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Latest proposal for the Outer Harbor should at least spark renewed effort

Buffalo’s best known preservationist, an expert on urban development, has proposed a development plan for the Outer Harbor that could break the logjam that has hindered progress there for years.

Tim Tielman’s plan picks up the model that succeeded at Canalside – lighter, quicker, cheaper – and transfers it to the Outer Harbor. His proposal includes several relatively inexpensive but attractive installations that would make the Outer Harbor a destination as early as next summer. Given the plan’s low cost – $5 million – and the fact that the money is already available, there can be little reason not to take it seriously.

The plan that Tielman produced includes several appealing aspects. All are “light” – that is, they require little infrastructure and demand no permanent commitments. If better ideas come along down the road, these elements won’t automatically block them; indeed, we should be in the business of looking for better ideas, debating them and making decisions.

In the meantime, this plan can be implemented quickly. That hasn’t often been the case in Buffalo, but it was at Canalside, once the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach was adopted. It’s been an overwhelming success and, in that, it would be peculiar not to replicate it on the Outer Harbor.

Buffalo’s waterfront is its calling card. Yes, the city’s architecture is critical to its success and so are its Olmsted parks. But the waterfront defined Buffalo before anything else did. It is the constant, and for decades it was squandered.

With the Inner Harbor area well on its way to becoming a sustainable, attractive urban district, it’s past time to move on the Outer Harbor. There have been efforts in recent years, including proposals for significant residential development and a formal performance space, but they ran into a buzz saw of objections.

In the past, Buffalonians might have been tolerant of inaction because it was second nature in a squabbling and litigious city. Today, they have reason to be impatient with delay because they have seen what action looks like: at the RiverBend project, where the hemisphere’s largest solar panel plant is nearing completion; at HarborCenter, where the Pegulas built twin hockey rinks and a hotel in record time; and at Canalside, a once desolate area that now draws locals and tourists by the tens of thousands.

That’s just one of the reasons why this project should move along, producing results by next year as Tielman proposes and as two of Buffalo’s government leaders agree is easily achievable. Rep. Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan lent their support as Tielman presented his plan to The Buffalo News editorial board. They agreed that plan is attractive, readily doable and affordable now.

The plan includes several components, including:

• Two ferries operating between Canalside and the Outer Harbor. The goal is to eliminate wait times.

• A tent at the ferry docking area providing a gathering place that would include an outdoor bar/cafe.

• A seasonal store selling items such as ice cream, soda, sunglasses and beach toys. Signage would be large enough to be seen from Canalside and the Skyway.

• A deli or chicken barbecue stand, providing not just food but another gathering and socializing place.

• A shaded colonnade overlooking the lake.

• Two-seater lifeguard chairs allowing people to look out over the breakwater to the open lake. The chairs would provide views of the sunset over Lake Erie.

The spacing of the features is based on research into human behavior, Tielman said, including what causes people to stop and how far they are willing to walk.

The plan provides a new and enticing starting point for developing the Outer Harbor with a light touch. There is room for discussion and revision – there always is – but what shouldn’t happen is unnecessary delay. Enhancements deserve to be implemented in some form by next summer.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which is responsible for this area, was not part of the development of this plan, but its leaders should look upon it not only as a great start at making the Outer Harbor user-friendly, but as a favor that allows them to do on the Outer Harbor what it has already done so well at Canalside: give Buffalonians something they want at a price they can afford.

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