By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — John Norquist knows a thing or two about controversial road removal projects.
As the mayor of Milwaukee in the late 1980s, he was involved in an effort to remove the Park East Freeway, a 1-mile remnant of a larger plan to develop a system of highways around downtown Milwaukee.
Today, Norquist is still fighting what he believes to be the good fight when it comes to urban planning. As the president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he helps advocate for walkable neighborhoods, greater emphasis on public transportation systems and city designs that promote compact, vibrant centers where housing, work places and civic facilities are easily accessed by pedestrians.
Following a tour of the city with Mayor Paul Dyster last summer, Norquist concluded Niagara Falls, like Milwaukee, could use less freeway next to its most vital resource: its waterfront.
“You absolutely don’t need a thru-highway there,” said Norquist during a recent telephone interview with the Gazette. “It was just one of the many, many mistakes that Robert Moses made.”
New urbanism is an urban design movement which advocates for a return to more traditional neighborhoods — the kind where walking, bicycling and public transit are prized above the use of automobiles and freeways.
Norquist and other CNU members have spent nearly 20 years advocating for greater emphasis on the design scheme in urban planning projects around the country. Last year, the CNU added the Robert Moses Parkway to its revised 2012 list of “Freeways Without Futures,” an annual assessment of places the group believes would benefit from retrofitting, removing and repurposing freeways to better serve cities and their residents.
Of the Robert Moses, the CNU concluded that the 18-mile-long road stretching along the Niagara Gorge rim stands as a “barrier between Niagara Falls and its tremendous natural asset.” The group also determined that the parkway stands in the way of two elements often used by parkway removal advocates to make their case — increased ecotourism and restored parkland.
“Initially conceived to service industries along the waterfront, the parkway is now underutilized and expensive to maintain,” the CNU notes on its list.
Norquist maintains that the parkway’s impact on the Falls is evident. He called it “almost shocking” to see how the parkway “cuts off the community from its waterfront,” adding that alternatives exist that would allow for the change without compromising travel to and from Lewiston, Youngstown and other communities to the north.
“You have a whole street grid,” Norquist said. “You go inland and every few blocks there’s a major avenue or arterial. There’s no reason that the traffic has to be along the water.”
People in the Falls area have been discussing the pros and cons of parkway removal — at least the north section anyway — for years.
The local push to remove the section between the Falls and Lewiston gathered momentum in the late 1990s. At the time, the late Toronto developer Eddie Cogan was pitching Falls lawmakers on a plan to reshape downtown through the development of high-rise hotels, skyscrapers and other commercial projects.
Cogan’s original vision — which was part of the city’s development agreement with the company, Niagara Falls Redevelopment — concerned some local environmental advocates who feared it could prove detrimental to the natural setting of the Niagara Gorge rim.
The Niagara Heritage Partnership formed soon after. Although it didn’t start out that way, the grassroots organization evolved into the lead voice for removal of the parkway’s northern section.
“(Cogan) wanted to remake downtown and had everyone looking over at Canada like it was the holy grail,” said Bob Baxter, one of the founding members of the partnership. “We thought, ‘that’s not the way to go.’ We wanted to remember Niagara Falls and keep it natural. What is Niagara Falls? It’s a natural phenomenon, not an amusement park.”
The Sierra Club was actually the first group to formally advocate for full parkway removal from Niagara Falls to Lewiston, adopting a resolution in support of a return to the natural roots along the northern parkway section. Niagara Heritage Partnership members followed soon after with a formal resolution of their own. They also started a removal petition drive, which Baxter said is now supported with signatures from more than 4,000 individuals and about 80 organizations.
The Rev. Charles Lamb, a Sierra Club member and Youngstown resident, is one of the names on the list. While many of his neighbors in Youngstown and other communities to the north of Niagara Falls support parkway retention, Lamb said there are many others like him who believe the better path involves removal and restoration.
“I think there are ways we can have access back and forth from Niagara Falls and still have a natural environment,” Lamb said. “They wouldn’t think of putting a big highway along the edge of the Grand Canyon.”
REMOVAL AS AN OPTION
State parks recently embarked on a new “scoping” process aimed at determining what should be done with the parkway’s northern section long-term. The process, overseen on behalf of state parks by consultant, the Parsons Group, requested public input on six proposed options, including total removal. The consultant is expected to release its recommendations for preferred options soon.
Baxter views total removal as the one and only sensible option.
While he admits it would be an “enormous” challenge, Baxter believes it is the sort of transformative project a community like Niagara Falls desperately needs.
He bristles at the argument that removal would be too expensive, costing what some have estimated as “tens of millions of dollars.” He noted that a study financed by the local environmental advocacy group, Wild Ones Niagara Falls, pegged removal cost at $3.8 million. Baxter maintains that the study, prepared for Wild Ones by the consulting firm, EDR, demonstrates that removal is not only economically feasible, but in the best interests of the community.
“It says please get rid of it, it makes ultimate sense, everything you’ve been saying all along is correct,” Baxter said of the study.
Baxter maintains that parkway advocates have not offered “one scintilla” of evidence to show the stretch of parkway between Niagara Falls and Lewiston is necessary.
Once removed, Baxter said additional resources would have to be devoted to achieving the end goal — restoring the natural setting of the gorge rim. In today’s pro-environment, eco-friendly world, Baxter believes the project would draw a lot of interest, not only across America, but around the world.
“If you can court the population of ecotourists above and beyond tourists who are already coming here, my God, what a boon,” Baxter said. “Of course, they’d go to Lewiston. We could say ‘look at what we have to offer here.’ What other economic vision for the region has surfaced since the industry collapsed here? It’s a minimal investment for a perpetual payoff that would last generations into the future.”
“This is a process,” he said. “It goes on for years. This, in itself, could be a promotional tool.”
“I think the plans are there but I think they just lack the political will to act,” Lamb said. “I think it would increase tourism. I think it would make Niagara Falls more desirable. I think it would help the entire area become more attractive to people. Maybe even more than that it’s just a matter of saving nature and not trying to tarnish something natural.”ON THE MOSES PARKWAY The Gazette is taking a comprehensive look at issues surrounding the Robert Moses Parkway and its future. The series so far: n MONDAY: History of the parkway's development n TODAY: Removal advocates talk up benefits