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Construction, green space, public space: What does development mean on the Outer Harbor?

There is a clash of ideas about what to do with the Outer Harbor.

Some want to see condos and other development.

“I think the entire river, Inner Harbor and Outer Harbor are one massive zone ripe for development,” said Tom Dee, president of the state agency overseeing the waterfront.

Others want to leave the land alone.

“Humans need to figure out how we fit into the natural world, and not insist that it be transformed to our needs,” said Lynda Schneekloth of the WNY Environmental Alliance.

Still others insist on making the waterfront land accessible to all and available as a place for recreation.

“If there are condos, we will have exclusive use for a very small number,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan.

What to do with the Outer Harbor has topped the agenda of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. since the state agency bought the land two years ago from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

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GALLERY: New plans for the Outer Harbor

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The agency fast-tracked a six-month public process to create a master plan for 192 acres – about one-third of the waterfront. The land stretches north of Buffalo Harbor State Park to Times Beach Nature Preserve. The state’s plan offered several amenities the public said it wanted, but the plan was roundly criticized for designating land for up 2,100 condominiums and apartments. Dense housing scored poorly with the hundreds of people who participated in planning exercises.

The plan was shelved after Rep. Brian Higgins, Ryan, Buffalo Common Council members and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper added their voices against the proposed development.

Now, with the absence of a master plan, a void exists.

And there are three different views on what to do – or not to do – with the land.

Hardwired to build

If the State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation owned the Outer Harbor, development would not be an issue.

But development is what the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. is supposed to do. The waterfront agency – a subsidiary of Empire State Development, the state’s development arm – is hardwired for brick-and-mortar development.

“We’re an economic development corporation,” Dee said. “We were put in place to revitalize the Western New York waterfront, and restore economic growth to Buffalo.

That means making sure that what occurs on the Outer Harbor pays for itself, he said.

“Our role is to create jobs, to create a tax base from sales and property taxes, and mix that with the fun things, including park space,” Dee said.

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RELATED: New proposal for Outer Harbor is ‘lighter, quicker and cheaper’

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He points to popular additions at Canalside – from improvements along the wharf to ice skating on the canal – as examples of development that has succeeded.

Dee said he’s listened to concerns of environmentalists and others and believes the Outer Harbor is big enough to meet their needs while serving other purposes. He doesn’t subscribe to the view that the Outer Harbor should be reserved for recreation while development is limited to Canalside. He sees the Outer Harbor as an extension of Canalside, as well as the new housing and attractions popping up on Ohio Street and across the Buffalo River.

Future development will be guided by the Green Code, which the Common Council is expected to pass later this year, he said. At the same time, Dee is quick to say the only development now envisioned on the Outer Harbor is at the Terminals A and B buildings, where development previously occurred, and where the former Freezer Queen building stands.

“While we may have wanted to do housing on Wilkeson Pointe, that was flatly rejected, and we accept that,” Dee said.

Instead, the agency is taking another tack: promoting incremental growth. That includes bike paths and activities at Wilkeson Pointe, the 21-acre park the agency created at a former brownfield. More features, including a mountain bike trail and improvements to the Michigan Pier, are expected next year.

Dee said more remains to be done to make the Outer Harbor an appealing destination.

“As a development agency, we would never invite anybody from out of town to go visit there,” Dee said. “We would be the laughingstock.”

Preserving nature

Nature experts consider the lakefront – especially the city-owned, 54-acre Times Beach Nature Preserve – the western gateway to the Niagara River Corridor, an internationally recognized area with significant bird and wildlife activity. Established in 1996, the area is a destination for migrating birds, some coming from as far away as Alaska, the Yukon and the Amazon.

The plan that the public rejected would have put a cluster of housing on land just east of Times Beach. The waterfront agency said a study showed the preserve wouldn’t be harmed. Environmentalists disagreed.

Experts deem what’s beneath the water just as important. Some of the largest recorded muskellunge, a fish that spawns in the Bell Slip; walleyes; and sturgeon have been caught at the mouth of the Niagara River.

It’s a significant ecosystem, considering the lakefront land exists atop a mostly hazardous waste disposal site. The land was created from industrial fill produced at steel plants, and then dumped west of Fuhrmann Boulevard between Times Beach and Lackawanna. Foundry sands, incinerator ash and other toxic substances were also deposited on what was once seashore and coastal swamps.

Significant remediation at the Outer Harbor has occurred over the years, but more could be needed for residential or other development. That includes a 1-acre former Superfund site, near Terminals A and B on the southern end of the land.

It’s that southern end, in existing buildings, where environmental groups agree that housing and other development can occur – but only there.

OUR Outer Harbor, a newly formed coalition, wants the land designated as parkland to keep it off-limits to development.

“We are a strong proponent of smart growth,” said Joanne Kahn, who also heads the 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor. “We have so many empty housing and empty lots in the city that already have infrastructure.

“We also view a park as economic development, since it’s the kind of thing that will attract young people to our city.”

There is a need to protect natural systems like the Outer Harbor, in light of rapid climate change, said Schneekloth, of WNY Environmental Alliance.

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, would like to see the waterfront agency and concerned groups meet to discuss the Outer Harbor’s future.

“I really think it’s time that we stop approaching this as the economy versus the environment,” Jedlicka said. “That mindset was decades ago for other communities.

“We also have to move beyond the ‘us versus them’ mentality. We shouldn’t be afraid of having different opinions. That’s the democratic process, and democracy is messy sometimes. But most times, you come out with a better project in the end.”

Public access

For Tim Tielman, progress won’t be possible until it is agreed the Outer Harbor is a recreational complement to Canalside, where the new development would occur.

“As long as the artificial notion exists that they are two separate units, then you are going to see continual conflict,” Tielman said.

Tielman, a preservationist who designed Larkin Square, introduced a plan this week that links amenities every 1,000 feet or so on the Outer Harbor. His plan adheres to the “lighter, cheaper, quicker” approach used to jumpstart Canalside development.

Congressman Higgins, who has long championed development of the waterfront, said he has grown frustrated by what he sees as slow progress on the Outer Harbor.

That’s why he supports Tielman’s plan.

“Sean (Ryan) and I took a public position aggressively against ECHDC’s plan to build up to 2,100 new homes directly adjacent to Wilkeson Pointe because there was no public support for it,” Higgins said.

“Officials from Erie Canal Harbor said it was an open plan, it was fluid, but it wasn’t fluid,” Higgins said. “They were proposing that as a completed plan. That was not a good use of that property out there. This is.”

Higgins has changed positions in the past concerning development on the waterfront, and he supports the Freezer Queen tower. But Higgins said his thinking has evolved, and he favors the “lighter, cheaper, quicker” as both a short- and long-term strategy.

So does Ryan, the assemblyman.

“It was crystal clear what the community wanted – they wanted open space, they wanted green space, they wanted activities,” Ryan said about the public’s involvement in developing an Outer Harbor plan in 2014. “They weren’t looking for privately owned infrastructure out there.”

Ryan said he wants to see development replace surface parking lots around Canalside, but that may not happen if the Outer Harbor attracts developers.

“I view the Outer Harbor and its green attributes as downtown’s backyard,” Ryan said. “People of any wealth can enjoy it. You don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy a hot dog, but wealthy people enjoy hot dogs.”

There have been drastically different opinions about what should happen on the waterfront – think Bass Pro – and Ryan said that’s still the case.

“We still haven’t synced up the public’s theory of what it wants and the leaders’ theory of what they want,” Ryan said. “A lot of that goes to what is economic development.

“We believe green space creates economic development. But there are other voices who think it is only economic development if you put up a five-story building.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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