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Harbor, Chautauqua officials take the right path in reopening planning for controversial projects

Two vastly different projects that generated vocal opposition have admirably been slowed to gather more information and to reopen dialogue with opponents.

Powerful organizations – one controlling Outer Harbor development, the other, the Chautauqua Institution – have shown a willingness to listen … eventually.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s proposal for dense housing clusters with three- and five-story buildings on the Outer Harbor rallied environmentalists and some politicians in opposition. They preferred park-like open spaces the public could easily access instead of the housing.

To its credit, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. recognized the mood of the community and is coming up with a modified plan. It will limit housing and other development, at least for now, to the parcel’s southern end, centering on the area where two capacious former port facilities sit.

While officials will not, as the revised plan is being drawn up, rule out development on the site’s northern portion, they should take care that any call for such development gets a full vetting by the public. The opponents of the high-development plan are not “carnival barkers,” as agency Chairman Robert Gioia called them. That dismissive attitude does not bode well for the cooperation that will be vital for achieving some consensus on the Outer Harbor.

However, Sam Hoyt, a board member of the ECHDC, expressed a softer attitude that we hope proves accurate: “We heard what people are saying. I think the plan is going to reflect that.”

The other controversy, involving the fate of the Chautauqua Amphitheater, is over whether and how to preserve a key piece of Western New York’s history.

Chautauqua Institution officials had announced their intention to seek bids for demolition this fall of the historic amphitheater so it can be replaced with a replica offering modern amenities. Happily, they have changed their minds.

Instead, they are reopening the dialogue with critics who, at a minimum, want more transparency from institution officials as they decide the fate of the amphitheater. The National Trust for Historic Preservation added its weight to the effort to save the facility on Tuesday when it declared the amphitheater a National Treasure, which emphasizes its precarious future and national importance.

While the Chautauqua Institution project is privately funded and therefore not subject to government guidelines, the trust’s designation should make it difficult to simply wipe away the amphitheater.

Thomas M. Becker, Chautauqua’s president, signaled the institution’s willingness to renew discussions with the community this summer. That timing is important because the institution is a summer season retreat. Becker also said officials will consult with a preservation expert from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In both the Outer Harbor and Chautauqua cases, officials took note of the heated outcry. That doesn’t mean their plans are guaranteed to change, but at least they took the difficult (for them) step of recognizing that the decision-making process was flawed.