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Dissent over outer harbor City, development agency are jockeying for control of NFTA's waterfront holdings

This much is agreed: The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority should relinquish ownership of its outer harbor land in favor of some other public entity.

Everyone is on board with that.

But consensus is hard to find on who should get that land: City Hall or the state agency directing waterfront development.

Mayor Byron W. Brown's administration and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. both tout their own resources and expertise for developing 384 acres of waterfront land deemed key to the region's future. Both are courting the NFTA as the transit agency decides to which entity it will hand over its waterfront property -- maybe as early as this fall.

And while the competition remains low-key, it pits Brown against the harbor agency and Rep. Brian Higgins, the waterfront's longtime champion.

Beneath it all simmers growing public frustration with government's inability to develop the property.

The NFTA and its predecessor agency -- the Niagara Frontier Port Authority -- have owned the waterfront land since 1954, and both have drawn criticism for doing little development while diverting profits into the transit system, rather than toward waterfront improvements.

"The public doesn't want us fighting each other, but fighting the inertia," Higgins said.

Now, the NFTA's resolve to get out of the real-estate business offers hope that 58 years of inertia is about to end.

"The good thing is there is momentum," the Buffalo Democrat said last week. "Everyone wants to be part of the progress being made."

The NFTA's new resolve has spawned an eruption of developments, including:

Higgins appeared Monday before the NFTA board of commissioners to make the case for the state harbor agency, its development abilities and its financial resources.

Brown sent a letter to NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky, asking for the city to be considered and citing the city's successful operation of Erie Basin Marina for more than three decades.

The Common Council voted unanimously last week to back the mayor's effort to acquire the property.

The County Legislature followed Thursday with a unanimous resolution favoring the harbor agency.

Higgins advanced a new idea for upgrading Ohio Street into a connecting corridor from downtown to the waterfront, acknowledging that proposals for a new outer harbor bridge are stalled. The city, however, ranks other transportation projects as higher priorities.

Higgins promised the NFTA that the harbor agency can use $11 million in Power Authority relicensing money to dredge the Small Boat Harbor and to rebuild its breakwater.

Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns proposed a task force and further study of alternatives.

Higgins asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to determine if wave dynamics at Gallagher Beach could sustain a sandy swimming area.

All this jockeying seems to strengthen the NFTA's resolve to make this season its last at the Small Boat Harbor.

"We'd like to move this along expeditiously," said Zemsky, who in the past has hinted at his preference for the state harbor agency to control the property.

It appears a significant skirmish still lies ahead on who will inherit the NFTA's stewardship.

Brown's letter seeking a meeting with NFTA officials underscores the city's resolve, said Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey. The mayor appreciates Higgins' position but acknowledges a "difference of opinion," Casey said.

And while Higgins wants the city to help obtain federal funds for the Ohio Street plan, Casey said the city's top transportation objective remains reintroducing traffic to Main Street.

"We're not saying it's a bad idea. It's just that that money would have to come from the cars-on-Main-Street project," he said.

City Hall also has backing from its legislative branch, especially from North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who has raised questions about waterfront ownership over the past several years.

He said Higgins is ignoring a long period of inertia under state control.

"For decades, we've had authorities running our waterfront, and nothing has happened," he said. "Whereas, at waterfront, the city controls the bike path, Erie Basin Marina and Tifft Farm, you have one common denominator -- accountability."

Two assemblymen with ties to the waterfront are also asking questions. Kearns has not backed off his call for a task force, saying the process will take the six months anyway. He also pointed out the city is already working with the state on remediating contamination on the outer harbor and Buffalo River.

"The City of Buffalo has been around since 1832," he said. "I do not support another authority or people from Albany or Washington telling us what to do with our waterfront."

Democrat Sean M. Ryan of Buffalo pointed to the long stalemate connected with the harbor agency's plan for a Bass Pro megastore on the site of the former Memorial Auditorium and emphasized the need for public input. He also said significant underground pollution in some areas of the waterfront should prompt plans -- at least in the those areas -- for green space. That, he argues, is just as valuable to the city's development as shops or condos.

"The consensus in the community is that we should not be building a second city on the outer harbor," Ryan said, "so we have to build a world-class recreation area there."

Higgins is adopting a broader view, with projects he said will link inner and outer harbors and the Buffalo River in an overall waterfront plan. He acknowledged the outer harbor bridge plan is on hold, though not dead. He said an Ohio Street parkway plan consistent with the reconstruction of Fuhrmann Boulevard could, in the meantime, prove an attractive and effective link to all waterfront properties.

He still wants the city to join the Ohio Street effort and said it can be accomplished concurrently with reintroducing cars to Main Street.

But significantly, he sees no city plan or budget for major projects such as expanding Dug's Dive restaurant, repairing the breakwater and dredging at the Small Boat Harbor.

"My plan ends NFTA control by October and puts it in the hands of one single waterfront agency, with the mayor serving on the board," Higgins said.

"The last thing we need is another study," he added. "Get to work. I don't think this community will be tolerant of another waterfront study."

Sam Hoyt, a longtime political opponent of Brown during his years in the Assembly, is attempting to allay the mayor's fears in his new role as interim chairman of the harbor agency.

"I have insisted the mayor have a seat at the table," he said. "The mayor is the mayor, and he represents the entire City of ssBuffalo."

Hoyt said he expects to soon join Zemsky, Brown and any other interested parties to expedite the process. He pointed out there will be "considerable expense" in any development, noting that the NFTA's "deferred maintenance" will mean millions of repairs at the Small Boat Harbor alone.

Hoyt said, "The good news is that there is an awful lot of focus on this by important officials and public entities. We'll work through the challenges that exist right now, and Western New York and Buffalo will see a very positive outcome."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com