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Desantis plan for Jayne Park targets old trees, waterfowl, anything green

May 12, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Timing is everything.

Or it will be for the mainly unsuspecting residents of Cayuga Island in Niagara Falls.

They are about to get a peculiar lesson in planning, delivered in classic Niagara Falls style, courtesy of our city planner Tom DeSantis.

DeSantis has a plan to develop a small waterfront park, on the northern shore of Cayuga Island, called Jayne Park. The project is to be paid for with Greenway and casino money.

The DeSantis plan calls for a conversion of this quiet, little-known neighborhood park on Joliet Avenue into a public canoe launch with paved walking trails and a paved parking lot.

To hear him tell it, the plan sounds good.

Desantis targets Cayuga Island

It calls for $290,000 of "improvements" to the park to construct picnic shelters and install park furniture, build a canoe launch, lay ribbons of asphalt for walking across the face of the park, install portable toilets, remove green space and build a 40-car parking lot, and remove "overgrown" vegetation along the shoreline to make clearer the view of the Little Niagara River that Jayne Park fronts, which will involve chopping down many trees.

DeSantis is presenting his Jayne Park proposal as part of "the Olmsted vision," referring to legendary parks designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the Niagara Falls Reservation almost 130 years ago. Olmsted has become one of the most misused names to conjure with in our community. Almost certainly Olmsted would have opposed much of DeSantis' plan.

But for DeSantis, Olmsted has become in effect a term of Orwellian doublespeak.

One can pretty much conclude that as soon as the name Olmsted drops from DeSantis' parsing lips, it's a sure sign that bulldozers, chainsaws and asphalt aren't far behind.

Today, Jayne Park is mainly a large grassy area with perhaps more than 100 large-girth, older-growth trees such as sycamore, maple, oak and ash. It serves as a gathering place for local residents for family outings, community functions and other outdoor recreation.

The park hosts a thriving Little League baseball presence. It also accommodates daily walkers, joggers, dog-walkers, kite-flyers and waterfowl observers in this pavementless 20-acre park along about a mile of shoreline on the Little Niagara.

In season, a small snow-sledding hill at the west end entertains children. There is also a football field, playground, basketball court, picnic area and a comfort station.

Dedicated in 1937, Jayne Park has functioned ever since as a neighborhood park in a quiet residential neighborhood. There is no parking lot within the park, and visitors who do not walk there must park on nearby streets.

The plan, however, calls for Jayne Park's new asphalt trails to connect with existing trails and parks in the city and region.

DeSantis wrote, "The installation of improved asphalt walking paths will provide pedestrians with better access to the Park. ... Hikers and bicyclists would be able to start or end their outing in the Park where ample parking and comfort stations arc provided."

DeSantis' new plan will probably attract many people to Cayuga Island, which incidentally has no stores or commercial presence.

"This project will increase connectivity and access by installing improved walking paths in close proximity to the existing Niagara River bike and pedestrian trail," DeSantis wrote.

"Connectivity will also be improved through the creation of a blueway trail by installing a canoe launch within the Park to serve as the upstream end of the trail," he continued.

DeSantis also offers an example of planning that includes an intriguing expenditure of money, since, about 100 feet away and directly across the Little Niagara River from Jayne Park, is the city's underutilized Griffon Park, where there is already a boat and canoe launch, which makes spending $290,000 on a second one questionable at best.

Griffon Park is accessible from River Road and also boasts fishing piers, picnic areas, paved walking trails and a parking lot to accommodate both cars and the largest of boat trailers or recreation vehicles.

In short, Griffon Park does everything DeSantis plans for Jayne Park, and more. Whether for good or ill, the DeSantis plan will make this small residential island and its neighborhood park more public. It will also make it less green and perhaps less environmentally friendly.

For while DeSantis plans to "improve" the shoreline by removing some dead and some giant still-living trees -- clearing out a variety of living vegetation that naturally grows along the shoreline -- and plans to plant in their stead a number of 3-inch caliper trees and flowering plants and bushes, a botanist might well inform us that much will be disturbed that may affect the biological resources of the shoreline.

Across the narrow Little Niagara River from Jayne Park is a shoreline occupied by homes and boat docks. There is little or nothing left of the original natural vegetation.

But the shore of the river at Jayne Park is composed of what remains from an ancient marsh. The rim of marsh that lines the north shore contains the same rare species of plant life that is mirrored in the Niagara gorge, adjacent to the falls. In fact, the vegetation in Jayne Park exists below the falls because the plant seeds traveled down river, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, to take up root beneath the falls.

Much of this rare vegetation left anywhere above the falls is found in Jayne Park.

Consequently, the Jayne Park shoreline has become home to all manner of waterfowl: gulls, Canada geese, mallards, canvasbacks, redheads, herons, swans, white geese and more. The park is in the center of the Audubon Flyway and rests in the heart of a federally designated Important Bird Area.

Jayne Park is a one-of-a-kind waterfowl refuge in the center of a Great Lakes metropolitan area, something that the real Olmsted, as opposed to the "DeSantisized" version, might actually cherish.

Remove irreplaceable flora, disrupting almost the last undisturbed riverbank on the Little Niagara River, and change a small neighborhood park into public pavement, and call it Olmsted?

It is not unlike how at the Niagara Falls State Park they put in parking lots, restaurants and souvenir stores and call it an "Olmsted park," when Olmsted specifically decried all these things in his carefully drawn Niagara Falls Reservation plan.

Naturally, the Jayne Park plan wasn't conceived in a vacuum. In fact, it stands as an example of DeSantis' style of planning.

His is the same intrepid brain that initiated a plan to create a midget, 80-foot maximum height for downtown buildings, as if the city had so many developers chomping to build that we had to limit the floors of their buildings.

DeSantis recently gifted us with a nearly $500,000 piece of artwork scheduled to go in the undersized Rainbow Boulevard traffic circle, on a road where, while trying to get to the street to enjoy the DeSantis art, one has to be careful to dodge car-ruining potholes.

This is the city planner who has given us a proposed $40 million train station at a time when the rest of the world is expanding their airports. His zeal to get the funding for this boondoggle train station may have de-funded and delayed by years the federal funding for the road repairs on Buffalo Avenue in LaSalle.

DeSantis, as planning director of Niagara Falls, is also a staunch and important supporter of the "Niagara Experience Center." At a proposed cost of more than $100 million, the Niagara Experience Center will remove acres of taxable land from downtown and, in effect, create a virtual falls to try to compete with the real one.

But most importantly, DeSantis has brought not one new project, not one new tax-paying development into the city in decades. In fact, if any came, it was in spite of DeSantis, not because of him.

While he pontificates about the heights of buildings and writes studies to sit on dusty shelves in a dysfunctional City Hall, to date he has accomplished literally nothing.

Although there are some independent members, because he controls the planning board and stacked it with his minions, he has made Niagara Falls a very hard place to develop in.

Cayuga Island is made up of about 350 homes. The average home is probably valued at around $150,000 or more. Cayuga Island generates many tax dollars, and its residents turn out in large numbers to vote.

Some of these residents have already gotten wind of the DeSantis plan for Jayne Park and are livid, to say the least.

There has in fact been some talk among them of hanging DeSantis to one of Jayne Park's soon to be removed White Oak trees.

But timing is everything in planning, they say, and they'll have to plan it fast before DeSantis, in the name of Olmsted, chops down all of Jayne Park's trees and ruins the quiet, natural preserve for generations to come.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.