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Envisioning a waterfront free of NFTA

Now comes the hard part.

The NFTA finally is loosening its death grip on our waterfront. The people who run our buses and trains have come to their senses. They want out of the waterfront development business. It is not a moment too soon, and 50 years too late.

Regrets aside, a For Sale sign soon will be placed on a 60-acre waterfront swatch that includes the Small Boat Harbor. It is a sizable chunk of the stretch of scrub brush and warehouses south of downtown. A mostly blank canvas is ready for paint and a brush.

The NFTA getting out "is a step in the right direction," said Brian Higgins, our waterfront-centric congressman.

Before we take the next step with our communal front yard, I think we need a better idea of where we are going. I hope that history is no guide. When it comes to what's-next planning, our track record is abysmal.

We still are decompressing from the failed nine-year pursuit of Bass Pro. The top-down plan for a big-box retailer as the downtown waterfront anchor was flawed from the start. But it seemed at the time as good as any other idea, because we did not have any other idea.

The last time the NFTA took a stab at waterfront development, we got the 2005 Opus/Uniland mega-plan that included everything but a kitchen sink -- without a single dollar to pay for any of it. We do not want to return to that magic-bullet drawing board.

We have learned the hard way: You need a good process to end up with a good product.

Having seen its big-box dream fizzle on the downtown waterfront, the Erie Canal Harbor board -- lacking a Plan B -- followed activist/entrepreneur Mark Goldman's lead. It hired Fred Kent of the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces to shape a citizen-driven "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" plan for step-by-step development. It marked a milestone break from the big-project, little-public-input model that has largely led us nowhere.

I think the outer harbor needs a similar guiding hand. Whether we call in the Urban Land Institute, or bring in planners with experience on urban waterfronts, we need a common-sense road map -- drawn with public input.

"The people who have been making these decisions are out of their element [with] waterfront development," said George Grasser. "Nobody who works for the NFTA or any [public] agency is set up to do this. We need planning experts, and a process that involves the public."

In other words: Stop us before we blunder again.

Grasser heads the urban-planning Partners for a Livable WNY. When in Fort Myers recently, he saw the HOK Group -- which built our downtown baseball stadium and does waterfront planning -- lead a weeklong public session on downtown redevelopment. Ideas were embraced or discarded -- with explanations -- by planners in sketching a blueprint.

"There was more public input in a few days than I have ever seen in Buffalo," Grasser said.

What we don't want: The NFTA selling its fixer-upper property at a bargain-basement price to a land speculator who will sit on it for years, waiting for the value to inflate. Look no farther than the vast Howard Milstein-controlled stretch of prairie near Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls to see the cost of such inertia.

Grasser laid out basic waterfront guidelines: Multiple developers, each taking a piece, with public access to the waterfront on every parcel.

"It's too big of a job for one developer," said Grasser. "You have to spread the risk and start with a variety of smaller things to attract people and create demand."

Sounds like a plan. And a process.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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