By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — Dick Soluri spent 16 years trying to lure more visitors to Lewiston.
On his watch as mayor of the little village, Center Street blossomed like the many flowers lovingly placed by the garden club in planters and on light posts. His administration’s relentless grant-seeking found millions in state and federal funds which helped to add charm to the village streetscape and, slowly over the years, it seemed that every restaurant, shop and upscale boutique benefitted by the resulting economic growth. The waterfront area was spiffed up as well, with a new fish cleaning facility for sport fisherman, and a giant sculpture that identifies the region as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The flurry of government-funded upgrades spurred private investment as well, according to Soluri, and local businesspeople took some daring leaps of faith, creating new projects such as the building of the Barton Hill Hotel, and renovating others, such as the rail car expansion of The Silo waterfront restaurant, and other improvements at many village businesses.
“Everybody bought in and that’s the point,” Soluri said of the revitalization during his time in office, which he believes inspired smaller versions of the same type in more northern municipalities, including Wilson and Olcott.
It was hard work. But, when he left office a few years ago, his village was hosting thousands of new visitors who came for festivals, shopping, dining and an opportunity to enjoy the extraordinary gorge that cradles the Niagara River like two giant rocky hands.
The last thing the former mayor wants to see now is somebody messing with all that hard-won success. And, he is a little tired of the long-standing debate about moving or removing the parkway that allows all those Lewiston visitors easy access to the village he still calls home.
“I was mayor for 16 years. We’ve been talking about this for 14 of those 16 years,” he said.
For just as many years, local groups, including the Niagara Heritage Partnership and the Sierra Club, have fought to get the whole parkway removed, in an effort to improve access to the gorge and to promote ecotourism. In response to the debates, State Parks recently hired a consultant to gather public input on six proposed options, including total removal. The consultant, Parsons Group, held public hearings to collect data, and is expected to release its recommendations for preferred options soon.
Adding fuel to the removal debate is the input of a former Milwaukee mayor who was an advocate for removing an expressway in Milwaukee to increase community access to extensive Lake Michigan waterfront.
Norquist, is now a leader of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and last year, the group placed the Robert Moses Parkway on its list of “Freeways Without Futures,” citing it as a roadway that would benefit from repurposing to better serve the city and its residents.
Norquist, who visited the falls last summer, declared 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.
Such language worries Robert Emerson, director of Old Fort Nigara, whose facility depends on enticing some of the Falls’ estimated 7 to 12 million or so annual tourists to take a drive out to Youngstown to see the historic old fort.
“When visitors call us, one of their main concerns is how long it takes to get from Niagara Falls to the fort,” he said.
“What we don’t want to see happen is the parkway completely removed, forcing visitors who want to drive their cars to the fort to go through downtown areas with lots of red lights,” he said. “We’re on record as supporting a seamless pathway from Niagara Falls to Old Fort Niagara.”
If traffic is diverted from the parkway onto city streets, some residents of the DeVeaux neighborhoods, where traffic would then flow, believe it will be a detriment to the families in the area.
“Eliminating the parkway would result in a sizable increase in traffic on Lewiston Road and a negative effect on property values,” said Michael Parsnick, a resident of DeVeaux and member of the Parkway Preservation Committee, a grassroots organization created to keep the parkway intact.
Parsnick said an informal survey of cars on the Robert Moses during morning drive time indicated a couple hundred extra cars might be passing through Deveaux and past Maple Avenue Elementary School each day if the parkway was removed. “There will be noise pollution, there will be air pollution —all of that — and we don’t want it,” he said.
Still, some opponents to parkway removal have expressed willingness to compromise.
“We’ve stated from day one that we support removal of the parkway from Main Street to Findlay Drive and that seems to be the area of major concern,” said Parsnick of his Parkway Preservation Committee.
Soluri, however, is most vehemently opposed to the idea of tearing out the whole Robert Moses Parkway, which runs through to Lake Road near the Village of Youngstown. Instead, he believes the roadway should be promoted as an attraction in its own right, and improved with the addition of picnic tables and better pathways for people to enjoy the Niagara Gorge.
“All they have to do is create a beautiful, revised parkway. They could make it such an attraction,” he said. “That would keep the people in Niagara Falls happy and the people in the Northtowns happy.”
There are clearly many passionate voices on both sides of the issue, but all will have to wait to hear the recommendations of the scoping committee, since the state has delayed the announcement of the options to be recommended.
“We’ve been anxiously waiting for almost a year-and-a-half,” Parsnick said about the pending announcement. “It’s hard for me to imagine that the scoping group, after hearing what people said at the hearings, would call for a total removal or total retention of the parkway. I’m anticipating it will be something in between, but only time will tell.”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 TUESDAY: Removal advocates talk up benefits n TODAY: Reasons to retain the Robert Moses