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FORUM FOCUSES ON FUTURE OF HARBOR

Create bountiful public access, dismantle the Skyway, don't build a second downtown, make bold changes, make small changes -- but, please, do something.

These were among the suggestions for improving Buffalo's waterfront that emerged from a public session Sunday on the future of the city's Erie Canal Harbor land.

"I think we can all agree that we want to do the right thing; we want to make our collective waterfront dreams come true," said program moderator Robert G. Shibley, professor of the Urban Design Project for the University at Buffalo.

Shibley and a panel of speakers faced a packed house in the auditorium of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society to discuss community visions for the waterfront. The citizens forum was co-sponsored by The Buffalo News and its "Why Not Buffalo?" series, which is exploring the keys to unlocking the city's potential.

Much of the conversation centered on plans for the city's outer harbor and a $750 million proposal to bring an ambitious mix of marinas, housing, retail, civic and green space to the 120-acre site.

Carl J. Montante Jr. of Buffalo Lakefront Development, the designated developer, said the project's goals are to improve waterfront access, generate fresh tax base and other revenues for the city, and create a world-class destination that will boost the city's image. He also pledged the team's flexibility in creating an outer harbor that reflects the community.

"Nothing is set in stone; we are very malleable," Montante said. "We need your help to decide what uses are best."

Montante, of Amherst-based Uniland Development Cos., is part of a team of developers that includes VOA Associates of Chicago and Opus East LLC of Philadelphia. The team was selected by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to oversee the project.

The NFTA and the developers plan to hold a series of public planning sessions over the next several months.

Professor Lynda Schneekloth of the UB School of Architecture and Planning, also a panel member, is among those who plan to monitor the Buffalo Lakefront Development team very closely.

Schneekloth, a self-described environmentalist, drew strong applause from the audience when she called for the outer harbor acreage to remain "public land" and not be transferred to the developer's control.

She also received crowd support in calling for a waterfront where less is more. Her vision of "a great green lawn" dotted with marinas and other water-dependent developments seemed to be an easy sell to those in attendence.

"There doesn't need to be a lot of development to capture our imagination," Schneekloth said. "We don't need to build another downtown. We're still working on the downtown we have."

The professor's waterfront dream would appear to run counter to the developer's initial proposal to build more than 1,000 residential units, a convention center, two hotels and an amateur sports center on the site.

Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, a longtime advocate of waterfront development with a hefty dose of public access, called the current state of the waterfront a "disgrace and embarrassment."

"I'm highly hopeful the next couple of years will be a defining moment for our community," Higgins said. "If we come together and concentrate our efforts, we can end up with the waterfront that's waiting in all our hearts."

In the near term, Higgins noted, the NFTA's Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach will be converted into a 90-acre state park this summer. And in the long term, he reiterated his goal of demolishing the Skyway portion of Route 5 in favor of a ground-level roadway linking the city's inner and outer harbors.

"It's a physical and psychological barrier. It has to go," Higgins said.

Buffalo News reporter Phil Fairbanks, whose initial article in the "Why Not Buffalo?" series focused on the city's checkered history of waterfront development, also was a panelist at the forum.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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