Walkabout for Revive Dunkirk finds both positives and problems
By SKEETER TOWER
Last month my column focused on the coming visit of a volunteer group of city planners, attorneys, builders -Partners for a Livable Western New York -coming to Dunkirk to offer a candid appraisal of our waterfront, the area requested for focus by city officials.
Due to the immense amount of interest and inquiry, I am following up with the feedback we received at the SUNY Tech Incubator, Saturday, Sept. 28.
First, accolades to the social action committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua, Academy Heights and Washington Parc Neighborhood Associations, COI and The Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation for assisting with advertising and preparation.
Gina Kron of Tim Horton’s donated coffee, bagels, and hospitality for the standing room only crowd at the Incubator. We were grateful for use of SUNY’s centrally located space in our target area and follow up support from the Lakeshore Economic Development Group.
The first segment of the morning included an introduction to the mission of Partners for a Liveable Western New York , and a “listening session” for our ideas and concerns about the waterfront and business neighborhood. Afterward, seven consultants walked with about 80 residents around Central Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, listening, questioning, and observing. Later the consultants delivered their observations.
The consensus was that we have a beautiful location on Lake Erie, the western most city with a harbor in New York state; that boat slips are a bargain at only $500 for the season; that we have a multitude of accessible offshore shipwrecks to explore. The pier is an incredible asset. They were impressed with the quantity of 19th century structures with “good bones” still available to us for restoration and reuse. In the worst case scenario, if the power plant is not repowered with cleaner options, it opens up opportunities for funding of other waterfront projects.
With the Boardwalk as a starting point, and Route 5 roadwork to be scheduled next year, we have a timely opportunity to develop a “Waterfront Village” feel, using all the best principles of Complete Streets. Dunkirk could follow the lead of the recent resurrection of the village of Hamburg or the historic and popular Niagara-On-The Lake in Ontario by becoming more pedestrian-friendly, with benches, landscaping, flowers, trees, bike racks, safe crosswalks, open, inviting storefronts, street art, and a variety of food options.
The Partners were impressed with Stearns Court off Central Avenue. An inviting space, it is in need of activity. There are spaces and walls to accommodate city murals which would add interest and vitality to the area. The Graf building on the old Masonic Temple site was one location mentioned, as well as railroad overpasses. They thought the Ehlers Building was in a perfect location for an active restaurant/meeting place kind of enterprise. They were impressed with the flowers and plantings at First Niagara Bank and St. John the Baptist Episcopal church. They loved our lamp posts; thinking they had class. They spoke of the bike trail as an asset and rails to trails access as a bonus. They noted Dunkirk’s historic link with Pittsburgh (Van Buren Point and Bay residents). Pittsburg is prospering, so the advice was to market in this direction.
According to the partners, the rusting, unsightly, neglected railroad embankments and overpasses with the city of Dunkirk welcome signs and logo attached, send the message that “We are done. Dunkirk is not open for business.”
They emphasized that Route 5 needs a total makeover. There are no crosswalks. The street encourages fast traffic right by the places where we hope visitors will stop and spend time and money. Signage is “bad” and basically non-existent to guide visitors to city offerings, such as the Lighthouse, Historic museum, parks, shopping and businesses. The gateway from Route 5 onto Central Ave business section is “horrible.” The city must entice people to go down this major artery.
They commented on the lack of landscaping in front of buildings; no flowers, with the one exception of First Niagara Bank. Brackets for banners on the street are available yet empty. They noted grass growing in the sidewalk and weeds actively growing downtown. Litter is an embarrassment. Building after building is windowless, or with a sealed off look, giving the impression that nothing is going on. Derelict buildings indicate that code enforcement is lacking.
At a minimum, they suggested planting grass where the Masonic Temple once stood until a new developer arrives. They advised “Don’t be so desperate for jobs that you accept an unsuitable building in that empty lot.” Making the pier a parking lot is a “tragedy”, when there are so many better alternatives available, such as in cities from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Ill. to San Diego, Calif.
They detected a sense of division and despair in our region. Their recommendation: Actively and intentionally move beyond the divisions of Dunkirk and Fredonia, North and South county. They pointed to the multitude of private clubs which they believe are sapping the entrepreneurial spirit and making it impossible for businesses to compete. Such a large number of clubs is an anachronism in most “alive” places today.
Market the city and market to people we want to attract. Develop attractions on the water for sailors, divers, fishermen, artists, entrepreneurs and business people. Give visitors something to do so they want to visit and stay for awhile.
Build housing and amenities to keep senior citizens in the community. Build housing for young professionals. Try to engage a developer such as Buffalo’s Rocco Termini to do a “young professional” building as a tax credit deal; at minimum, get his advice. Engage the young local entrepreneurs at the SUNY Incubator. Establish regulations where no more than 10 percent per block is “tax free”. It’s a complex issue with so many properties off the tax rolls. Break up the concentrations of poverty and services. Spread out the non for profits and residents in need of assistance so there is a chance to mingle and move out of poverty.
Repaint the bridges. If the railroad won’t do it, use “Tactical Urbanism”(take it into your own hands and get it done). Clean up the city. Toronto, a high tax city, shows that taxes don’t determine where people want to live. There are two hundred cranes working in downtown Toronto.
Partners for a Livable Western New York believe Dunkirk’s form of government is obsolete. “Have a revolution and change to a city manager form of government. Don’t stay stuck with a form of government from the 1800s.” Focus on regionalism.
Share resources, merge schools. An outstanding school system will attract professionals and thoughtful parents. Make demands for police presence and code enforcement.
They said, “You need to do this as citizens. Get in their face. Get police on the ground, not driving around. If you are not doing this you are not doing your job as citizens. Form unpaid auxiliary police and code enforcement teams to get the job done without increasing the budget.”
Trains will stop here only when we make the area a destination for travelers, not just a place to leave. Businesses will come here when it is a place managers and employees want to live. Get communities together along the lakefront to do zoning (Form-based Zoning) Visit Geneseo for signage ideas.
Dunkirk needs more jobs and more people. Start by making the place more beautiful. Plant trees. Come together to focus on five to 10 things to get started. Focus on one area and build out. There is no magic bullet. It will happen house by house, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Partners for a Livable Western New York recommend reading “Walkable Cities,” “Suburban Nation,” “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made landscape,” and “City comforts: How to Build an Urban Village.”
They invited all interested parties to attend the New Urbanist Conference from June 4-7 when Buffalo hosts leading city planners from around the world in sharing the best ideas for livable cities. Check the internet for the film “Buffalo: The Best Planned City.”
Concerned citizens and city officials will gather on Oct. 24 at 6 p.m. at the SUNY Incubator Central Avenue, Dunkirk to continue discussions and select priorities to Revitalize Dunkirk. Come. Bring your energy and your ideas. It can happen.
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