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By James Hufnagel

Why is State Parks hellbent on tearing down the Carriage House?

The answer is simple: They screwed up, and now they're desperately trying to save bureaucratic face while simultaneously maintaining their monopolistic grip on the Niagara Falls waterfront.

Starting at the north Grand Island Bridge, wrapping around Niagara Falls State Park and proceeding north to the Power Project, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation owns and operates over 80 percent of the waterfront of the city of Niagara Falls, funneling untold millions of tourist dollars to Albany. A

nd State Parks is determined to hammer home the message to you and me that there's not a damn thing we can do about it.

That was the prevailing mindset at the Western Regional Office of State Parks last year when planners put the finishing touches on plans to raze three buildings at DeVeaux Woods State Park, including the Carriage House. According to the 2010 New York State Parks Capital Needs Assessment for the Niagara Region, a document detailing proposed expenditures for the upcoming year, three buildings in DeVeaux Woods were slated for demolition.

One was the Walker Building. A shoddily built structure typical of many construction projects of the 1960s, it once served as a dormitory for the private school at DeVeaux. The second was a badly deteriorated power plant, and the third was the Carriage House, built in 1863 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Demolition of the Walker Building, which sits smack in the middle of the rare old-growth forest at DeVeaux, was actually started two years ago. Residents observed at the time that a 40-foot perimeter of forest had been cleared around the building and scraped to bare ground, creating large piles of earth, tree limbs and other junk within the forest itself. Two different State Parks sources, one a worker at the site and the other an administrator, confirmed at the time that the Walker Building was to be razed to make room for yet another parking lot.

Lots of things can damage an old-growth forest, but one of the worst is to put a parking lot in the middle of it. Vehicle fluids like motor oil, gasoline and antifreeze accumulate. In addition, rainwater runoff can cause pooling, which is outright fatal to the species of trees predominant at DeVeaux Woods.

There were complaints from concerned citizens, not about losing the Walker Building but about the aforementioned issues. Most of us thought surgical removal of the building and subsequent restoration of the area could be a good idea, and said so, but State Parks got into a snit and simply dropped the project altogether. The Walker Building is still there today.

The inescapable conclusion is that State Parks shelved the demolition of the Walker Building because they couldn't have their precious parking lot. Had they paved a parking lot in the middle of the Deveaux old-growth forest, located along the Niagara Gorge and one of the few known to exist in an urban setting, there would have been repercussions.

Apparently, it never crossed their minds simply to remove the building and allow the newly created vacant space to return to forest. You know, let it become parkland. Perish the thought.

The exact amount and eventual disposition of the funding that would have paid for the completed demolition of the Walker Building two years ago may have to wait for a future Freedom of Information request, but it would be fair to guess it couldn't have been much more than the $10,000 Western Regional State Parks Director Mark Thomas claimed it would cost to tear down the historic Carriage House when queried by Niagara Parks Commission member Gerry Mosey at its meeting last week.

Here is their verbatim dialogue:

Mosey: The cost, then, of fortifying the building would be greater than razing it? Because sometimes razing it is a very ...

Thomas: Razing it is about a $10,000 proposition.

Mosey: That's it?

Thomas: That's it.

Mosey: OK, because actually that would actually be a question.

Thomas: Yes, it was a very good question and it was misreported, not in the newspaper but in another publication, I would say.

Mosey: Not in the newspaper, no.

Thomas: So it's, it's not a high cost, uh, uh, to ... to raze this building, no.

Mosey: Oh, that's good.

Thomas: Um, It is, uh, the stabilization, uh, figures are in the, way in the six figures and, and we're just not, uh, not willing to make that investment.

Now that's a problem, because the Niagara Region Capital Needs Assessment document mentioned earlier lists the cost of demolishing the three DeVeaux structures as $200,000. So if it's only $10,000 to raze the Carriage House, as Thomas has repeatedly contended, it must cost an average of $95,000 each to demolish the other two buildings.

Let's generously allow that it would cost twice as much Walker, which is highly unlikely considering that the Carriage House is constructed of brick and the Walker Building is made of Tinker Toys. That would put a price tag on the power plant of $170,000. The math simply doesn't add up.

There are other ways that State Parks miscalculated, like failing to anticipate that one of their own wouldn't be able to stomach seeing the stately relic from a bygone era reduced to a heap of rubble and would pick up the phone to warn a local newspaper columnist a columnist who happens to harbor a white-hot hatred for the arrogant, deceitful agency that has stolen our waterfront and tourism livelihood and now wants to bulldoze our heritage.

State Parks miscalculated when they thought that they could quietly, like thieves in the night, destroy a historic building it had itself neglected until it was in such a state of disrepair they could then try to convince people it was dangerous, despite the fact it's boarded and padlocked.

They didn't think we'd notice anything amiss when the old building, tucked away behind their junkyard in a little-used section of the park and nearly inaccessible due to Lewiston Road being under construction, succumbed to the wrecking ball on a cold April morning.

The greatest miscalculation on the part of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, however, was that we were going to return to office the same worthless politicians who had previously maintained the status quo on waterfront and parks issues. We now have in place leaders who are willing to step up to the plate, and not just for the Carriage House.

The times they are a-changin'.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 26, 2011