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Waterfront is no place for city hall

I wake up screaming.

It is the nightmare scenario: Waterfront rights shift from the transportation agency that did nothing for six decades to a City Hall whose unofficial motto is Inertia 'R Us.

Byron Brown is pushing for the city to take over control of the prime waterfront acres south of downtown. This is a fine idea, if we want another six decades of scrub brush. Sorry to say, but City Hall -- from administration to administration -- has exhibited the long-range perspective of a fruit fly.

I don't mean to be mean. But whatever power and patronage grab Byron Brown is trying to pull off, it is clearly for his benefit, not ours. Virtually nothing in the mayor's track record suggests he has the resources or sensibility to make anything other than a mess of this. It would be like handing a 500-pound barbell to the skinniest guy on the beach. We know he can't lift it. And, frankly, we don't want to waste time watching him try.

The mayor's power grab forces me to dredge up some unpleasant history.

The city can't keep the weeds trimmed on its vacant lots, much less run a waterfront. The mayor was laid out by former political ally -- and ex-City Hall official -- Karla Thomas last year for rampant dysfunction inside the building. Under Brown and predecessor Tony Masiello, City Hall was blistered by HUD for squandering -- on red tape and patronage -- tens of millions of lifeline dollars sent from Washington. The mayor's lone attempt at an anti-poverty plan in America's third-poorest city was an embarrassing rehash.

It gets worse.

Brown's administration last year threatened to prosecute enterprising folks who -- fed up with City Hall's inaction -- replaced weed-strewn vacant lots with community gardens. City Hall failed for years to reform a Byzantine permits-and-inspections process that discourages the new business that Buffalo desperately needs (although it is, thankfully, backing an activist-led zoning-reform effort). The mayor's insistence, to get waterfront-specific, on getting a piece of the action prevented a long-needed restaurant from opening last summer at Erie Canal Harbor. Brown & Co. -- since today's topic is vision -- remain clueless about preserving and protecting Buffalo's resource of grand old buildings.

And that, sadly, is just the short list.

The city handed over its rights to the waterfront property seven years ago. On the piece it kept, the parking lot at the doorstep of First Niagara Center, it seems poised to let the Sabres plop a practice ice rink -- thus sacrificing a city block to a use that is not waterfront-dependent. In fact, it would be a barrier instead of a bridge. Subtraction by addition.

City Hall has not put a dime, aside from infrastructure, into anything that happened in recent years on the waterfront. And, frankly, it has no change to spare.

So why would any sane community put its long-stagnant waterfront in these shaky hands?

Yes, the question is rhetorical.

The city does a decent job of plowing the streets and collecting the garbage. But day-to-day services is about as far as the "vision" extends.

And what happens when Brown leaves?

It would be ludicrous to doom the waterfront to changing administrations and shifting Common Councils, each with its own idea of what to do. It is not a formula for development, but disaster.

Unless your last name is Van Winkle, it matters.

The obvious move is to let Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. take over. It was created seven years ago as a locally run state agency to end the waterfront's distant Albany rule.

If anyone should be wary of endorsing ECHDC, it is me. Its fixation on a waterfront Bass Pro megastore set us back years. It screwed up the signage at the historic Commercial Slip. There still is no replica canal-era building or even a packet boat to bring the site's history alive.

But the Canal Harbor board's cast has changed. Its embrace of the community-driven "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" plan is nice to see. The way it runs the downtown waterfront -- from Central Wharf concerts to daily attractions -- suggests it has changed its silver-bullet ways.

Beyond that, the Canal Harbor board is pipelined to Congressman Brian Higgins, who has earned his waterfront stripes. That extends from taking on the NFTA, to pounding out a $279 million, waterfront-funding Power Authority settlement -- when virtually every scared-sheep official bleated that we had to settle for less.

We have suffered long enough. Hand the wheel to the Canal Harbor board. It is time to start dreaming on the waterfront -- not to prolong the nightmare.