I regularly drive along the Buffalo waterfront and walk along Erie Basin, Bird Island Pier and the Riverwalk. The stretch of waterfront I see doesn't look any different today than it did before the Horizons Waterfront Commission came into existence. Count me as one citizen who is pleased with Gov. Pataki's decision to terminate Horizons.
It was a well-intentioned experiment that wasn't too successful and deserves to be ended.
Six years and millions of dollars after its start, the one completed project is a beach in the Town of Evans. Even there, I question Horizons' contribution. Could it have been built without Horizons? Certainly. Would it have been built without Horizons? Possibly.
Other than this, what Horizons has to show are projects on the drawing board, proposals and plans. For all the time and money spent, you would think the commission could at least have accomplished more small projects, such as one suggested at a public meeting I attended. Some sailboard enthusiasts there asked for amenities to be built along the water's edge at the foot of Tifft Street near the Cargill elevator. For a fraction of Horizons' operating budget these past few years, such things could have been built.
The pinnacle of Horizons plans was the concept for a Great Lakes Center at the foot of Main Street. A great concept but not an original one -- it was proposed years ago by Henry Nowak, then a congressman representing Buffalo. The problem came with the interpretation that Horizons and its consultants gave to this idea. Their rendition would reuse the soon-to-be-vacant Memorial Auditorium (a good idea), but it would also dress it up with a man=made lagoon where the Naval Park is now.
Imagine -- lifting a battleship from river mud so we can build a multimillion-dollar tidal pool! This in a community that can barely afford to build one school per decade. The attraction itself would not be all that different from similar places in other cities, with adult admission at around $9.95.
I attended a half-dozen or so of the public meetings that Horizons held, and I don't recall a single time that a member of the audience got up and suggested building a tourist attraction like this. I do recall people requesting, time after time, trails and foot paths along the water's edge with free and convenient parking.
Instead we get plans for a tourist trap that will cost a family of four $50 for an afternoon (if they don't stop at the obligatory cafeteria and gift shop) and one for which they'll have to pay to park. Doesn't sound to me like Horizons was responsive to the voice of the people.
Horizons' full-time staff was headed by Thomas Blanchard who, when he came here from Norfolk, Va., was touted as a "consensus-builder." An alarm should have gone off then. We needed somebody to build foot paths, bike trails, fishing spots, beaches, etc. -- not "consensus." On these items there's already consensus, and anybody from around here knows that. You don't need to give a consultant a single penny to tell you; all you have to do is visit Erie Basin Marina on a summer's evening.
I've met Mr. Blanchard and watched him in action at some public meetings, and he seems to me to be a career bureaucrat good at negotiating and other matters of form but out of synch with the community.
The board of local leaders behind the full-time staff made its share of mistakes, too.
The first problem was importing its "experts" from out of town. What's the matter with local talent? As one who studied at UB's School of Architecture, I share the frustration of many former students and practicing professionals who watch the pernicious policy of local leaders farming out the plum design projects -- Crossroads, Pilot Field, Roswell Park, Horizons waterfront plans -- to out-of-town firms. Most of Horizons' planning was contracted to Saratoga Associates, which had only a token local office.
Second, the board acts pleased with a staff that spent a lot of money and has little to show for it. As a manager in the private sector, I couldn't survive the kind of inaction Horizons has shown.
Local leaders still apparently haven't learned the most important lesson. The top man-made gems of the Western New York waterfront -- Erie Basin Marina, Small Boat Harbor, Riverwalk, Isle View Park and Bird Island Pier -- were all conceived and built without a Horizons Commission.
Horizons was a failure. You don't need Horizons for cooperative regional planning -- just do it. The secret to success is in the right people, not in a bureaucracy. And for the right people, you don't have to go any farther than our own community.
LAWRENCE M. BROOKS is a Buffalo resident and native and works as a construction project manager.
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