Tonawanda News

June 4, 2014

Opportunities abound

By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — They’re home to the ghosts of a place called the Lumber City. Sites, many vacant for years, that were once home to bustling timber yards and other industrial facilities along the Niagara River that first put North Tonawanda on the map.

Now, city officials hope these tracts of land — more than 500 acres in total, many of which have sat vacant for decades — will be the key to reinventing North Tonawanda for a new century of growth.

At least that’s the plan. 

The North Tonawanda Common Council formally approved a contract Tuesday that will allow the city to enter the final phase of a 2009 master plan, a document that urban planners hope will serve as the roadmap to convert the city’s long-underutilized waterfront into a mix of public space, residential housing and commercial centers to spur economic growth in places where that very hope has laid dormant for generations. 

The concept, which has been talked about for years, was able to come to fruition after the city received a $423,450 state grant in 2012, that will now be to used focus on putting in place the framework for redeveloping hundreds of acres of abandoned industrial sites on Tonawanda Island, transform River Road into a pedestrian-friendly parkway and continue to build on progress remaking downtown into a more attractive place for people to live.

Bergmann Associates, the design firm in charge of crafting the master plan’s implementation, has worked closely with city government on the first two phases of the project, which have already been completed and call for a mixed-use design, that would include retail and apartments along a stretch of the Niagara River. 

Michael Zimmerman, planning and development coordinator for the Lumber City Development Corp., said the grant centers on “brownfield opportunity areas” — a development euphemism for abandoned industrial sites — and is meant to create jobs, support environmental clean-up and revitalize neighborhoods. The result, city leaders hope, is to expand the tax base in distressed parts of the city that are negatively impacted by brownfield sites.

”The program really focuses on the brownfields themselves and those in the surrounding areas that have been living with the brownfields that need to be redeveloped,” he said. 

In 2009, the city began the process of creating a master plan including a new vision for Tonawanda Island, the downtown corridor and the municipality’s waterfront. The island is now home to a mix of industry and boating, but the 546-acre brownfield remains largely vacant. 

The funding will allow a study that will bolster a plan to rezone several sections of the city planners say are outdated — including the Webster Street area and Tonawanda Island — a move Zimmerman said would allow a shift away from the city’s industrialized past to one based more on its waterfront residential and tourism opportunities. 

The funding would also be used for a traffic study along River Road, as officials eye turning the five-lane roadway from a commuter-heavy thoroughfare to something more conducive to pedestrians while improving access to the river itself. Zimmerman said discussions have been ongoing around whether River Road should be made into a parkway with lower speeds, a plan complicated by the fact it is now controlled by the state. 

Officials said the master plan has been used as a template for a potentially dramatic turnaround on Tonawanda Island, but also as a means to bring in state and federal funding coupled with private investment, coming at a time when many Western New York municipalities are moving away from their industrials pasts and toward a new found vision for waterfront development. 

Zimmerman said bringing many of these facets together into a lump-sum package would give the city more leeway in pitching future projects to developers. 

”That’s one of the things I’m excited about,” he said. “To have professionally developed documents and be able to present them to developers and say ‘here’s an opportunity in NT. Are you interested?’” 

Mayor Rob Ortt said the studies and the plan will add weight to the city’s development portfolio with the private sector and could also bolster its chances for future funding at the state and federal levels. The final decision for the direction of any potential developments along the city’s waterfront would however include the input of residents, the North Tonawanda Waterfront Commission and elected officials.

“This will give us an indication of what we want our city to become,” Ortt said.