabb told him that the city had received word from the DEC that the site was contaminated. Beyer replied that he had in his hand a 1999 EPA study that said it was not. Rabb then said the order to dismantle the playground had originated with the Erie County Health Department, which had traced a finding of high lead levels in a neighborhood child’s blood to the playground.

Beyer checked with the Erie County Health Department, where he learned that the county had indeed attributed a case of high lead levels in a child’s blood to exposure to the playground’s soil. But Beyer was told that the health department had not told the city it should demolish the playground, which demonstrated low levels of lead contamination. Rather, the health department had said spreading a layer of wood chips would be sufficient remediation.

Rabb told Beyer that the city had reached out to two people in the community, who had approved of the plan to remove the playground. But neither the Beyers nor their neighbors had ever heard of the people Rabb named. And when one of Beyer’s neighbors called Mayor Byron Brown’s 311 complaint line to protest the destruction of the playground, the 311 operator inexplicably took on the role of environmental expert: No child should be allowed anywhere near that property, the operator opined.

Beyer and his neighbors have a report from the EPA that assures them that’s not true. They also have half a playground left: The rest has been carted off. The workers cut the equipment out instead of digging it out of its concrete foundations, so it’s useless now.

The city destroyed $5,000 worth of playground equipment,” Beyer said, “and now we’ve got to get it replaced.”

Brian Higgins, Building Bridges

While other area politicians were busy chasing votes on Tuesday afternoon, Congressman Brian Higgins called a sudden, solo press conference beside the rewatered Commercial Slip on downtown Buffalo’s waterfront.

Although he did not say so, it seemed likely that the press conference, the subject of which was next steps in the development of the waterfront property surrounding the western terminus of the Erie Canal, was a reaction to a suggestion by Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation board member Larry Quinn that perhaps the City of Buffalo and his agency should consider approaching Bass Pro and asking again, nicely, if they’d like to build a megastore on Buffalo’s waterfront. (According to the Buffalo News, Mayor Byron Brown’s reaction to Quinn’s idea was cautious agreement.)

“Bass Pro is not coming to Buffalo,” Higgins said, basing his assertion on a conversation he’d had with the “only person whose opinion matters” on the subject: Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris, who pulled the plug on Bass Pro’s nine-year flirtation with Buffalo’s Inner harbor last month. Morris told Higgins the proposal would not be revived.

Higgins’ plan largely conforms with the 2004 Master Plan hammered out by the community, elected officials, preservationists, and the courts in reaction to an odious plan to Disnify the Inner Harbor and gloss over its historic structures. He wants ECHDC to focus its spending on infrastructure that will attract private, small-scale investment, rather than trying to land a big anchor retail tenant. He suggests that the DL&W terminal, currently owned by the NFTA, might make a great cultural venue—an idea that Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos has been plugging since his arrival in Buffalo. He wants ECHDC to build the proposed South Basin to add more dock space and make a long-term maintenance contract with Buffalo Place for the Inner Harbor’s public facilities. He also wants ECHDC to direct some of the money it’s sitting on toward Buffalo’s Outer Harbor: money for Gallagher Beach, money for maintenance of the new parkway there, money for residential development.

Most importantly, he wants seed money, $5-7 million, for a project he has championed for years: a new bridge linking the Inner and Outer Harbors.

“Though I stand here alone today,” Higgins said, “I have the community behind me.”

One reporter noted that he did not have the support of the entire board of ECHDC.

All boards evolve,” Higgins replied.

On The Waterfront

Next week, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition present a three-day conference on efforts to restore the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Restoration Conference, which takes place at the Adam’s Mark Hotel, September 22-24, will include discussions about updating sewage infrastructure, the Asian carp, federal funding for environmental remediation and economic development, and successful initiatives undertaken in various Great Lakes communities, as well as featured speakers and field trips. To learn more or to register, visit

On Government

On Tuesday, September 22, the League of Women Voters presents a panel discussion called “Effective, Ethical Government: A Conversation.” The speakers are Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, who is often quoted in this paper on matters of transparency; Dr. Fred Floss, a professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College; Diane LaVallee, the former candidate for Erie County district attorney who currently works for the state Department of Taxation and Finance; Allison Duwe, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice; and Matthew Spina, a local government reporter for the Buffalo News. The event takes place 7-9pm at the Harlem Road Community Center, 4255 Harlem Road, Amherst.

—geoff kelly

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