On an old TV game show, they called it the “Lightning Round” – a portion of the program that moved very fast to produce winners. Get ready for Buffalo’s Lightning Round, as the long-neglected outer harbor meets the short fuse of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Cuomo wants something done – fast – to create progress on the outer harbor, and to achieve that, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has hired a San Francisco company with expertise at planning – with significant public input – projects for cold-climate waterfronts. That company, Perkins+Will, is about to kick off an intensive and creative public process that is expected to lead to a master plan by early fall.
Under Buffalo’s typical development timeline, the pencils wouldn’t even be sharpened by fall, so this counts as something new and hopeful. The process won’t produce change on the waterfront instantly, but if it plays out as hoped, it will do so much more quickly than Western New Yorkers are accustomed to.
That would be a much-welcomed occurrence, although perhaps it would not be too surprising given Cuomo’s intense focus on Western New York and his renowned impatience for results. The evidence of that is all around, from new developments on the Peace Bridge plaza to the multiple economic projects around the region, including the RiverBend clean-energy hub, which has already expanded to call for more than 1,000 jobs instead of the 475 originally forecast.
Key to this movement on the outer harbor was the acquisition of the waterfront land by the Harbor Development Corp. from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, for which the nearly 200-acre site was a legacy from its previous incarnation as a port authority. The NFTA was the wrong owner for that land; it was necessarily focused on transportation rather than waterfront development and under its management, prime waterfront land – perched on one of the Great Lakes, cradled by New York’s second-largest city – languished. For decades.
With that transfer of ownership has come action. Already, a 21-acre park – Wilkeson Pointe – has been constructed where the New York Power Authority used to store the ice boom during warm weather months.
Now, Perkins+Will is about to kick off a three-part public involvement process, with forums July 9, 10 and 12. They are open to anyone and, indeed, the company wants to hear from people who don’t traditionally get to influence these kinds of projects.
Those who take part will be able to offer their own ideas for how to develop the space, which is about one-quarter the size of New York City’s Central Park. They can participate in exercises in which small groups will create their own models using maps and game pieces that represent different ideas. “It’s a way to really get people involved and get people engaged in our process, and not just in a way where it’s a back-and-forth dialogue,” said Noah Friedman, an urban designer with Perkins+Will.
That sounds like a process that combines broad outreach and encouragement, together with a focus that will allow rapid movement. After those three forums, the consulting team will use the results to create a set of options and possibilities that will be presented to the community in early August for comment and feedback. Another month will produce a “preferred plan,” which will be finalized into a master plan by late September – barely three months from now. That’s lightning fast for anywhere, but especially for Buffalo.
This is a project with a different kind of urgency. Lives don’t depend on it. Environmental conditions will be improved, but they’ve waited decades; more delay wouldn’t make a huge difference there.
It’s urgent because Buffalo needs to strike now – to take advantage of, and build upon, the momentum that is already pushing the city toward the better days that the city craves and that are its due.
This is a waterfront city; little will proclaim its re-arrival louder than a solid, workable action plan to turn those forlorn acres into a thriving public asset that will help to support the economic and social life of its residents for years to come.
Sharpen your pencils.