Many people who came to learn about the suggested plan for the outer harbor this week were happy to hear about open spaces, greater access to the lake’s shoreline, preserved woodlands and wildlife corridors, along with family-friendly attractions that included a waterfront promenade, an amphitheater and a “destination playground.”
Those features also had proven to be popular at earlier public meetings held in July and August.
However, many of the more than 300 in attendance Tuesday night in the WNED Studios balked at the idea of creating “dense neighborhoods” on the outer harbor. The plan showed three housing clusters and cultural and family entertainment zones spread over the former industrial site, which stretches from Times Beach to the north to Terminal A and B to the south, even though such development had ranked low on the public’s wish list.
“If just 7 percent of the people who have responded have said they wanted residential, then why is residential such a huge component of the plan we’re seeing, especially near Wilkeson Point and leading into the lighthouse, where the water is the main element?” wondered Deborah Lynn Williams, who has attended several past meetings.
Perkins + Will, a global company managing the Buffalo project from its San Francisco office, said it included the housing because it would help make the planned park economically sustainable. The nine-member Waterfront Development Advisory Committee, selected by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, has made coming up with ways to pay for construction, operation and maintenance of the park a priority. Mixing open space with some development also has been the goal of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the waterfront agency that took ownership of the land from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in February.
“They didn’t tell us how, but as urban designers, one of the things we know that works well to activate places and create a sense of ownership is a neighborhood where people live,” said Noah Friedman, an urban planner with Perkins + Will. “Our economic consultants at first didn’t think housing would make sense there, but they looked at the numbers and believed it did make sense because it’s on a prime waterfront site. And also, Buffalo is changing.”
Friedman said a dense neighborhood also is a way to bring vitality and a greater commitment to the area. “What we’re looking at are three three- to five-story buildings, and each one of the clusters is roughly 500 and 700 units,” he said. “It’s basically the same density you would find in Allentown or Elmwood Village.” He noted the buildings would conform to Buffalo Green Code regulations expected to be approved in the coming months by the Common Council.
The final amount of housing needed to support the park’s usage, he stressed, is still being determined.
But some in attendance said they didn’t understand why pricey development was needed when the public has shown it most values access to the water and open space. They also said the sheer amount of housing and other development was out of scale with what the public showed it wanted in August, when it was asked to choose between alternate plans.
“We don’t need all of these supposed destinations. The outer harbor is evolving, and it will become what it will be, just like Canalside did. This is an abomination,” Suzanne Sack said.
Others, like Jude Kawczynski and fiancée Elaine Struecel, were among those excited by the many ways the plan calls for igniting activity on the outer harbor. The couple frequently bikes around the outer harbor.
“We’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen,” Kawczynski said. “We’ve been to all the different meetings they’ve held, and it would just be great to see things happen quicker than later, and it seems that’s the plan. We weren’t real keen on housing, but if that needs to be an integral part, it needs to be there for all incomes of housing.”
He added: “I was extremely excited that there wasn’t a stadium as part of the plan.”
The preferred draft plan calls for designating the northern part of the site the Ship Canal District, with housing across Fuhrmann Boulevard from Times Beach and the Buffalo Lighthouse on land owned by the New York Power Authority.
Just to the south would be the Cultural District, another “mixed-use neighborhood” that would include housing and a museum or other attraction.
The Great Lakes Park would offer a wide array of open space and woodlands extending to the Bell Slip, while at the southern edge of the park would be the Heritage + Loft District, focused on culture and entertainment, as well as housing and use of the Terminal A and B buildings.
A bridge between the inner and outer harbors – long championed by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – that includes a light rail extension and passage by pedestrians and bicyclists was also recommended. So was the creation of a sandy beach, sculpture park and terraced steps along the water’s edge for easier access.
“We think this is a world-class waterfront that will reconnect the City of Buffalo with the lake in a way that it hasn’t in generations,” Friedman said.
After an 85-minute presentation, public comment was solicited through the placement of Post-It notes on large park maps, as has been done in the past. After reviewing and making any last-minute changes to the draft preferred plan, Perkins + Will expects to present a final plan in October.
Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said she is taking a wait-and-see approach as the process unwinds, but noted some pluses and minuses so far.
“There are a lot of exciting elements and interesting components, with an emphasis on the Great Lakes and ecology and open space and quality of life,” Jedlicka said.
“I think the challenge moving forward is that we don’t want to develop another downtown on the outer harbor, and what we’re seeing looks like that could happen. We expected some form of development, but I think what we were hoping for and looking for was to focus the development in existing footprints where there is already infrastructure like Terminal A and B. We were surprised with the density and the amount of development and proposed housing out there.”
Jay Burney, chairman of Friends of Times Beach, took a dim view of what is being proposed.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors. The reality of this project is the first phase of development is development around Times Beach, and that is not acceptable,” Burney said.
Dana Furman-Saylor applauded Perkins + Will’s work, but felt more needed to be done about the amount of housing being called for, and where it’s to be placed.
“I think they’re a good firm that has been paying attention to the public, but I think Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. needs to pay attention to what the public has to say about this, and figure out some alternative forms of financing,” as a way to reduce the amount of housing perceived as necessary, she said.
But Friedman of Perkins + Will said the group that’s been participating in the public meetings is not representative of the city as a whole. “When we visit workshops, and we ask people to tell us what uses they thought were appropriate at the outer harbor, we did not say we would absolutely stick to that and make that the plan. We needed input from the community, because other processes have left out the community completely,” he said.
“When I was looking out, I was wondering where the other folks are that I see on the street. The demographics were generally older and whiter than most of Buffalo, so as urban designers and planners, it’s our responsibility to understand we are designing for all of Buffalo.”