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Editorial: City is taking the right steps in reconnecting with its waterfront

Not to get too much into the whole one-hand-clapping thing, but here’s a question: What good is a first-class waterfront if no one can find it?

Admittedly, that’s an overstatement. Buffalo’s waterfront is vastly improved, but still on the road to first class. And with perseverance and a decent sense of direction, visitors can find it. But it’s still too hard. The spaghetti maze of elevated highways, one-way streets and convoluted directions would challenge a Magellan.

It’s been a long-standing problem, but one that didn’t matter so much when there was no reason to visit the waterfront. That’s changed with the creation of Canalside, the opening of HarborCenter, the arrival of the Queen City Bike Ferry, the installation of public art, the overwhelmingly popular Thursday night concerts and other attractions. More than ever, it is in the city’s self-interest to ensure that residents and visitors alike have easy access to what has become Buffalo’s premier gathering place. The good news is that the city is now preparing to do that.

Relying on $10 million provided in the new state budget, the city plans to undertake a project to directly connect its central business district with the waterfront. Construction could begin next year.

Among the ideas are to:

• Guide pedestrians through the Niagara Thruway and Skyway supports along Erie Street and beyond with well-marked and lighted pathways.

• Decorate the new routes with colors and public art to dispel the foreboding image they create. Pedestrian-oriented lighting, generous sidewalks, dedicated cycling lanes and public art would be included.

• Improve the connection between the Erie Community College City Campus to the west side of Main Street and new pathways to the waterfront.

• Revitalize Fireman’s Park and Five Flags Park on Division Street to provide a more direct connection to waterfront routes.

These are strong ideas that arise from the same “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach that has made a rousing success of a once-squandered waterfront. They make good use of existing infrastructure without foreclosing on opportunities that could arise on that sunny someday when the Skyway is torn down.

This has been a chronic problem in Buffalo, also affecting the Outer Harbor, whose approach was similarly bedeviled by convoluted and maddening road systems. Those have largely been straightened out, thanks to the influence of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

The fact is that it will cost money to account for the mistakes of the past. Many cities besides Buffalo sacrificed their waterfronts to industry (though, interestingly, Chicago did not, at least along Lake Michigan). Times and values change, and today Americans seem to agree that spectacular waterfronts such as Buffalo’s should include a prominent public component where reflection and recreation are not only possible, but encouraged.

But you have to be able to get there from here. With the new state funding and creative city planning, Buffalo is fixing that problem, while taking another big step toward becoming, once again, the great city that has always been in its DNA.

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