Ralph Wilson Park - A New Day for Buffalo's Waterfront

Phase I Construction includes a signature pedestrian bridge for improved access, ball field improvements, and shoreline rehabilitation of inlet area

Today marker the groundbreaking of the new Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park (“Ralph Wilson Park”). Attending the event was Keith Belanger, Ralph Wilson Park Conservancy Board President, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation President & CEO David Egnerand, and numerous partners, dignitaries, special guests, and community members.

Altogether, the newly reimagined 99 acre park will see a $110 million investment*, which will change the face of this long-forgotten segment of the waterfront.

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Over the years, there have been numerous fits and starts, bandages, empty words, unfulfilled promises, shelved renderings, and the lot. But nothing ever materialized, partly because of changes in administrations. But now we are actually seeing a great project come to fruition, thanks in part to community participation, as well as a design team that was not afraid to look at best case examples from other cities.

In order to pull off the significant project, the Ralph Wilson Park Conservancy was established, which will be instrumental in managing the Park moving forward. And as we are well aware, building a park is one thing… monitoring it taking care of it is another. To that end, a search is currently underway for an executive director.

“This is Buffalo’s largest waterfront park and has been an integral part of the Western New York community since 1932, when it hosted the City of Buffalo’s centennial celebration,” said Conservancy Board President Belanger. “Development of this scale happens once in a lifetime. Ralph Wilson Park will rank among the country’s best parks and profoundly impact our neighborhoods. Generations of Buffalonians will gather here and make memories that last a lifetime.”

“Generations of Buffalo Bills fans knew of founder Ralph Wilson’s commitment to Buffalo and generosity during his life,” said Governor Kathy Hochul. “The groundbreaking of Ralph Wilson Park will bring a collaborative transformation of this waterfront park into a vibrant community space where future generations will enjoy gathering for many years to come, and that will ensure Ralph Wilson’s love for our community continues to make an impact.”

The community-engaged process that led up to today’s groundbreaking as thanks in part from The University at Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI), in partnership with the Wilson Foundation, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and City of Buffalo, represented by its Division of Parks and Recreation, Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC) – Gardiner & Theobold, Department of Community Services and Recreational Programming, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), and Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning. Gilbane Building Company will be taking the lead on construction.

“In October 2018, Mary Wilson came to Buffalo and warmed our City’s collective heart by announcing the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation would invest $50 million to help my Administration’s efforts to transform the former LaSalle Park into a world-class, waterfront destination that would make the most of the natural beauty of this one-of-its-kind setting,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “Today’s groundbreaking is a major milestone in the inclusive and transparent planning process to create a ‘people’s park’ that will be enjoyed by the neighboring community, and all Buffalo residents, for generations to come.”

Once complete, the park will look and act a lot differently than it does today. The topographical landscape will shift, with the addition of a variety of terrains (sweeping hills and valleys) – a far cry from the flat lifeless landscape that can be seen today. There will be an emphasis on creating a variety of interactive natural environments, both on land and along the shoreline. Plus, a pedestrian bridge will be built, creating another access point to the park. This access point (the bridge) will help to connect residents on the lower West Side to the park, and will, essentially, extend the park outwards across the boundaries of the expressway. It remains to be seen just how far that potential will be realized in years to come, but the building block for that annex is now in place.

“Today’s groundbreaking would not be possible without the collaboration of the City of Buffalo, New York State and so many partners that have come together to leverage and build upon the commitment made by the Foundation in 2018 honoring our founder, Ralph Wilson,” said David O. Egner, president & CEO, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. “The Imagine LaSalle engagement process provided an ambitious community vision for the future Ralph Wilson Park that paved the way for this incredible group of partners, stakeholders and funders to join us in supporting this once-in-a-lifetime investment in a public space that will be open and welcoming to all.”

Targeted funding sources include:

  • New York State Governor announced a $10 million grant to support the construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting the neighborhoods across the 190, as well as funding toward the inlet.
  • NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation has provided $2.5 million for the inlet, while $1.5 million came from Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s Buffalo Blueway initiative to implement a public access Blueway site within the park, which is funded in part by Empire State Development.
  • The U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded $2 million for the playground through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) Program.
  • The City of Buffalo provided $3 million to support the new pedestrian bridge to connect the Lower West Side neighborhood to the park and waterfront.
  • The Wilson Foundation provided an additional $10 million in match funding for the pedestrian bridge and shoreline resiliency to ensure the full community vision is realized.
  • The Greenway Commission has provided over $2.5 million to support increased connectivity to the Shoreline and Empire State Trails, as well as increased circulation through the park.
  • MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, a joint initiative between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association provided $1 million for the youth baseball and softball field renovations.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has provided $2 million of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding to support engineering and design work and pre-construction activities for coastal habitat restoration through a regional partnership with the Great Lakes Commission.

“On behalf of Mayor Byron Brown, Chairman of the BUDC Board of Directors, and Brendan Mehaffy, Chair of BUDC’s Downtown Committee, we are so thrilled to celebrate the groundbreaking of Ralph Wilson Park,” said Brandye Merriweather, President, and Rebecca Gandour, Executive Vice President, Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC). “Many thanks to our fantastic project partners who have been working so hard over the past several years to get us to this point. Establishing Ralph Wilson Centennial Park as a world-class waterfront destination aligns with BUDC’s vision for enhancing the sense of place in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the City of Buffalo.”

In recent years, we have seen investments into the park’s pool, splash pad, and – currently – Phase III of the skate plaza is underway. It is interesting that there has been no mention of improvements or expansion efforts for The Barkyard dog park. Hopefully the dog park is getting much needed improvements, as there is still not a great dog park in the city. It would be a shame to not capitalize on this, as it has been a huge park attraction for years.

It’s nice to hear that, other than paying attention to the amenities such as playgrounds and ball fields, there is a concentration on environmental rehabilitation.

“This is an exciting day for everyone who loves Buffalo and Lake Erie. This project was developed with input from a community historically overburdened by pollution and unable to enjoy the benefits of this wonderful waterfront,” said EPA Region 2 Regional Administrator Lisa F. Garcia. “Through the investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we will make unprecedented progress in restoring and protecting the waters of Buffalo, ensuring waterfront access and green space for everyone to enjoy.”

“The Great Lakes Commission is proud of its role in enhancing coastal resilience and improving fish and wildlife habitat in the Niagara River Area of Concern,” said Erika Jensen, Great Lakes Commission executive director. “This innovative project was developed by a dedicated team of local partners, businesses, state, and federal agencies, following a robust community planning process, and incorporates habitat restoration into the greater transformation of the park. We are excited that it will provide ecological benefits and recreational opportunities to the entire Buffalo community.”

“The Ralph Wilson Park project will provide a multitude of benefits for the Niagara River ecosystem and the City of Buffalo by creating coastal wetlands, removing hardened shoreline, and creating habitat for a variety of fish species,” said Carrie Selberg Robinson, director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation. “NOAA is proud to be partnering on such a transformative effort for the local community, and we’re excited to see the project underway.”  

“For the past five years, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper has been thrilled to be a part of this incredible park team in this once-in-a-lifetime project on our city’s waterfront,” added Jill Jedlicka, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper executive director. “The commitment and vision of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, combined with the collaboration of the City of Buffalo and dozens of partners, will deliver a legacy of equitable public access and healthy ecosystems in memory of Mr. Wilson. Waterkeeper is honored to support this work through our Buffalo Blueway Initiative and helping secure significant habitat and ecosystem funding for this park. We remain a committed partner to seeing this project to the end and ensuring successful implementation of ecosystem and shoreline improvements.”

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s collaboration on the shoreline and habitat restoration aspects of the project, related initiatives include the Western New York Land Conservancy’s effort to locally collect and grow native plants for the inlet area of the park, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s support planting over 2,600 trees.

There are those who never thought that they would see this day come to pass. I must admit that I had my doubts. But here we are – on the cusp of a project that could be – and should be – a game changer for a waterfront that has been mired in political and environmental controversies for far too long.

To learn more, visit RWParkBuffalo.org.

*This estimate excludes the investment toward community engagement, engineering/design, and the endowment to ensure the park’s sustainability after it is built. Phase one of the park is fully funded and the overall park is more than 90 percent funded to support the construction.

The park’s name honors the legacy of the late entrepreneur, veteran, and philanthropist Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. It is estimated to be complete in late 2025.

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