All of a sudden, the decades-long logjam on Buffalo’s waterfront has given way to a tidal wave of progress.
It goes far beyond the cranes and the construction workers scurrying around the foot of Main Street, where the HarborCenter and One Canalside projects are bringing ice rinks, new hotels and office space next to the ongoing efforts to turn the terminus of the Erie Canal into a magnet for tourists and residents.
It’s about projects that have been talked about for decades finally gaining the traction and political pull needed to turn them from ideas into reality.
We saw two examples of that last week. The first one was the opening of a rail line through the middle of the old Bethlehem Steel complex in Lackawanna – an unsexy, $4.7 million project that local officials say will go a long way toward opening upward of 400 acres in the sprawling site for redevelopment.
When a locomotive, named the Tim Russert, broke through a ceremonial banner Wednesday, it marked the end of a 12-year push to move a two-mile stretch of rail line.
But the bigger change came a day later, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to town to announce that the state was taking over Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor, along with 130 acres on the Outer Harbor that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has owned since the 1950s.
It was a watershed move, wresting control of a vast parcel of prime property away from a transportation authority that lacked expertise and experience in waterfront development, and putting it in the hands of state agencies, including the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., that already are doing just that.
“Canalside shows the potential of the waterfront. This is the next step,” Cuomo said.
“For decades, we’ve been waiting for someone to come in from the outside and develop the waterfront,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has been a champion of waterfront development efforts, and one of the players who have been pushing hard to get the NFTA to get out of the waterfront land management business.
“What Buffalo has learned over the last couple of years is to walk for itself and stand on its own,” he said. “People themselves are taking the waterfront and making it their own.”
Sometimes it’s little things, like businessman Rick Smith’s Silo City initiative, which has opened grain elevators up for rock climbing expeditions and cultural events.
Sometimes it’s bigger things, like the plan to rebuild Ohio Street into a tree-lined parkway that links the Canalside developments with the Outer Harbor.
And sometimes it’s even bigger things, like the Gallagher Beach project, which took a waterfront parcel that, just a few years ago, attracted only a handful of devoted wind surfers on most days, into a place that now routinely is visited by dozens of beachgoers and kite-flyers. It’s also a prime starting point for the growing number of people who walk and bike along a portion of the waterfront that, until recently, many suburbanites wouldn’t have been able to find without a GPS.
And the common denominator in all of it is bringing people down to the waterfront. In the chicken or the egg world of economic development, there’s no better incentive for new businesses or attractions than people – the more the better.
“Now, there’s a synergy,” Higgins said.
In what could be one of the biggest things yet, the NFTA is turning over to the state 130 acres on the Outer Harbor where concerts are now held. “It’s like Battery Park City or the Hudson River Trust,” Cuomo said, referring to a pair of successful redevelopment projects in New York City.
Cuomo said he envisions a mix of commercial and residential development on the parcel, all while maintaining public access. He promises an “open and inclusive” planning process, overseen by the harbor development agency, to determine what ultimately happens there.
“It could be a lot of fun,” Cuomo said. “You could have an international competition” for plans to develop the parcel, or forums to seek out ideas from the public.
It’s a good deal for the NFTA, too, even though it’s just getting $2 for the land it’s handing over to the state. The NFTA is getting out of $30 million in improvements that are needed at the Small Boat Harbor and other costly maintenance expenses. It gets to keep two terminals on the Port of Buffalo site that it hopes to sell or lease shortly. And it’s washing its hands of potential environmental liabilities tied to the waterfront property.
“We get out of harm’s way on the environmental issues. That’s huge for us,” said Howard Zemsky, the NFTA’s chairman and Cuomo’s go-to man on economic development in the Buffalo Niagara region. “We’re very excited about the prospect of getting out of the land development business.”
A little history: The NFTA picked up the land in the 1950s when its predecessor agency thought it would need to expand the busy Port of Buffalo. Then the St. Lawrence Seaway happened, and most of the ships that stopped at the Port of Buffalo kept sailing right on by, leaving the NFTA with land it no longer had any use for.
It’s not the first time the NFTA has tried unloading the waterfront land. An ambitious plan by Uniland Development Co. and Opus East several years ago foundered when the housing market slumped and the cost of environmental cleanup in some areas of the parcels skyrocketed. Another proposal for a state takeover of the boat harbor advanced almost a decade ago by then-Gov. George E. Pataki never materialized.
This time it’s going to happen.
After so many false starts, Cuomo said he understands why folks in the Buffalo Niagara region still might not be convinced.
“I understand the skepticism in Buffalo. I get that there have been a series of false starts and promises that haven’t been kept,” he said. “Canalside is real. Gallagher Beach is real. The 130 acres are real. This is really happening.”
That gives the waterfront something it hasn’t had in a long time – momentum.
“For cities that are on the water, that’s the first thing they develop,” Cuomo said. “You have to be part of it. Believe it. Own it.”
And build on it.
As Higgins said: “Momentum, economically, is only good to you if you can sustain it.”