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Envisioning the Outer Harbor quite a bit differently

What a difference a year – and some vocal opposition – make.

A plan for the Outer Harbor, to be unveiled Wednesday, bears little resemblance to the ambitious draft plan proposed last September.

The clusters of housing? Mostly gone.

The amphitheater? Gone.

The promenades are gone, too.

So are the beach and museum.

What’s left in the waterfront blueprint are a small number of enhancements designed to make the 500-plus acres more accessible for a relatively low cost.

One of the proposed additions is a remediated 8-acre Seaway Pier, south of Wilkeson Pointe. The area would be set aside for a workout area, a beach, space for games and a beer garden. The plan includes a visitor center at the Bell Slip, with two nearby overlooks. An osprey-viewing platform would be built at Times Beach. A bike path on the southern end would be built, and officials will study the idea of a mountain bike trail.

A seasonal bus trolley would travel the length of the Outer Harbor, along Fuhrmann Boulevard.

“Open land use has been the real change. It really was more development-driven before. This is more land use-driven,” said Robert D. Gioia, chairman of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency that oversees the waterfront.

“We also took a step back, and said we should align better with the city and all the work they have done,” Gioia said.

Less development

The short-term, scaled-back approach would be funded with $5 million from the state’s Buffalo Billion. The only large-scale development called for in the plan is confined to the area around Terminals A and B, two large, vacant structures the agency will soon own.

The port terminals are near the privately owned former Freezer Queen building, which will be converted into a $40 million housing development. This part of the Outer Harbor has seen considerable investment recently, with $15 million for Buffalo Harbor State Park and $11 million to refurbish the Safe Harbor Marina, formerly known as the Small Boat Harbor. Plans to put development there drew little opposition when proposed a year ago.

“The message about developing on the southern end was heard loudly and clearly,” said Sam Hoyt, a waterfront agency board member. “If we anticipate any development in the near future, it’s going to be there. That’s where the infrastructure exists, and because it does, it minimizes any public contribution.”

Hoyt said there’s no plan now to seek a developer for the site.

“The resources simply are not there to assist that type of project in the short term,” he said.

The plan also recommends – without specifying a time – developing 15 acres east of Times Beach, between Fuhrmann and the Buffalo River. The property, which will soon be obtained from the New York Power Authority, was looked at for housing in the first plan, but that drew criticism because of its proximity to the nature preserve.

Waterfront officials say that one reason it took a full year to revise the plan – the initial plan was developed from start to finish in six months – was to integrate the Outer Harbor into the city’s broader view of development. That included fitting the Outer Harbor into the draft Green Code that the Common Council will receive Oct. 22.

“Rather than trying to predict or prescribe every element of the Outer Harbor’s future, this approach will ensure agreement on broad priorities, allow for incremental progress and provide ample opportunities for continued public input and environmental reviews along the way,” according to the plan.

‘Larger city’ needs attention

Officials said they realized planning the future of the Outer Harbor needed a bit of a restart.

“There was this conflict in the community debating these developments that just weren’t going to happen – forget five years; for 20, 25 years – so why were we having them?” asked Brendan R. Mehaffy, the city’s executive director of strategic planning. He’s a key member of the Buffalo Waterfront Development Advisory Committee.

There was also the cost, which was never released publicly.

“We heard estimates north of three-quarters of a billion dollars,” Hoyt said. “I have said to people that the state has been extraordinarily generous with the Buffalo Billion, but there is no Buffalo Outer Harbor Billion.”

“If there was, there’s no way that the mayor would agree that it should all go to the Outer Harbor,” Mehaffy said. “There is a larger city that needs a lot of attention.”

Waterfront agency officials said they took to heart the community’s concerns over development.

“Ultimately, what we are rolling out is something that reflects a great deal of the input we heard from multiple, multiple stakeholders,” Hoyt said. “Rather than moving at lightning speed, we said let’s slow down, and work towards the best product possible and one we can afford.”

But Hoyt said it doesn’t mean earlier recommendations for the Outer Harbor won’t come to fruition. The initial plan and the revised version were crafted by planning consultants Perkins + Will at a cost of $738,000.

“We haven’t said that what’s in the Perkins + Will plan is entirely scrapped,” Hoyt said. “The waterfront promenade and a lot of things like that were not in because of cost, but they could absolutely be there in the future.”

Hoyt recognizes future development of the New York Power Authority property – which he said is likely years away – would be seen unfavorably by some because of its proximity to Times Beach Nature Preserve.

“We’re not calling for it now, and we don’t anticipate housing any time soon,” Hoyt said. “But if that time comes, there will be a very public process as to whether or not the public and the Common Council desire it.”

Mehaffy added: “There is no specific project, and it’s important to know this isn’t green space. It’s a marina with surface parking lots.”

In the more immediate term, Hoyt said he expects small-scale concessions to accommodate people crossing to the Outer Harbor on the Queen City Bike Ferry.

Mayor is pleased

Under the Green Code, the vast amount of green space on the Outer Harbor would be preserved as open space. But some development is also envisioned.

The area around Terminals A and B, at the southern end, would permit apartments or condominiums, commercial, office, retail and light manufacturing, with a maximum building height of six stories.

A much larger stretch to Times Beach would be zoned for restaurants, retail, taverns, live entertainment and stables on up to one-fourth of the land, with a maximum building height of three stories.

The NYPA property’s permitted uses include apartments or condominiums, restaurants and a hotel, with buildings limited to three stories.

“What we are proposing with this plan is based on fundamental, smart-growth strategies,” Hoyt said. “You invest where the infrastructure already exists in terms of the port terminal buildings. Sewage and electric are all there. “Going two miles down to the NYPA parcel for major development would require very significant public investment for infrastructure costs, and we’re just not prepared to do that at this time,” Hoyt said.

Gioia said he expects the plan will disappoint some people because more wasn’t proposed.

“There are some people who will say this is not as aggressive as they think it should be,” he said.

Hoyt said many officials expressed concern that diverting too many resources to the Outer Harbor could take away from Canalside’s momentum.

“We have seen extraordinary success and growth at Canalside, and we, collectively – the mayor and others – said we need to be very cautious about losing the momentum that we are seeing,” Hoyt said.

“We need to keep concentrating on the Central Business District, the foot of Main Street – really, the downtown waterfront – and move cautiously, incrementally, and in a way we can afford on the Outer Harbor, all concurrent with the Green Code process.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown, who holds a nonvoting seat on the Erie Canal Harbor board, said he’s pleased with the plan for the Outer Harbor – and thinks the public will be, too. “I think we’re in real synergy with the blueprint, and I think it will be one widely accepted by the community,” the mayor said.

“We’ve tried to listen to the environmental community, to alternative voices in the community,” Brown said. “And I think it’s a good plan that incorporates ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ elements, one of the lessons learned earlier.”

Short-term projects

The proposed additions to the Outer Harbor – which the public will have a chance to comment on – are intended to be built soon.

The Seaway Pier would be cleared, capped and regraded to accommodate a ropes course, a beach, a fishing pier and foot and bike paths that double as cross-country ski trails. There would be space for bocce courts, horseshoes and volleyball. There would also be a beer garden.

The Bell Slip Visitor Center would offer pedestrian and bike amenities, with a pair of overlooks nearby to encourage birding, painting, photography and astronomy.

A southern bike trail around Terminals A and B would complete the Greenbelt loop, and a mountain bike off-road trail would also be studied for future development.

In addition, signage would be installed highlighting key public locations and distances, and a seasonal trolley bus would transport people from Buffalo Lighthouse Park to Gallagher Beach.