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Another Voice: We must maintain momentum on the Outer Harbor

By Brian Higgins

In spring 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans for a new state park on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. Unlike other state parks, Buffalo’s would have no parking or entry fees. I was proud to join the governor at this announcement. The state park has been a success with additional improvements under construction and new docking facilities coming later this fall.

Before the governor’s intervention, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. (ECHDC) had planned to allow the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to retain land at the Outer Harbor – land that the NFTA held and squandered for 60 years. Thankfully, the governor forced the ECHDC to change course.

The governor’s action followed the ECHDC commissioning an out-of-town consultant to develop Outer Harbor plans. It proposed dense housing near Times Beach Nature Preserve and Wilkeson Point, both popular natural destinations. It also proposed a museum district south of the Seaway Piers.

As this proposal’s residential component would clearly have obliterated Wilkeson Point and degraded Times Beach, because of our region’s robust existing cultural resources, including the Buffalo History Museum, Burchfield Penney Art Center and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, it was clear that little support existed for this plan.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan and I were opposed, recommending instead that such development be limited to the former Freezer Queen and vacant NFTA terminal buildings. Today, remedial work is underway at the Freezer Queen property and the terminal buildings are envisioned for residential and commercial mixed use in the tradition of Chicago’s Navy Pier. In total, about 370 acres of Outer Harbor land will be designated as open space and parkland, and about 40 acres will be designated for residential and mixed-use development. Community pressure forced the ECHDC to make a better choice.

Buffalo doesn’t need another consulting report; we need to move on and build. Fortunately, the local community can do better. Proposals from historic preservationist Tim Tielman and the Olmsted-inspired 21st Century Park proposed by Joan Bozer and Joanne Kahn are two sets of ideas meriting serious consideration. With robust public input, these plans can be revised and reconciled toward creating a greater experience for 2017 and beyond.

For three-quarters of a century, Buffalonians were denied waterfront access. Since 2005, things have changed dramatically at Canalside, the Ohio Street and Buffalo River corridor, and the developing Outer Harbor. This is no time to retreat. This type of forward movement remains my commitment to our city, and as I have said clearly from the very beginning: If this does not get done, hold me accountable.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, represents the 26th District in Congress.

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