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Outer Harbor beckons with a seat for every taste

Find a seat — there are plenty at Wilkeson Pointe on Buffalo's Outer Harbor.

Make your way to the park on Buffalo's second waterfront, and you can take your pick among low-riding tandem chairs, branch-and-bark Adirondack swings and stone or wooden benches. Or you can sit on Italian marble and pieces of pillars that frame the walkways – remnants of buildings once dumped along the lakefront for erosion control.

This is the second summer for expanded seating on the Outer Harbor, and little by little, the goal of narrowing the gulf between the once-industrial graveyard and visitor-busy Canalside seems on its way.

"Great view, good, comfortable chairs – it's the best place to catch the sunset, as you can see," Melissa Woelfle of Lackawanna said, sitting with a friend in the wooden beach chairs that overlook Lake Erie at Wilkeson Pointe. "To think, what it used to be."

Woelfle said she often visits the Outer Harbor park, where she watches the sunset over the water or launches a kayak. Because of how Buffalo and Lake Erie are positioned, this is one of the few places on the East Coast where you can catch a sunset over the water. And patrons and planners alike point to the Outer Harbor as a prime spot to see it.

"Some of the best opportunities to view the most amazing sunset on Lake Erie. Period," said Sam Hoyt, who has been involved in the Outer Harbor project as regional president of the Empire State Development Corp.

The Buffalo News counted 95 benches, 90 chairs, 162 wood and concrete tables, and four chair swings on the Outer Harbor. Some are in isolated locations while many others are clustered, like the chairs near Wilkeson Pointe, the benches along the Greenway Nature Trail and the picnic tables at Buffalo Harbor State Park. That's at least 351 chairs, benches or tables along the nearly 3-mile stretch between Wilkeson Pointe and the Tifft Street Pier, almost enough for a different seat every day of the year.

Adirondack chairs and a chair swing offer the option of stillness or motion when taking in the view from a berm in the Outer Harbor. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The chairs and benches that now dot the Outer Harbor might seem like small fish. But they're a step in making the space appealing to people who might only remember it as barren.

"People need a place to rest — avid joggers and bikers. Lots of people really appreciate a comfortable and safe place to rest," said Hiroaki Hata, a professor at the University at Buffalo's graduate School of Architecture and Planning.

The Outer Harbor's revamping in the last two years has been a solid beginning, but only that, Hata said.

"In the long run, Outer Harbor is a treasure for Buffalo. I would say the only remaining, the last public land," he said. "Now the city's task is: how to make it a really attractive place so that people can visit constantly."

Hata suggested a "patch-by-patch" system: taking small segments of the Outer Harbor and adding new amenities, introducing more native species and installing interesting sculptures.

"See how people like it," he said.

As Woelfle and her friend relaxed on the beach at Wilkeson, upward of 20 other people filtered through the park, either walking dogs, standing beneath the four spinning wind sculptures or enjoying brews and food in the roped-off seating area.

That's where you could find Kiera Herzog, Jamie Interlichia and a friend, laughing and chatting at one of the tables.

"There's a good selection of tables and chairs," Herzog said, adding "And beer."

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Herzog teaches a Pilates class at the park every Tuesday and Thursday through Independent Health, which is a partner with the Outer Harbor's management.

People from her class often stay at the park afterward, she said, complimenting the variety of seating there.

There are high-top tables for more formal meetings, picnic-style ones for casual hangouts like that night, tandem chairs for romantic scenes and single-seats for solo outings, she said, gesturing at examples of each.

As Interlichia, who praised the park's ambiance, put it: "There's something for everyone."

There are even more designs elsewhere in the Outer Harbor.

Along the Greenway Nature Trail to the south is a strip of benches, each a black marble slate mounted on curling stone.

Past those, on the Industrial Heritage Trail, sit beams of grayed wood bound together and raised an inch or two off the ground. In between them stand iron cylinders that look like ladder cages with signs explaining the history of the harbor's heyday.

Hoyt said the strategy with the Outer Harbor, in contrast to the business-dense Inner Harbor, "is to have more of a destination for bike riders, for people to enjoy the natural beauty there."

He said people historically had "deprived access" to the Outer Harbor, long a source of embarrassment for the city. But efforts like the Queen City Bike Ferry and infrastructure investments on the Ohio Street route to the waterfront have made the tract more accessible.

In Hata's view, much of the Outer Harbor is still too barren to rival the popularity of its counterpart.

"We have a place, but we don't have a recipe," he said. "We don't have a plan yet."

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

It will be important to avoid letting the Outer Harbor become a hodgepodge of amenities that don't gel, he said, and public developers should focus on growing the native species populations there.

"That's the kind of raw material that's available and can do very well," he said, adding later, "People are attracted to places that are safe, and attractive in the sense of nature and the view."

Signs at Wilkeson Pointe suggest efforts are already underway: "The native and natural vegetation, once fully established, will require minimal water use, little maintenance, no chemical inputs, provide high habitat value and promote biodiversity."

The parkgoers were mostly happy with the harbor's rehab, but would like to see more food options – food trucks, perhaps – and better accessibility.

From her seat at the water's edge, though, Woelfle was content for now.

"I wouldn't change anything," she said.

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