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ECHDC plans fail to protect waterfront, nature preserve

After decades of citizen engagement and planning for the outer harbor, this summer the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. introduced a new fast-track process that promises to put shovels in the ground as soon as this fall.

The process has included a sudden series of three “community meetings” held just after the Fourth of July weekend. This resulted in three development “alternatives” presented at WNED on Aug. 6. They are not that different. For instance, all three show a ring of residential “neighborhoods” surrounding Times Beach Nature Preserve, including in Wilkeson Pointe Park, next to the preserve.

“The citizens of Buffalo are our clients,” touted the presenters at the big reveal. Funny. Hardly anyone there, and hardly anyone who has talked about and advocated for the outer harbor, supports condos around the nature preserve. These will kill the preserve. Is this a done deal?

The new plan reveals what some of us have long known – Wilkeson Pointe, sold to the public as a new and beautiful park, which it is, is really a Trojan horse that is soon to become not so public. It will be a private playground for condo owners and a gold mine for a yet to be publicly identified developer. The millions of dollars in taxpayer expenses that will bolster these developments, including ongoing and future cleanup of the brownfield properties and new infrastructure to support private development, are not revealed in the new plans. Why not?

Most people who have commented publicly on waterfront development plans over the years, including the citizen clients the ECHDC wants us to believe it is listening to, prioritize the ecology, wildlife, scenic beauty, open space and public access on this precious waterfront.

The “green” parts of the alternatives, superficially addressed, are very misleading. For instance, what is described as a wildlife corridor between Tifft Nature Preserve and Times Beach is actually a fragmented hopscotch of grass, a few tree copses and lots of pavement that weaves in between the condos and runs along the roadways. Sharing the roads and sidewalks with the deer, fox, raccoons, snapping turtles, snakes and other wildlife that rely on the waterfront will be a challenge to humans and wildlife alike.

The bottom line is that these alternatives are misguided at best and do not protect our most important asset, the water. They are singularly designed to promote a kind of economic development for a few vested “stakeholders” at the expense of the rest of us.

Why are we interested in open space, public access and the ecological sanctity of the outer harbor? The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water. They need to be treated like the precious and vanishing resource that they are. This needs to be a priority of any development.

Most people know intuitively that public access, open space and ecological strategies that help protect our water are fundamental. Imagine investment strategies that promote conservation, including focused anti-pollution, cleanup and conservation. Imagine the outer harbor as part of a National Shoreline, National Recreation Area or a National Marine Sanctuary. If we clean it up, we can have beautiful swimming beaches. Remember, Times Beach was once one of the most magnificent sandy beaches in the Great Lakes.

These designations would promote fishing, boating, hiking, sailing, biking, world-class birdwatching and other recreational uses that would transform our economy with lots of good-paying jobs and a world of tourists eager to come here. We talk a lot about tourism as the centerpiece of economic development. People will not come to see “new neighborhoods” on the outer harbor. They will come for our nature and because of our investment in one of the world’s best outdoor destinations and our world-class brands of history, art and architecture.

Keep the development concentrated downtown on the other side of the Buffalo River. Those property values with access to our new great waterfront will skyrocket.

Buffalo could be poised to be a global economic leader in clean water protection, a vanishing resource. How much is that worth?

The development plans presented by the ECHDC are scandalous. These plans will not create a great waterfront. We still have time to stop this rush and get back on track to develop a world-class place that will create a thriving economy and a wonderful place to visit for decades and generations. Say no to this theft of our waterfront now. Let the ECHDC know that you say no to its presented alternatives. After all, we are the clients!

Jay Burney is chairman of the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve, and has been engaged in outer harbor and waterfront issues for 40 years.