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Redrawn blueprint for Outer Harbor corrects flaws in last year’s proposal

A year after plans to develop the Outer Harbor ran into a wall of opposition, a new vision has emerged.

The plan unveiled Wednesday by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. bears little resemblance to last year’s ambitious draft plan.

Instead of antagonizing the environmental community, some politicians and others by including housing clusters, a cultural district, a sculpture park, an amphitheater and other development, the new plan offers much more of a blank canvas on which to draw as needs evolve. The lesson here is don’t be afraid to erase and redraw as necessary.

This new approach has won the approval of some of those who raised objections to the earlier, development-centered proposal.

Last year’s plan by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. proposed a use for virtually all of the Outer Harbor. This time officials partnered with city officials and took into consideration the city’s draft Green Code. The Green Code, expected to go to the Common Council next month, will update city zoning codes.

Rather than have planning for such an important piece of property take place in a silo, officials are making it part of a broader process of comprehensive city planning that will provide ample public input.

State officials will spend $5 million from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion to push this “lighter, quicker, cheaper” process for near-term enhancements at the Outer Harbor that will build on what is already there.

It means extending bike trails and adding a number of features. The plan would remediate the Seaway Pier, south of Wilkeson Pointe, allowing space for a workout area, a beach, space for games and a beer garden. A visitor center and two overlooks would go in at the Bell Slip. An osprey viewing platform would be built at Times Beach.

Creating a system that helps transport people around the Outer Harbor is another welcome feature. A seasonal trolley line, similar to the one at the state park in Niagara Falls, will carry visitors up and down Fuhrmann Boulevard.

This amenity builds on the success of the Queen City Bike Ferry, which more than 50,000 people used after its midsummer opening. Walking from the ferry landing to the Buffalo Lighthouse is a fairly short walk, but reaching the state park involves a hike.

The only piece of large-scale development would be the area around Terminals A and B, two large, vacant structures at the southern end that will soon be owned by the corporation. That space, at the southern end of the Outer Harbor, could have apartments or condominiums, commercial, office, retail and light manufacturing.

It makes sense to follow the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” philosophy that is transforming Canalside. At the Outer Harbor, that means improving public access and adding a few features, and seeing where that leads.

The desire of state officials to continue to build on the success at Canalside is shared by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. He called on the ECHDC to capitalize on the waterfront’s popularity and use money from the 2005 New York Power Authority relicensing agreement to pay for development of the top floor of the former Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Terminal, at the foot of Main Street, and improved access on Kelly Island. Pedestrian and bike improvements are also needed on the Michigan Avenue bridge, he said.

Improving Buffalo’s waterfront requires cooperation among local, state and federal officials. That and resources – NYPA funds, city money and the Buffalo Billion – will transform the Outer Harbor.

The newest blueprint for the Outer Harbor is a conscious effort by the ECHDC to correct flaws in last year’s plan. Officials deserve credit for recognizing that their original proposal was not a success, and why. The streamlined plan provides a base on which to enhance the city’s lakefront playground.