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Originally appeared in the Buffalo News on August 4th, 2012.

The governor visits Buffalo to announce a tentative deal.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo swept into Buffalo on Saturday to make a surprise announcement that a preliminary agreement has been reached between the city and the state to sell a portion of Busti Avenue to make way for an expanded plaza for the Peace Bridge.

Under the plan, City Hall would sell two blocks of Busti – between Vermont Street and Massachusetts Avenue – to the state, which in turn would hand it over to the Peace Bridge Authority.

The proceeds of that sale – estimated at about $2 million – would go toward improvements in the immediate neighborhood.

The expansion plans, like just about any proposed project connected to the Peace Bridge, have drawn fierce criticism in the community.

Some opponents of the plans are against the demolition of eight houses now owned by the city, which they say have historic value. Environmental watchdogs believe the plaza will result in heavier traffic and more trucks idling in the neighborhood and polluting the air.

Cuomo, on the other hand, is clearly eager to get the expansion plan under way. A gleaming new plaza welcoming a steady stream of visitors and truckers from Canada in an economically challenged part of his state would make a perfect campaign backdrop for the governor as he faces re-election and possibly national office – proof that he’s the man who could break through the state and Buffalo’s gridlock.

“This is more evidence of a new day in Buffalo,” Cuomo told reporters Saturday, speaking as if he were at a campaign rally. “… You can feel it in the streets. You can feel it in the air. Let’s keep going.”

But the controversial nature of the Busti agreement was also evident Saturday. Cuomo’s news conference – apparently his only public appearance in Buffalo for the day – was announced to the media less than three hours before it was scheduled to begin.

The announcement about the “preliminary agreement” was a surprise to many, in part because it came with the endorsement of Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, who had previously been critical of the expansion plans.

Rivera’s concerns

On numerous occasions, Rivera had raised concerns about the potential health effects. He successfully pressed the state and the Peace Bridge Authority to place air-monitoring devices by the Peace Bridge.

Rivera appeared at Cuomo’s news conference, affirming his endorsement. “Today’s announcement … regarding Busti Avenue will significantly help reduce traffic congestion that has led to idling vehicles and diminished air quality for too long,” he said. “ … All proceeds from the sale of the transfer of the lands will go directly to the neighborhood and the people of the Niagara District. In that sense, we are very encouraged the mayor has made this commitment. This is a community coming together to build a future in Buffalo and beyond.”

He added: “I want to say this has been probably one of the most important decisions that we have had to make during a time I’ve been on the Common Council. … We feel that many of the concerns are being addressed as this project moves forward.”

Rivera later told The Buffalo News that a key part of his decision to support the plans was the state’s agreement to put air monitors near the bridge, which will begin in three weeks.

“Not everyone is going to be happy with the decision,” he conceded. “I think it’s … a better decision than what they initially had to propose in demolishing 80-something homes. This is a smaller footprint. The goal is to move traffic along a lot quicker. Hopefully, it’ll have a cleaner, environmentally friendly plaza that other people can look to.” The agreement was presented as just shy of a done deal.

Cuomo was joined by local officials at Saturday’s news conference. In addition to Rivera, Council President Richard Fontana stood behind the governor. Rivera also said he believes the Council will approve the plan once it goes back into session in September.

But opponents vowed to fight the plan. “The best way to improve air quality is to not expand the truck plaza,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, which held a demonstration at Columbus Park ahead of Cuomo’s appearance. Activists and residents held up signs opposing the plaza expansion.

“I had four children and two of them wound up getting asthma,” said Liz Telesco, who raised her family on Seventh and Vermont streets. “There’s no history of it in our family.”

Now her granddaughter, 12-year-old Briana Rudolph, uses an inhaler every day. She blames air pollution on the West Side, where there is a higher-than-average rate of asthma.

“I’m disappointed in the governor,” said another protestor, Rebecca Soto, as she pushed her walker down Porter Avenue toward the Peace Bridge. “He’s not taking into consideration the citizens of the West Side. We elected him and he hasn’t heard our voice as to what we want.”

Soto, who has lived on the West Side for almost 50 years, said what she wants is “clean air.”

“We’re not against progress,” she said. “But we’re against the way things are being done.” Heaney also criticized how the deal was struck. “It’s leaving out the people living in the neighborhood,” she said. “Everything Cuomo says he’s against, this reeks of … It’s a poor way to make public policy.”

Brown’s announcement

At the news conference, Mayor Byron W. Brown also announced that the final design phase is under way for a less controversial part of the plan – a $20 million renovation and expansion of the U.S. Customs commercial building, aimed at speeding up truck inspections.

The development also put the focus on the vacant Rhode Island Street Campus of the Episcopal Church Home. An expanded plaza would move a duty-free store to the site.

In a statement, Rob Wallace, president and CEO of Episocpal Church Home & Affiliates, raised optimism about the acquisition of the West Side Campus by the Peace Bridge Authority.

“Now that the State of New York, the City of Buffalo and the Peace Bridge Authority have celebrated long-awaited progress regarding portions of the planned plaza expansion, there should be nothing standing in the way of the PBA to finally [acquire] our former West Side campus.”

Wallace also was critical of the long debate over Peace Bridge plans and ensuing stalemates.

“Aside from the slow disintegration of our business since the Peace Bridge project was first announced nearly two decades ago, we have been held in limbo as this process has drawn on year after year. The result has been a financial albatross on our business and our vendors and a stigma for our neighbors on the West Side. We hope that we are finally close to the solution that has eluded us for far too long because of factors over which we had no control.”

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