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Waterfront plan offers tremendous opportunity

For the second Sunday morning in a row, I awoke to my coffee, the newspaper and Donn Esmonde raising his indignant fist in protest of "Quinn and Company" and their plan to desecrate the hallowed ground of the Erie Canal. I generally subscribe to the age-old maxim that columnists "always get the last word" and it's best to avoid fights with them. But I also believe that God hates a coward. Enough is enough.

"Quinn and Company" is actually the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which is a subsidiary of New York State's economic development agency. The governor appointed members to the corporation board two years ago in the hope that local citizens could finally reignite development of the Buffalo waterfront.

After six decades of neglect and inactivity, the governor was rightfully concerned that recent waterfront projects on the boards were also stalled and heading toward failure yet again. The Adelphia tower was dead, the Bass Pro project was stalled, the Opus project on the outer harbor was teetering and even the much-vaunted canal project had not attracted a single private investor. It was obvious that a fresh approach was needed.

The governor recruited seven people to the "public service" of figuring out what was wrong and fixing it. I was honored to be selected and serve along with such fine people as Chairman Tony Gioia, Mayor Byron W. Brown, Rep. Brian Higgins, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and others. It took us about a year and a half, countless meetings and discussions and thousands of volunteer hours, but I think we have come up with an opportunity for Buffalo to make a better future.

And here is the opportunity: Remake downtown as the true retail and business center of the region.

The first step requires the presence of a major destination retailer that will attract millions of people downtown and truly activate the lake and river with water-related activity. Bass Pro's commitment to reconstruct the historic Central Wharf fills the bill.

Step two: Use Bass Pro, one of the hottest and most in-demand retailers in North America, to attract an experienced national mixed-use developer to bring the other national and local stores, apartments, restaurants and hotel that will create a new urban place on currently vacant Main Street. Mission accomplished with Benderson Development, whose ties to the local community are a bonus.

Step three: While the first two steps are under way, build a bridge across the river to connect downtown to the outer harbor. The bridge will serve as the gateway from downtown to the waterfront and lay the groundwork for new neighborhoods and recreational areas along the river and lake. This is potentially a very exciting and transforming event for the City of Buffalo. It should be fairly simple.

Although the corporation's plan for Bass Pro and Canal Side adheres to this step-by-step process, it does not deviate in any material way with the goals and intent of the original Canal District Master Plan. Like the old plan, the new plan retains the historic cobblestone streets and the river walkway and floating pier on the water's edge. The interpretive exhibits along the canal will be built where they were always intended. No building will be built in excess of the pre-established design standards. Although the Aud and the unsightly Donovan State Office Building finally will be torn down, no historic structures will be demolished. Parking structures will be built with historic facades and liner buildings that will disguise their true function, just like their counterparts at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall and Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

There is only one difference between the new plan and the old one. Instead of placing plaques in the ground commemorating the site of the Central Wharf building, the new plan proposes to actually reconstruct the original building in all its glory. That will necessitate shifting the public plaza to the area adjacent to the canal historic artifacts. Given wind, weather and functionality, the new plaza location seems more appropriate anyway.

There is one more difference. The development corporation's plan is not intended to sit on a bookshelf gathering dust with the rest of the plans that have been hatched and discarded over the decades. It is a realistic plan with a dream, a vision and, most importantly, credible people who are willing to invest real money to make it reality. It is anything but "desperate." Unfortunately, this is where "Esmonde and Company" get lost.

They want to fight about where the plaza ought to be, as if there is a substantial difference between the new and old location.

They don't want parking, as if any project could conceivably be successful without it.

They don't want big-box stores, as if reconstructing the Central Wharf is analogous to erecting a single-story cinder-block building in a sea of asphalt.

They think the project costs the public too much, as if leaving the ground vacant for the last 70 years didn't cost us millions upon millions. They ignore the tens of millions of dollars to be generated in sales and property taxes and the economic impact of new jobs.

They don't like the process; we apparently didn't consult with the "right" people or the so-called business leaders who shoot arrows while hiding behind a veil of anonymity and offer nothing but criticism.

And on and on we go. With all due respect to Esmonde and Company, they really are missing the point.

This is our opportunity -- all of ours. Not mine, not Esmonde's, not some well-meaning preservationist's, but the entire community's. It is ours to win or lose. When we announced Bass Pro, we did not announce a fait accompli to the community; we announced an opportunity.

There is plenty of room for good ideas and local input to give this project the highest-quality design. I am sure we can make it something to be proud of. It's time to stop the threats and name-calling and enjoy the peace of a Sunday morning. We are bigger than that and have more important things to accomplish.

Larry Quinn is vice chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

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