Forget about condominiums. Never mind hiring another consultant. New ideas for the Outer Harbor – pitched by a well-known preservationist and backed by a congressman and a state assemblyman – don’t even need a master plan, supporters say.
The plan by Tim Tielman calls for amenities every 1,000 feet or so: a tent for social gatherings near the Queen City Bike Ferry docks, a colonnade where people can sit and look at the lake and two-seat lifeguard chairs that look out over the breakwall.
Tielman also proposes a large picnic shelter, a seasonal store to sell ice cream and beach toys, and a deli or chicken barbecue stand.
“The plan is extraordinary in its simplicity,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins.
The price tag for Tielman’s proposal would be about $5 million, paid for by New York Power Authority funds already in hand.
His proposal adheres to the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach key to jumpstarting development at Canalside.
“There is no reason why these improvements should not be under construction by early next year in preparation for a buildout that can be enjoyed by the public in the summer of 2017,” Higgins said.
Tielman said he based his proposal on what’s known about human behavior.
“What propels people through a geographic space, what causes them to stop and other people to join them – all those things go into this,” Tielman said. “That’s why the specific structures and the uses are at the specific places.”
The farthest most people can be expected to walk in such environments is the length of about three football fields, Tielman said. That has been observed and measured in cities across the world, Tielman said. Half of those on pedestrian trips walk less than 1,000 feet.
“The Outer Harbor is wide open. There is no scale,” Tielman said. “You don’t know how far to go, or what’s ahead. In order for people to feel comfortable and to pull them through the landscape, you need points along the path. We’re constructing very simple, quick-to-build structures focused on eating, drinking and socializing,” he said.
Tielman has a history with the waterfront. He led a successful federal lawsuit in 2000 to reverse state plans to dig up the Canal District and convert it into an inlet to float naval vessels, helping set the stage for today’s Canalside.
“We wanted to design a setting to enable development to occur if the canal and historic street network was rebuilt,” said Tielman, who directs the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture.
Tielman has a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University in urban geography, a field concerned with the ways cities and towns are constructed and experienced, and a master’s degree from SUNY Buffalo State, with a focus on Buffalo’s urban development.
Tielman, as principal of Place Advantage, an urban design company, designed Larkin Square, including the walkway, the beer and barbecue pavilion elevated platform, climbing rocks and the exterior of the Filling Station restaurant. He remains a consultant with Larkin Development. Howard Zemsky, chairman of Empire State Development, parent government agency of Erie Canal Harbor Development, is a partner in that firm.
Tielman said he believes his proposal is consistent with what other groups have said they want on the Outer Harbor, so it would be a good starting point.
Campaign For Greater Buffalo hopes to rally public support, and has scheduled a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hutchinson Central Technical High School, 256 S. Elmwood Ave.
Tielman’s plan becomes the third plan for the Outer Harbor in three years – all floated in September.
Two years ago, a plan called for putting up to 2,100 residences, a museum district and public amenities on the Outer Harbor. It was withdrawn after being broadly panned for being too development-centered.
The following year, a chastened Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. unveiled a more modest and cheaper proposal. It included a bike path on the site’s southern end, a small beach and workout area, a mountain bike trail and visitor center.
Now comes Tielman’s plan.
And it has won the backing of Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan.
“We believe this represents what the public has been asking for, but we are going to vet it through the public,” Ryan said.
Tielman also advocates two smaller, rapid-service ferries on weekdays to eliminate wait times, and electric carts for people who have trouble traversing Fuhrmann Boulevard.
All of his suggested enhancements are intended to provide an imaginative and abundant array of places for shelter, food and camaraderie, while keeping the focus on the lake, including the year-round sunsets Buffalo enjoys, he said. He sees his proposal as the first phase of what would be other low-cost, high-impact additions in other parts of the Outer Harbor.
The key is no longer seeing the Outer Harbor as an entity unto itself, Tielman said.
“We strongly believe that the Outer Harbor should be conceived as part of a larger plan, rather than independently,” Tielman said.
“We see the Outer Harbor as an adjunct to what is going on in the Inner Harbor, because ultimately what is going on there will be much more important for the economic future of Buffalo than what should be recreational space on the Outer Harbor,” Tielman said.
Higgins and Ryan, who both opposed the waterfront agency’s development plan two years ago, called Tielman’s plan the right approach for the Outer Harbor.
“The previous plan for this landscape was categorically rejected,” Higgins said. “We, in rejecting it, have an obligation to come up with a constructive alternative. This is a constructive alternative.”
Ryan added, “I think it’s a wonderful concept that would allow the public to engage with our public lands. It also has the kind of connectivity from place to place that has been missing from what Erie Canal Harbor has proposed. It was the result of reflection and study, and surveying people who use the Outer Harbor.”
Ryan also likes positioning the Outer Harbor as a seasonal rather than year-round destination.
“We seem to have been fixated on a 12-month use, and this plan recognizes that seasonal use is organic. It makes sense,” Ryan said. “Winter we go inside, summer we go outside and embrace it fully.”
New parks, open canvas
The Outer Harbor has seen significant progress since Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated the southern end – which includes Gallagher Beach and the 1,000-slip Safe Harbor Marina – as Buffalo Harbor State Park in 2014. The state put about 400 acres north of there under Erie Canal Harbor Development’s ownership.
New slips and other improvements are coming after years of disinvestment. A nautical-themed playground and picnic shelters have already been built. A developer was given the go-ahead to build a residential tower at the site of the former Freezer Queen, close to Terminals A and B that are earmarked for future development.
Much of the Outer Harbor, despite the presence of brownfields, remains an open canvas. The state agency has developed Wilkeson Pointe, a 21-acre park, added to the existing bike trail, constructed a landing for the bike ferry and this summer hired a management company to put on activities, which included kayak rentals and a beer garden at Wilkeson Pointe.
The agency expects to hire a consultant later this month to begin implementing the enhancements announced a year ago. The features include the bike and mountain bike trails and improvements to the Michigan Pier. Some could be open by next spring or summer, said Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development.
Hoyt sees merit in Tielman’s plan.
“We think Tielman’s proposal is excellent,” Hoyt said. “A lot of the ideas piggyback on what we’ve already planned with regard to ‘lighter, cheaper, quicker’ strategies,” he said, singling out the colonnade and lifeguard chairs.
Tom Dee, Erie Canal Harbor’s president, also said Tielman’s proposal is complementary to what the state agency has been pursuing.
“I love some of the things Tim suggested, and I think they fit in nicely with what the public has recommended,” Dee said.
But Dee didn’t agree with the concept that amenities need to be so close together, or that new development should be restricted on the Outer Harbor.
For now, the agency has no plans to do anything on the Outer Harbor other than incremental projects.
“The success we have today is based on incremental growth and preserving waterfront accessibility,” Dee said.