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Gates: a gateway for canal development?


True or false? Gates is a Canal Town. Trick question: T and F are both correct.

            Not that the bedroom-and-strip-mall township just outside the city limits is a Canal Town in the Realtor's sense. Gates will never be taken for Fairport, Brockport, or others that have highly developed commercial zones right on the Erie Canal (and as their names indicate, have a historical orientation toward the water). But Gates --- named for a Revolutionary War general, not the vital parts of a lock --- has its own quiet relationship with Upstate's major waterway and historic thoroughfare.

            The town and canal have lived side by side for a long time. But there's always been a kind of bundling board between them. "There's very little of the canal in the town's history," says Gates town historian Jack Hart.

            Why? Start with geology. The original route of the Erie Canal took advantage of a low area between two geological formations. But when the canal was relocated south of downtown Rochester a century ago, workers confronted some higher ground underlain with the dolomite of the Niagara Escarpment. They hammered a new channel through this formation rather than lifting the canal up and over it. Hence the long uninterrupted stretch of flatwater between Lock 33 just east of Rochester and Lock 34 in Lockport, Niagara County.

            And hence, too, the "deep cut" or rock cut in Gates --- the unusual section of the canal on the town's eastern border that has often escaped attention.

The deep cut's problem is, well, depth.

            For three miles in the middle of a populated, industrial area, the canal lies as much as 65 feet below the original land surface and runs between almost vertical limestone walls. The cut, says the state Canal Corporation, was the deepest made along the whole canal. Moreover, the effect was heightened when the work crews piled the newly excavated dirt and stone right on the canal rim, says town historian Hart. The impressive construction work had an unintended consequence: It kept Gates from having the access necessary for recreational or economic development.

            Gates Supervisor Ralph Esposito acknowledges that this inaccessibility --- the canal's distance from "civilization," as he says --- is a challenge. Yes, heroic earthmoving could be done. But "it all comes back to what you can do with the money they can give you," says Esposito, referring to state and federal programs that wax and wane.

            "The canal is so beautiful," Esposito says earnestly. But "it's pretty dangerous," he adds. He recalls "one or two fatalities" in the deep cut "from the Rochester side." His conclusion: "It's a tough spot." But he also highlights one spot Gates might develop --- a five-acre parcel on the north side of canal, near Greece Canal Park. This acreage lies near the Lee Road overpass --- and outside the deep cut.

            "At some point," Esposito says, "this could provide some usable access in the town." He says the original plan for the industrial-commercial park mentioned a "possible hotel" on the Gates acreage. "We're not out of the picture yet," he says. "I expect there will be some utilization."

            The Western Erie Canal Heritage Corridor Planning Commission, headquartered in Rochester at the Landmark Society offices, is looking at projects and proposals of all sorts between the Montezuma area (a bit this side of Syracuse) and Buffalo. Coordinator Bill Condo says some things might happen at the Gates-Rochester border. One idea that's been floated, he says, is to create an interpretive historical display above the canal near the Lyell Avenue overpass.

            Condo compares the deep cut's significance to that of the Broad Street Aqueduct, which used to carry the original Erie Canal over the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. "Here you have a major piece of American history," says Condo, referring to the cut and aqueduct alike.

Whatever their individual plans, towns like Gates and Greece, villages like Spencerport and Brockport, and cities like Rochester and Buffalo all have hopes riding on the canal and nearby greenspaces and development zones.

            County Legislator Mitch Rowe, who represents parts of both the city and Gates and has taken a special interest in the canal, says communities like Medina and Lockport are especially focused on such things. "They're struggling," he says. "There are a lot of vacancies" in such canal towns, he says. But he adds that attending meetings in these towns has given him "great hope" for the canal's future.

            Some money is on the way, certainly.

            Canal Corporation spokesperson Terry O'Brien says the state is poised to spend money on some canalside upgrades west of Rochester. For example, he says $1.5 million will go toward Canal Trail improvements on a 10-mile stretch between Brighton and Long Pond Road in Greece. Comparable sums will be spent on trail links in Erie and Niagara counties. The top priority now, says O'Brien, is connecting as many segments of the Canal Trail as possible, from one end of the state to the other. (State government and the federal Housing and Urban Development agency have pumped large sums into Erie Canal projects in recent years. HUD's share has come to more than $300 million.)

            But apart from the trail per se, will anything be set aside for more unusual projects --- like beautifying the deep cut and thus giving Gates a hand?

            Not likely, at least not from the Canal Corporation budget, says O'Brien. Over the past seven years, he says, the state has invested $177 million in canal "infrastructure." But this year, he says, there's only $30 million or so for all capital projects. And it takes $65 million per year, he says, just to run the canal, its locks, and so forth. Boaters' fees make up only a tiny fraction of the costs, he says.

            The Canal Corporation has primary responsibility for maintaining the Erie Canal multi-use trail system. But that may change.

            "We're thinking of handing over maintenance" to the localities through which the trail runs, says O'Brien. The corporation, he says, would prefer to keep both the trail and the actual canal shipshape. By law, the corporation must keep the waterway navigable, he says --- but there's no comparable mandate regarding the trail.

There's an unfortunate symmetry here. The section of paved trail alongside the deep cut in Gates is in bad --- and worsening --- shape. But Supervisor Esposito takes a position much like O'Brien's. Gates, says Esposito, is inclined to leave the trail problem in Albany's hands. "We've taken the position that it's theirs," he says.

            Whatever the pavement conditions, the trail and waterway form a significant greenspace along the Gates-Rochester line. And that could lead to low-impact, inexpensive development.

            Pittsford resident Thomas Grasso, a retired MCC geology professor who heads the Canal Society of New York State, has some suggestions. "What could be done as a first shot," he says, "is to thin out the brush [at trailside] so you can see the canal."

            In general, Grasso thinks it's best to "just make what's there a bit better." He envisions some "overlook points," perhaps with viewing platforms from which people can watch the boats go by --- and see some inspiring sights. "You're in a 'canyon,' so to speak," he reminds us. He recalls taking students there at low water to hunt fossils.

            The deep cut, says Grasso, was once compared to the "Culebra Cut" on the contemporaneous Panama Canal. Our local marvel no longer draws such oohs and aahs for its engineering, of course. But if the veil is drawn away, other marvels, and a few new possibilities for an aging suburb like Gates, could be revealed.

            Even if this isn't a smashing success, it's got to be better than what's (not) happening now.