Lakeside park could help ease traffic problems around nearby Chautauqua neighbourhood
Niagara Shores Park, a natural gem on Lake Ontario with beautiful sunsets and stunning views of the Toronto skyline, could be fully reopened to the public as early as next summer, Parks Canada says.
For months, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has been pushing the federal agency to expand access to the park to help ease traffic and congestion around Ryerson Park in the nearby Chautauqua neighbourhood.
“I'm being very optimistic,” said Lisa Curtis, Parks Canada’s superintendent of national historic sites for southwestern Ontario.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc with the agency’s ability to conduct environmental and other assessments, but “we're all hoping that something could take place for next season,” possibly by June.
“But because the pandemic is so unpredictable, I can never say how fast things will go.”
What is most definite, however, is that the park soon will be fully accessible to the public, she said. “Eventually it will happen. It is part of our management plan” for the park.
Niagara Shores, off Lakeshore Road about 1.5 kilometres west of Ryerson Park, has been closed to vehicles since 2014. Safety concerns were one of the reasons, as people were driving vehicles right up near the edge of the bluffs, Curtis said. As well, the grounds were damaged by people tearing up the grass with trucks.
The park remains open this summer for people to walk in, but there is only parking space for about five vehicles at the gated entrance. The town-owned Newark Park is located directly across Lakeshore Road.
“It is a beautiful spot,” Curtis said. “You want to protect it and at the same time you want to be able to open it up for public use and enjoyment. I mean, that's our business, but it's also our business to make sure we do it in a good way with all the assessments so we understand how to do it well.”
Before the park can be fully reopened, several environmental assessments by biologists, ecologists and other scientific experts need to be completed. With staff working from home and not in the field during much of the pandemic, those studies have been delayed, said Curtis.
Additionally, working with the town, conservation authority and others, Parks Canada will “go through the process and see what would it take to open it to vehicle traffic again and ensure safety,” she said.
“We've got to make sure it's safe and that it has the amenities. As you know, lots of people came to Niagara-on-the-Lake (during the pandemic) and when the facilities were closed, they just found nearby areas. So, we have to make sure we have what it takes to open it up.”
The sandy bluffs along the park shoreline are home to bank swallows, a threatened species that nests in burrows in the sides of the embankment.
As well, as The Lake Report documented in an in-depth series and film in 2019, shoreline erosion is a major problem. The park loses on average 1.1 metres of land to erosion every year, Curtis said.
Reopening the park doesn’t just mean throwing open the gates and inviting everyone in. It is a complicated process, she noted.
Visitor needs and safety also need to be taken into account. The stability of the shoreline is a concern and there is about a sharp six-metre (20-foot) drop from the bluffs to the shore.
Once Parks Canada allows vehicles back onto the property, Curtis expects the number of visitors will rise and the agency has to figure out how it will safely manage that.
“What's the impact to the environment, the species at risk? What is the capacity of our site? We need to assess how many can you have on site before it does damage or what do we need for infrastructure?”
While there are no plans yet for active shoreline erosion measures, Curtis said that eventually will have to happen.
“I've been here six years now and I've watched the trees that were on that embankment fall, fall on to the beach. I've seen it move back and it's amazing every time. Seeing how fast that goes, it's incredible.”
Any erosion mitigation would have to ensure the bank swallows’ habitat on the shore is protected.
The projects undertaken along the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club and Fort Mississauga to install large boulders as a breakwater would not be used at the park, she said.
Whatever is done to preserve Niagara Shores Park would be “unique” to that environment.