Two distinguishing differences between the waterfront development plan the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. rolled out and earlier plans are money, and a lot of urgency.
This plan comes with money in the bank, and with a push from the leadership of a can-do, largely private-sector local team that understands why Buffalo needs development now, not just abstract hopes for the future.
That team linked those key advantages to a new design that features a manageable scale. It also takes a people-friendly approach that sees the harbor first as an amenity for local enjoyment -- more than as a tourist attraction -- and seeks to restore downtown's links to the water. Sounds like a plan. Keep the money coming via the state Power Autority. Get it done.
Beyond the state-funded Erie Canal Harbor project itself, where substantial construction work is now accelerating, the harbor development group envisions a $1.4 billion build-out in three phases. The master plan starts with sealing the Bass Pro development project in the old Aud, then filling in neighborhoods in a 1,200-foot-diameter circle with mixed-use development that will make the Buffalo River waterfront a better place to work, live and play. Then, ultimately, it finds better ways to develop both sides of the river and link the foot-of-Main Street waterfront to outer harbor development.
That master plan -- which will broaden the city's anemic tax base with office and residential buildings, plus about half a million square feet of retail space -- provides a good look at what public investment might do for the city and its waterfront. It adds detail to the $64 million in first-phase taxpayer dollars that not only will gut the Aud for Bass Pro redevelopment, but help reshape the neighborhoods around it. All told, some $212 million in public investment -- including millions from the Niagara Power Project relicensing deal -- is expected to trigger $1.2 billion in private investment. Development interest is already growing in the nearby Cobblestone District.
There are needs: keeping decision-making local will remain essential; maintaining bipartisan backing from state, federal and local officials is key. But a new governor will be elected this fall and the challenge will be to continue the cooperation and preserve the remarkable momentum the harbor panel has built in only five months since it was created. The master plan is a promising start, but it's just a start. Buffalo cannot afford another waterfront plan that does anything but succeed.