Some say students are the future. In the Falls, they’re helping to build it, too.

Architecture and urban planning students from Kent State University and the University at Buffalo are taking their education from the classroom to Niagara Falls to study revitalization efforts. The two groups of students first visited the city in January as part of class projects to look around and figure out what problems they’re up against.

Michael Muldoone, a student at UB, said the visit showed they had a lot of work to do.

“It was pretty empty,” he said of the Main Street area. “It definitely needed work. It needs life — nothing was going on.”

The problems facing the city are similar to ones across the country, said Christopher Diehl, professor of environmental design at Kent State. Traffic flow issues, a lack of open, public space and underutilized resources contribute to hampered development. But high vacancy rates is a top issue.

“Niagara Falls is a city that was built for 100,000 people and now the population is between 45,000 to 55,000,” he said. “What you have is a city that’s half full.”

But while the problems are common, the potential for Niagara Falls is unique.

A combination of the natural beauty of the falls and the historical significance of the Underground Railroad’s final stretch offer more tourism options than many declining cities can boast, the students say. As many as 8 million tourists visit the city every year.

“Every city has possibilities and Niagara Falls has probably some of the best possibilities because it has one of the seven natural wonders of the world right next to it,” said UB student Shawn Faulkner. “Millions come every year to see the falls and (the city) just doesn’t utilize that.”

While the graduate students at Kent State are looking at the whole city, undergraduate students from UB are focusing on Main Street. They say it could become what Elmwood Avenue is to Buffalo, with shops, restaurants and parks to attract residents, tourists and nearby college students.

“The first problem is getting people to go down there,” said student A.J. Hivsch. “You need a population base before restaurants and shops can survive.”

About 70 percent of that area is vacant, Faulkner added.

That’s where the students’ plans come in. Though a new courthouse will add 300 jobs and a new Amtrak station would bring more people there, an initiative of new plazas, parks and better traffic management seeks to keep people there.

“You have to develop the space so you can control the people and where they go,” Faulkner said, “but you want to make them stop and experience that space instead of going straight downtown.”

Along Main Street — as well as the entire city — new traffic patterns could create new opportunities for business development.

Both student groups agree on one way to help: The Robert Moses Parkway has got to go.

“The Robert Moses Parkway is a little prison,” Diehl said. “When you’re on it, you’re locked in. It gets you to the main event, but it’s disconnected from the city.”

Instead, if cars drove down Whirlpool Street, which runs parallel to the Robert Moses, traffic could run through the city, bringing more patrons to nearby businesses.

A study indicates the time difference between using Whirlpool versus the Robert Moses is only about five minutes — hardly a benefit to traffic flow considering the way it separates businesses from drivers coming into the city, Faulkner said.

Though City Planner Tom DeSantis makes no promises about implementing the Kent State students’ ideas, they’re following the city’s strategic master plan and will be presenting their findings at 1 p.m. March 30 at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.

“(The students) are applying the rigor and making their own conclusions,” DeSantis said, “which will be completely different and apart from the ones that are standard, status quo.”

The students and their professors agree that the real world experience enhances what students are learning, and Kevin Cottrell, who is heading up the North Star Project to redevelop Main Street, wants to make sure students stay involved in the efforts.

“I don’t want to stop at UB,” he said. “Now that they’ve done design and we’re going to incorporate that, I want to extend to the student populous at (Niagara University) and (Niagara County Community College) and the Niagara Falls school system. To me, it’s . Students don’t have a political agenda — they just want to get it done.”

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