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Originally appeared in Artvoice on October 11th, 2012

A small brigade of angry opponents to the Peace Bridge plaza expansion idea held the floor at the Common Council Community Development Committee meeting for about an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon, denouncing every aspect of the proposal, and in particular the Council’s apparent docile acquiescence to it. They criticized the Council for failure to protect residents’ health and to prevent the physical destruction of the Peace Bridge neighborhood. The expansion plan would be to make way for new Duty Free store, but one speaker suggested that other commercial projects could well follow.

Coincidentally, Wednesday morning Senator Schumer’s office announced an agreement some years in the making to relocate the US Customs truck inspection facilities now occupying much of the plaza on this side to the Canadian side of the bridge. Asked if this would permit rethinking the plaza expansion idea, a Public Bridge Authority spokesman said it “could have an impact” on that plan. The spokesman emphasized that the relocation is a pilot program, set to run for 18 months, after which it may or may not be adopted as a permanent arrangement.

Meanwhile, in federal court last week, both sides won a little and lost a little in the legal case concerning the proposed demolition of eight houses on Busti Avenue as part of the expansion plan.

Federal Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy disappointed the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture, which opposes the demolitions, by declining to remand the case to state court, though the main issue mainly involves state laws. The main issue is whether the PBA needs to comply with State Environmental Quality Review Act regulations requiring proper environmental review of such activities.

He then disappointed the PBA by ordering that the Campaign be allowed to enter and inspect the three houses of the eight which are National Register for Historic Preservation eligible. The PBA contends that based on their deteriorated condition, these three houses lack sufficient structural integrity to remain National Register eligible, and that a main reason for the proposed demolition of the buildings is to remove the blight on the neighborhood due their presence.

In considering the matter, Judge McCarthy asked rhetorically, “What’s the harm in letting them do an inspection?”

Attorney Adam S. Walters argued for the PBA against the inspections idea. He said he considered the proposed inspections “more of a fishing expedition,” and cited safety concerns in allowing access to the buildings by non-contractors. The eight buildings are currently fenced off to prevent intrusion. Judge McCarthy instructed the attorneys from both sides to work out a waiver agreement on the safety issues.

The PBA is a bi-national entity, but the Campaign contends it is also a state entity, particularly with regard to actions it undertakes on state property and that involve environmental issues and issues of health and welfare of state residents.

Judge McCarthy withheld ruling on a third question, the question of standing—that is, whether the Campaign has the right to sue on the demolitions matter. He said the decision on standing would require further consideration on his part of the merits of the arguments on both sides. He did not hear oral arguments on merits last week, but attorneys on both sides have submitted documents comprising their arguments.

Liz Martina, a resident on Columbus Parkway directly behind the Busti houses slated for demolition, started off the testimony to the Council committee by reading a letter from Kathy Mecca, another Columbus Parkway resident, but who was out of town Wednesday, excoriating Councilman David Rivera, whose district includes the Peace Bridge area, for going along with the expansion and demolition proposals.

The letter listed multiple objections to the expansion proposal, particularly health effects due to diesel traffic that would be introduced further into the neighborhood under the expansion plan, and favored diverting the Peace Bridge truck traffic to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Niagara County, but said Rivera refused to support any such idea, on the excuse simply that “New York State said ‘no.’”

Martina then spoke of her own and family members’ health problems that she attributed to air pollution from Peace Bridge traffic but also to air quality issues related to preliminary work by contractors on the Busti properties to be demolished.

Another neighbor, Betsy Murphy, described a dilemma she faces. Her daughter and husband and their baby are relocating back to Buffalo, where he will start law school. She has an apartment they could live in, but wonders about bringing a baby to live in an area with air quality issues and a documented high asthma rate.

Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign, talked about the situation at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, which features in conjunction with its Duty Free store what he said the Detroit Free Press has called “the country’s largest gas station.” He suggested a similar facility might be built here on the property being sought for the expanded Duty Free, which includes not just the Busti houses but the campus of the former Episcopal Church Home. The PBA has denied any such intent, but post-expansion, there would be little, it seems, to stop such a development.

More than a dozen speakers had their say. Luis Clay read out aloud some of the virtues listed on the pillars around the back of the Common Council Chamber—Wisdom, Concordia, Prudence, etc.—and challenged the Council members to decide which among these they should embody in their Peace Bridge deliberations.

Artist and activist and neighborhood resident Michael Herbold initially heartily commended the Council members for their recent ban on fracking in their jurisdiction, then said he was “sorry to see the same people not doing the same thing on this issue.”

Bill Maecker, an artist and toymaker who said he used to have his toymaking business in the Peace Bridge area, then moved away for a time, but is now considering moving back, made a hit when, at the behest of several Council members—who by then seemed they could use some comic relief from the barrage of complaints and criticism—sailed a small plastic airplane, one of his inventions, across the Council Chambers. The plane dipped then swooped upward elegantly before landing gently and without mishap on the chamber carpet.

The pilot program to relocate the truck inspection facilities happily coincides with another PBA project just getting underway to reconfigure the existing Peace Bridge plaza to improve efficiency, without regard to the proposed expansion. The PBA spokesman pointed to the announcement of the pilot program—the uncertainty for years about whether the plan would come to pass, and continued uncertainty given that it is experimental—­as rationale for why the PBA has never issued any actual expansion plans, much to the dismay of the neighborhood residents.

The next meeting in federal court is scheduled for December 17, but may occur sooner if other matters now on Judge McCarthy’s calendar do not occur. Meanwhile, a preliminary injunction is in place to stave off the proposed demolitions until after the court case is settled.

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