This shouldn't be so difficult. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority owns a swath of outer harbor land that dates to the days when it was a Port Authority. That time is decades past, though, and the NFTA correctly wants to get out of the waterfront business to focus on its core mission of moving people.
Happily, Buffalo has a public agency whose job is to develop the waterfront. It is the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which after an uncertain start is making significant progress at the inner harbor. As an entity not only devoted to waterfront development, but separate from city government and its attendant political machinations, it is the obvious body to take responsibility for development of the outer harbor.
But, of course, it's never that simple. The City of Buffalo says it wants to steer the boat, and a former member of the Common Council, Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, has unnecessarily stuck his oar in the water on the city's behalf.
The problems with this are plain. City Hall is rife with internal politics and, what is more, it has no track record that would suggest its suitability for this task.
Kearns pointed to the city's successful negotiation for the right to develop the Webster Block, but there's no comparison to shepherding the development of a single city block and doing the same for 384 acres of land on a municipal waterfront that could – and should – be spectacular.
No one should object to the idea that the city deserves a role in this project. It is, after all, a huge piece of land within the city limits. Appropriate development could make a huge difference to the city's prospects for economic development and, with that, expanding a tax base that badly needs it. The city clearly has a legitimate and compelling interest in how this project unfolds.
Only the city and the Harbor Development Corp. have applied to the NFTA to purchase the land and direct its development. The question the NFTA must answer is, which entity will do the best job of serving the interests of the public?
The question answers itself. Do you choose an agency already successfully developing the inner harbor area – an agency whose very existence is devoted to this kind of public undertaking – or do you choose a municipal government in which politics is likely to intrude on important decisions and whose expertise is not in land development? The obvious solution is to transfer the land to the Harbor Development Corp. with the understanding that the city will have a place of influence in the work.
Why Kearns is so adamant that the city own the land is puzzling and disappointing. As a former member of the Common Council – and a stubbornly independent one, at that – he understands better than most how extraneous pressures can divert attention, resources and diligence away from the public interest.
This process is about to start moving quickly. Friday was the deadline for interested parties to apply to the NFTA for ownership of the land. Other parties that might potentially have been interested – including Erie County and the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation – have said they will pass.
The NFTA has said it wants to make a decision by Jan. 28, only four months from now. City residents and, indeed, the entire region have to hope that when the dust settles, the NFTA will transfer the land to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. with the stipulation that the city has a place at the table. It's what will work best for all concerned and that, after all, has to be the point.