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It is now the people's waterfront

It is the people's waterfront now. It took too long for it to happen. But now, for the first time in a long time, people -- you, me, anybody else who shows up -- will shape what happens on our downtown waterfront and beyond.

No more magic bullets. No more megabox retail projects whose life depended on massive transfusions of taxpayer dollars. No more mammoth parking structures built in anticipation of crowds, not in reaction to them. No more using tax dollars to gamble on the success of a retail anchor. No more top-down, we-know-best grand plans, brought to you by community power brokers and backed by marching-in-lockstep politicians, with taxpayers putting up big money in return for little say. Goodbye and good riddance.

The midsummer demise of the nine-year tease of Bass Pro left the Erie Canal Harbor board without a motive or a mission. It seemed, against all logic, poised to forge ahead with a heavy-infrastructure plan even without a retail anchor. The void in vision was -- fortunately -- filled by progressives, preservationists and other concerned citizens who had longed for a community-shaped, smaller-development way.

Entrepreneur/academic Mark Goldman sparked the turnaround last November, bringing in Fred Kent and the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. Kent's "Lighter, Faster, Cheaper" waterfront concept, largely guided by citizen input, became the model for the New Plan. It was the polar extreme from the top-down, build-it-and-hope-they-come mammoth development we previously endured. It was as welcome as a cool lake breeze in summer.

"Creating a place where people want to come, because of the uses and activity there, is more important than the design," said Kent, in direct contradiction to the Canal Harbor board's previous philosophy. "The design can come later."

The breeze is now hitting us full in the face. Kent on Tuesday led a workshop in South Buffalo -- one of three this week -- to start shaping the inner/outer harbor plan. A few dozen interested folks -- after paying a site visit -- layered idea upon idea for a near-barren stretch of the Buffalo River. What is now debris-choked riverbank may morph into a park with docks, benches, playground, food stands and a giant climb-on Barcalounger, a nod to the nearby factory where the leisure chair was invented.

It is just a small piece of a bigger picture. But it marks a bottom-up, citizen-driven process that has been sorely lacking in waterfront development.

"It's great to have this community input from the get-go," said Tucker Curtin, whose Dug's Dive restaurant is a summertime waterfront destination, "rather than have designers decide what we get."

Among the dozens gathered Tuesday in the First Ward Community Center was Tom Dee, the Canal Harbor president who in 2009 infamously said of the Bass Pro plan: "If you're for Buffalo, you're for this project."

Suffice to say that the situation -- and the people involved -- have changed. Thankfully.

I know that many people lament the long lack of waterfront progress. The upside is we did not make a mammoth mess. Unlike most cities, we have vast stretches of open waterfront land -- a blank canvas -- within sight of downtown.

"The best thing about all of this," said Kent, walking Tuesday on the South Buffalo riverfront, "is you haven't ruined it. And that's a big deal."

Coming to Erie Canal Harbor this summer is (finally!) a restaurant, a takeout food stand, some 300 events, a promise of better historical signage and a football field's worth of new public waterfront space.

Lighter, quicker, cheaper. Sounds like a plan.


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