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Initial design of future Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park introduced

A first draft of what will be the transformation of Buffalo's LaSalle Park into the future Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park was put on display on the University at Buffalo's South Campus Friday morning, as images and as a large model laid out for viewing. Planners say it's not a done deal, and more public input is sought.

Last fall, Mary Wilson - the widow of the late Buffalo Bills pro football franchise founder and longtime owner - and the foundation named after her husband announced a $100 million gift to Western New York to improve parks and trailways. Half of that money will be invested in the redesign of the city's waterfront park.

Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO
A model of the initial design of the future Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park sits inside Hayes Hall on the UB South Campus. The model will be displayed in several locations throughout Buffalo in May, beginning with the downtown library from May 4-8.

The project, known as the Imagine LaSalle Initiative, was led by a partnership including the City of Buffalo, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute. They, in turn, brought in Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to design the park. The firm's founder and leader, Michael Van Valkenburgh, says the athletic fields will remain but the more significant changes will include a "great lawn," topographic variety in what is now a generally flat park space, a lagoon and a reworked auto access  and parking system. Parking lots, he explained, will be eliminated and replaced with spaces along the sides of roads, closer to the fields.

"If you're bringing your son or daughter or a pack of kids in a car, you drive right up to where you're going to be playing," Van Valkenburgh said. "The same thing for new picnic areas. Bascially, you can get all the way through the park in the car but in a way that is also integrated with the overall design of the park."

Van Valkenburgh noted the input received came from sources include students at Lafayette High School and stated that Buffalo is ready for such a park. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who was among those appearing to review the plan, spoke of having a park space where her grandchildren may one day get to play.

She also acknowledged Mrs. Wilson and her husband's role as the Bills' longtime original owner, and used an eye-opening football anecdote to speak of Mr. Wilson's long-term legacy.

"This is better than a Super Bowl ring," Hochul said. "This is a statement that is going to be far longer than any temporary victory that can be taken away the next year. This is for eternity."

Of course, mention of the title which evaded the late Ralph Wilson four years in a row drew a response from his widow.

"I guarantee you Ralph would have liked a Super Bowl win," Wilson later replied, sending the room into laughter and cheers.

Mrs. Wilson spoke of some of the sports and recreational activities she looked forward to seeing in the updated park, including pickle ball, telling the room there should be more courts for that sport as the park design evolves.

Indeed, the park is far from a final design. Groundbreaking is not scheduled until 2022 and in the meantime, more public input is welcomed.

"More studies are needed to frame the concept design, within technical and engineering constraints of the site and available funding," said Robert Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. "More community consultation will follow, step by step, through the whole process."

The model displayed in Hayes Hall Friday will go on a citywide tour in the month of May. From Saturday, May 4 through Wednesday, May 8 the model will be on display at the downtown branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. The model will later be displayed at Canalside (May 9-14), LaSalle Park (May 16-19) and the Northland Workforce Training Center (May 20-24).

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