Joanie Kahn stood at Wilkeson Pointe on Friday morning, lake breeze in her hair and new waterfront park at her feet.
The waterfront activist pointed to an adjacent field, site of a proposed condo development.
“All they want is for this park to be the landscaping for a condo tower,” she said of state waterfront development officials.
It may be what “they” want, but it’s apparently not what they’re going to get. Events just moments earlier Friday eased Kahn’s concerns and erased – likely permanently – the state’s flawed and myopic vision for condo villages on the Outer Harbor.
Rep. Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan minutes earlier had stood together at nearby Gallagher Beach and, with one voice, proclaimed: No Way. It was a stunning slapdown of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. board’s preferred waterfront plan, which would sacrifice chunks of the Outer Harbor for condominiums.
Higgins and Ryan, in a political mutiny of sorts, broke ranks with fellow Democrats on the Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo-controlled Erie Canal Harbor board. It was a politics-be-damned rejection of the kind you don’t see often around here. An in-your-face imprint necessitated by the enormous value of what’s at stake. The vast waterfront acreage has been neglected for a half-century. Its future use – despite encouraging steps in recent years – still is largely unshaped.
“What happens in the next 24 months will define Buffalo for the next 100 years,” Higgins said. “We need to enhance the waterfront with parks and public places for people in this community.”
Higgins has been the driving force on waterfront development for more than a decade. His words carry huge weight. Ryan is a frequent Cuomo loyalist who, this time, broke ranks. Their joint put-down of the state’s preliminary preferred plan is likely a deal-breaker on the Erie Canal Harbor board’s desire for eventual commercial development of Outer Harbor green space.
“The state’s plan does not have broad public support,” Ryan said, “and would not create the Outer Harbor that (the community) has wanted for 50 years.”
By stepping up, Higgins and Ryan stand behind public consensus and the process that led to it. The prime waterfront preference voiced in a handful of recently mandated public meetings was for parks, picnicking, walking, jogging, biking, boating and other open-to-all uses – not for commercial development.
Instead, the preferred plan from the Erie Canal Harbor board – led by Cuomo appointees Robert Gioia and Sam Hoyt – included as many as 2,100 condo units. Although the plan preserved some green space, it clearly wasn’t what people asked for.
The state-preferred plan reeked of the old-school, top-down decision making that has afflicted this community for decades. I had thought – or hoped – that the Old Buffalo sensibility had been buried in recent years. Saving history at Canalside and the demise of the heavily subsidized Bass Pro proposal, replaced by the community-shaped ‘Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper’ development sensibility, presumably set a new template for public-space reuse. Either Erie Canal Harbor board members have short memories, or they’re following misguided marching orders.
“The community has consistently said for decades it wants public space on the Outer Harbor,” said Jill Jedlicka of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. “That’s why this plan was so disappointing.”
As Ryan and Higgins noted, there is plenty of room for commercial development on the Outer Harbor. Two enormous warehouses, Terminals A and B, are the cumulative size of several football fields. There is room in and around the NFTA-controlled terminals for everything from condos to aircraft manufacturing, if Boeing gets the notion to relocate. In any event, that’s where development should go.
“Buffalo doesn’t need another city at the Outer Harbor,” Higgins said. “There is plenty of room for development in these existing structures.”
The Outer Harbor’s eddies, slips and green spaces are no place for the equivalent of a second downtown. Particularly since the downtown we have still is struggling to its feet. Ryan and Higgins joined several activist groups in backing an alternative, pro-green space plan from Riverkeeper, the environmental group.
“We were very disappointed in the state’s plan,” said Kahn, of the 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor group. “Especially considering what the public said at the meetings.”
Higgins and Ryan will likely feel political blowback from the governor for breaking ranks. Call it the price of public service. But what happens on our waterfront matters more than political alliances, campaign-season photo ops or bruised feelings. It’s nice to see elected officials put people first. It’s the sort of larger-vision leadership we need more of.
In fairness, the state’s preferred plan, drawn by consultants Perkins + Will, preserves a fair amount of green space and makes other nods to public sentiment. But state officials clearly wanted the condo clusters as part of the plan. The attempted force-feeding wasn’t digestible – not to the public, not to Higgins and Ryan.
On the Outer Harbor, what people have said for a half-century apparently still needs repeating: Parks, pathways, playgrounds, boat slips and green space IS the plan. Not an accessory.