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With $50M in hand, LaSalle Park transformation begins

The event in International Preparatory School Thursday night wasn't unusual: an auditorium, a crowd, rows of renderings and drawings about a project, speakers. What was different about this "Imagine LaSalle" projectis that the money - $50 million - is in hand for the transformation.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

When the LaSalle Park transformation is completed - in perhaps four years - the vast, sprawling, treed section of land along the Niagara River will be re-opened as Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park. The Wilson Foundation put up the cash, meaning this project will go ahead quickly because there isn't the usual slow wait for Albany or Washington to come up with the cash.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown was there to talk about the process for planning the new park and talk about its relationship to a changing city.

"Of all the parks in the city and region, probably brings together the most diverse users of any park in our region," Brown said, "and we wanted to make sure that we identified stakeholders that captured the diversity that's evidenced in LaSalle Park."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

The diversity showed in the crowd, concerned about the major park in their neighborhood. That diversity was apparent in the 22-member advisory board, which went on trips to Chicago, New York and Cincinnati to see what other cities have done to create new parks or revive old ones.

Juweria Dhahir and her son love LaSalle in the summer, but there are other seasons in Buffalo.

"We come to LaSalle Park so often, each summer, but we're really not finding much things to do in the winter," Dhahir said, "so coming here today, we're looking to see how is this site going to be activated in the winter."

During his explanation of the planning process, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh talked about the opportunities for finding new uses for the park in the winter, since its current use is so limited to summer.

Queenie Asheemaat said she wants a playground, like at Gallagher Beach.

I would like to see more of what we've already had, more cultural events there," Asheemaat said, "and I would like to see that park playground, I would like to see that updated and I would like to see that it's more esthetically appealling for the children to be at, kind of like what they have at the waterfront, at the state harbor."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Renato Graham lives across the I-190 in Lakeview homes. Lakeview is also where a rare pedestrian bridge crosses the Thruway to a large swath of open land he wants developed.

Graham is a power in that community and is chairman of the Resident Advisory Board for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. Graham sees opportunities for his neighbors to have a better park and a park that offers them economic opportunity.

"My neighborhood is an extremely diverse neighborhood. We have every ethnic group in our neighborhood," Graham said. "When we went to other cities, they showed models of how to successfully do that. I mean, let's say a Hawaiian with with a Hawaiian hood and stuff and one cart moving around. I mean we've got every ethnic group. So you could just imagine all the things that you could have in that park."

Van Valkenburgh said he understood people want a world-class park, but that isn't simple.

"The first thing about a world-class park is it has to be loved by the city where it is and it has to take its inspiration from what we learn from this process," he said. "World class doesn't mean buying something in France and bringing it here. It means inventing something that really belongs to Buffalo."

Credit "Imagine LaSalle" report
LaSalle Park today.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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