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PUBLIC ENTHUSIASTIC ON PLAN TO REDEVELOP INNER HARBOR

Plans for Buffalo's Inner Harbor redevelopment drew a warm response from about 220 participants in a Waterfront School public hearing Monday, but designers may have gotten a little more than they anticipated.

While work on the basic harbor plan drew applause, Buffalo's civic enthusiasts weren't shy about adding some suggested embellishments -- from a return of yesteryear's street cars and steamships to a space needle rivaling Toronto's CNN Tower.

Planners and city officials welcomed the enthusiasm and promised to take all the ideas into consideration as they seek to come up with a "preferred alternative" for the $24 million project scheduled to break ground next year.

"We want to build first rate; we want to build quality," Mayor Masiello said at the onset of the meeting.

"We have a golden opportunity to do it right, to put Buffalo on the map, to give future generations something to be proud of," he added, describing his hopes for an effort that will continue the momentum of the Marine Midland Arena and Buffalo Niagara International Airport projects.

Planners for the harbor project spearheaded by the Empire State Development Corp. outlined three harbor options, all providing public plaza space on the Niagara River shoreline near the foot of Main Street and including a relocated Naval Park museum and a new "Maritime Center" for visitors.

Two of the options highlight the region's unique heritage as a terminus of the historic Erie Canal, by recreating part of one of the waterfront slips that connected canal and harbor.

Elements were drawn from a long series of workshops with groups and businesses using the harbor area or interested in locating there in the future, according to the Jambhekar Strauss/Flynn Battaglia architectural design team.

"We've had a very active program of community and stakeholder involvement," said Ernest Hutton.

The team incorporated suggestions into its options, local architect Peter Flynn added.

Planners learned that "bringing open space to the waterfront was important" to the community, he said. History and heritage were stressed by groups, as was a need for space for small-scale local businesses and winter-weather uses.

"It was important that we add to, and not compete with, downtown," he added. "And we should make it unique."

The options seek to create a magnet for visitors, a public space that would "add value" to surrounding developments from the arena to the Erie Basin Marina area and such proposed developments as the Aud site and Cobblestone District. But the plans also include space for proposed projects by commercial developers as well.

Concerns expressed by participants, in an hourlong discussion following the presentation, ranged from parking to water-level access for canoes and "personal watercraft" like jet skis.

Developers promised full handicapped access to the site's planned walkways and esplanades and heard debates over whether museum warships should be part of the project or relocated elsewhere on the waterfront.

Retired Buffalo teacher John Szczepanick urged planners to consider returning some of the area's stored stock of street cars to service, to augment Metro Rail schedules.

"You'd have service every five minutes," he said. "We've got them -- other cities use them, and they become a tourist attraction in themselves."

Without easy transportation links, he warned, "it's a separate entity, another separate entity. We need to put it together (with downtown), and make it work together."

"I think a boat ride from Woodlawn Beach to downtown Buffalo would be a good thing, and a tourist attraction too," added Blasdell village trustee George Lee.

Tom Grasso of Rochester, president of the Canal Society of New York State, applauded the idea of redigging the old Commercial Slip. When planners suggested recreating it next to its original site, to avoid having to move a cavernous storm drain built down the middle of the filled-in canal, he added that "doing it the right way would be going right where the Commercial Slip was."

Harvey Holzworth, long active in many waterfront organizations, advocated reuse of Memorial Auditorium as a major transportation museum augmented with other displays ranging from archaeology to a children's museum. Floyd Baker of the Canadiana Preservation Society said the old Crystal Beach Boat should be part of the project and called on the state to restore funding for dry-dock repairs on the vessel.

Most of the suggestions were beyond the task assigned the planning team, which is concentrating on a triangle of land between Main Street, the Aud and Erie Street. The project budget, for example, won't allow a world-class tower -- but the team would be willing to at least listen to a developer who might want to build one.

And the designers added at least one far-out idea of their own, after discussing ways wind sculptures and building designs might help the project celebrate winter instead of just enduring it.

If the Buffalo Zoo does relocate to a nearby waterfront location, Flynn said with a smile, "we've looked at ways we could perhaps get the polar bears down here in winter -- that would be a huge draw!"

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