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Officials second-guess NFTA's sale of waterfront land Harbor agency takes interest in property

New calls surfaced Wednesday for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to reassess plans for selling its outer harbor lands to private developers.

As a result, the new leaders of the NFTA and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. both said they would welcome discussions aimed at relieving the transit agency of staggering waterfront costs while preserving public stewardship for lands considered a valuable community asset.

"I think the governor would agree that a transportation agency ought to focus on transportation and a waterfront development agency ought to concentrate on waterfront development," said Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp. and interim chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. "It makes enormous sense that ECHDC be at the table in those discussions."

And Howard A. Zemsky, the NFTA commissioner nominated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to head the transit authority, said he welcomes any suggestion that ultimately supports the authority's core mission of transportation.

"Over the last few years, there's been a general understanding that it would be sensible for ECHDC to have more control over those outer harbor lands," he said. "It may be a fertile time to advance those conversations in a productive way."

The new focus on lands the NFTA and its predecessor have held for decades followed reservations expressed this week by businessman David Pfeiffer of Bear Development over authority conditions attached to his offer to purchase the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach parcels.

Though he left open the possibility of further negotiations, Pfeiffer said his potential liability for environmental cleanup on the property -- as he said is demanded by the NFTA -- made the deal financially unfeasible.

That prompted Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, to launch the idea of re-examining the whole concept of transferring the lands out of public stewardship and into the hands of private entities.

While Ryan said he recognized the NFTA has built in caveats to safeguard public access in the event of a private purchase, he said area leaders should explore what role the harbor development agency could play.

"Why we are selling that asset?" Ryan asked. "There's got to be a public benefit to this sale other than the NFTA's bottom line."

He also said private development of the outer harbor fails to jibe with the "enormous amounts of money" spent on the inner harbor. Some type of coordination remains necessary, he said.

"If this deal falls apart," he said of the Bear proposal, "it will be a blessing in disguise."

"We need this land to be transferred to a better steward or its development rights transferred to a better steward," he added. "We need to slow down here."

The assemblyman said he has scheduled a meeting with NFTA officials today to discuss his proposal.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Higgins -- a longtime critic of NFTA stewardship of the outer harbor, whether as a member of the Common Council, the Assembly or, now, the House of Representatives -- also suggested a new approach.

"I urge the NFTA to explore the possibility of leasing to develop these properties to their full potential," he said.

He said he has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to study the potential for swimming at a sandy Gallagher Beach, saying he believes the NFTA historically installed pea gravel there to discourage use.

"Obviously, the lack of investment on an incremental basis by the NFTA makes that property that much more challenging to get a private developer in there," Higgins said.

In addition, the congressman said he expects new studies to explore upgrading the Ohio Street approach from downtown to the Small Boat Harbor and the waterfront, which he believes will enhance the area's value through improved accessibility.

Higgins added that Hoyt's position as interim head of the harbor agency and Zemsky's expected State Senate confirmation as NFTA chairman makes now an ideal time to study the suggestions, because all are in sync with the Cuomo administration in Albany.

He said he will soon convene a meeting of elected officials and other stakeholders to review the situation.

"I think we can come up with a plan that works for everybody," the congressman said.

New scrutiny of the NFTA plan to sell the two most popular attractions on the outer harbor stemmed from Pfeiffer's assertions Tuesday that the deal would force him to shoulder the substantial costs of cleaning up any contamination on the site.

On Wednesday, he again left the door open to continuing negotiations with the authority after submitting a proposal to pay $3 million for the two parcels and commit to $15.3 million in improvements.

He said he believes contamination exists in the spit of land between the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach where he seeks to build an amphitheater, but he objects to NFTA demands that he be held responsible for its remediation.

"I really don't want to see the deal fall apart, but I want to get everyone on the same page," he said, adding he was trying to "kick the door open" with earlier assertions that he wanted out of the deal he initiated with the authority.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com