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Continued progress at the Outer Harbor hinges on Higgins, ECHDC pulling together

Here’s the fundamental thing about the unfortunate conflict between the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and Rep. Brian Higgins: Both the corporation and the congressman are important to decisions on how to develop Buffalo’s waterfront. Indeed, their dispute seems odd given that they have more in common than divides them on how to develop the Outer Harbor, at least over the short term.

Yet the division blew open a week ago, apparently surprising leaders of the ECHDC, who publicly professed only respect for Higgins and the yeoman work he has done in rescuing the Buffalo waterfront from decades of neglect and abuse. It is important for the two parties to hash out the issues between them and ensure that appropriate progress continues on the Outer Harbor.

At least a couple of issues seem to dominate this confrontation: the definition of “appropriate progress” and the relative influence on development decisions by Higgins, an elected federal official, and the ECHDC, a creature of the state of New York and a subsidiary of Empire State Development Corp.

Economic question

Though neither party directly acknowledges it, the argument seems to break, at least in part, on the question of whether the Outer Harbor needs to be an economically self-sustaining entity – that is, one that generates tax revenue – or a public space supported by public revenues, more like a traditional park.

Officially, the complaint from Higgins is that the ECHDC has become too insular, resisting outside recommendations, such as those recently proposed for the Outer Harbor by Buffalo’s most influential preservationist, Tim Tielman. Higgins also objects to the pace of work at the Outer Harbor.

ECHDC leaders, including Board Chairman Robert Gioia and Board Member Sam B. Hoyt, who has a direct line to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, insist they have been open to public comment and point to the corporation’s change of approach after public rejection of a previous development plan. They also note – accurately – that they must be responsive to a variety of interests, not just those of Tielman or Higgins or Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, who also supports Tielman’s appealing proposal.

But Tielman’s light-touch approach may conflict with the ECHDC’s long-term vision of a self-supporting area that needs to be “activated” in order to succeed. Gioia and Hoyt – who are, after all, leaders of a development organization – say the market will determine how the Outer Harbor is developed over the long term. And the market will be shaped, in part, by the city’s forthcoming Green Code.

Point of friction

That difference is bound to be a point of friction and, in truth, a legitimate one: What is the appropriate level of development in a lakeside area that, if not pristine, is more or less a blank slate?

The ECHDC, stung by public rejection, has already backed away from a development-heavy proposal that would have put housing near Wilkeson Pointe and established a museum district that would inevitably have competed with the existing district near Delaware Park. And as to the pace of work, it points to attractions at Wilkeson Pointe and the bike ferry introduced in 2015.

Most parties seem to agree that broad public access will be key to the Outer Harbor’s future, and that’s what Higgins and the ECHDC should focus on now, understanding that any decisions on housing or other significant development are years off.

The good news here is that both parties want to see more development at the Outer Harbor next year. The ECHDC hesitates to commit to anything by Memorial Day – which is the wish of the Tielman group – but certainly by Labor Day, Gioia said. Together, they have many possibilities to choose from, including the shaded colonnade overlooking the lake, as envisioned by Tielman, and the mountain bike trail planned by the ECHDC. All the ideas have merit and we suspect the public doesn’t especially care which are adopted immediately, as long as the parties don’t fall into the grip of inertia, as has been Buffalo’s habit.

But that is among the risks of this confrontation, probably the most significant one Higgins has initiated since he forced the New York Power Authority to cough up money for the waterfront during the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project a decade ago.

We presume Higgins will stop short of his implied threat of seeking to abolish the ECHDC. It, too, has been crucial to the development of the waterfront, turning Canalside into one of the best things to happen in Buffalo in decades. If it didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented.

The congressman and the corporation need to iron out their differences, for the benefit of the community. To the extent that they differ in their long-term goals for the Outer Harbor, they can, for the moment, agree to disagree and focus on pursuing their immediate goal of adding value to the Outer Harbor by next year. If it has to do with who influences decisions, they will have to learn how to play well on the city’s newest playground.

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