PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
Roberts Street is getting a new name. Niagara Falls council voted Monday night to recast the road leading into the falls from Highway 420 as Falls Avenue.
Five residents objected to the decision, citing inconvenience and cost for changing their addresses, but council said it would reimburse them up to $150 for any expenses.
The area, between Stanley Avenue and Bender Street, was redesigned long ago as a parkland to greet visitors as they enter the city. The evolution of Roberts Street as a gateway to Niagara Falls actually dates as far back as 1966 when the Ministry of Transportation, then the department of highways, was considering upgrading Roberts Street to be a continuation of Highway 420. As a result, the MTO began to purchase properties with this vision in mind.
That plan changed with the creation of the Region and the Niagara Falls Transportation Study in 1998, which eventually proposed that Roberts Street be developed as a major gateway to the city from Stanley Avenue to Victoria Avenue rather than as a highway.
The properties purchased by the province were transferred to the Region, which also assumed responsibility for the roadway. A Niagara Falls committee-of-the-whole report from 1999 suggested the Niagara Parks Commission develop the properties off the road into a park-like setting, and continue to maintain the lands.
Responsibility for the upkeep of the Robert Street entrance into Niagara Falls has become a bone of contention this year between the Region and the Niagara Parks Commission, which has stopped cutting the grass and tending to the gardens, claiming it does not have a written agreement to do so.
Niagara Region Chairman Gary Burroughs and NPC interim chairwoman Janice Thomson have met on the issue, but not setted anything. Burroughs said he recognizes the urgency of the situation. He noted that the Roberts Street area is the first impression many visitors have of Niagara Falls, and right now it isn’t a particularly good one.
“We have to figure something out,” Burroughs said. “I admit I don’t drive past that area very often, but I have an idea of what it must look like.”
At issue is a memorandum of understanding that was signed in 2002 stipulating the Parks Commission would oversee the look of the property along Robert Street. The Parks Commission for nine years has been tending to the land, including designing a landscape plan, planting flower beds and even installing an underground watering system.
However, Thomson says there is no formal written agreement in place to enforce the memo and, as such, the NPC stopped looking after the property in May of this year. Niagara Parks Commission general manager Fay Booker sent a letter to Burroughs on May 17 when she was still chairwoman, informing him of the decision to “cease the provision of further service to this property.”
Burroughs wrote back June 27 expressing his “dismay and surprise” at the speed of the NPC move, particularly as Niagara is in the height of the summer season. He said no discussion took place between the Region staff and the NPC staff prior to the Commission’s decision taken at its May 11 meeting. As a result, the grounds were left untended for several weeks. At one point last month crews of Region workers were observed chopping down and raking what had become extremely tall grass.
Burroughs said the work has now been contracted out, but he isn’t confident it is being carried out to the level required by such an important greeting place.
“All we’re doing basically is cutting the grass, and I’m not sure how good a job we are doing of taking the cuttings out of there.”
Thomson said the decision was made for a number of reasons. She pointed to a paragraph in the memo, which said the Parks Commission would maintain the property on an ongoing basis “only after reaching an agreement with the Regional Municipality of Niagara and the City of Niagara Falls on the costs associated with the maintenance of such Parks.”
Thomson says that never happened. Thomson also voiced about safety conditions involved for its employees working outside the NPC boundaries, and also about the possibility of taking work away from the private sector.
Thomson said she believes the City of Niagara Falls, the Parks Commission and the Region entered into a one-year agreement a number of years ago. She emphasized nothing was ever formalized beyond that.