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Editorial: The Outer Harbor is getting the attention it deserves

More progress on the waterfront: The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has announced plans for lightly developing Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, and while some aspects of the proposal are already being challenged, in broad strokes, the picture is immensely appealing.

For years, the Outer Harbor had been a Buffalo stepchild. It was hard for any but the most determined to get to and, once there, not much reason to have made the effort. It was a prime location, poorly used and little regarded.

That has changed in recent years. Just as funding and focused attention have altered the nature of the Inner Harbor, making Canalside one of Buffalo’s most popular gathering places, the same influences are transforming the Outer Harbor into a strip that is winning the affection of area residents. And it stands only to get better.

The Outer Harbor is a remarkable area. In parts of it, visitors can be forgiven for thinking they are miles from civilization, only to look over their shoulders to see the grain elevators that harken to Buffalo’s industrial past. It has long stretches of open waterfront that beg for thoughtful use.

The area has long deserved better treatment and, now, it is getting it. The ECHDC, which manages both Canalside and most of the Outer Harbor, is looking ahead to 2018 with plans to make the area even more attractive. On the drawing board are trails for cyclists and hikers, a 15-acre nature area and a four-acre “Great Lawn” for large gatherings.

Assuming the ECHDC wins approval following a public hearing on Tuesday, construction could begin as soon as Memorial Day, with new trails and habitat completed within a year. At the Bell Slip, that would mean removal of invasive species and the addition of more than 500 trees and shrubs, providing shelter and food for wildlife, including migrating birds. A large pollinator meadow would be designed to attract butterflies.

For hikers and cyclists, the Greenway Nature Trail would be lengthened to reach Fuhrmann Boulevard, near Buffalo Harbor State Park. Its amenities would include bike racks and benches. More controversially, it would also include a mountain bike course, featuring one mile of dirt trails.

Creation of the Great Lawn would require a foot-deep overlay of clean fill to account for contamination. It could accommodate popular concerts, as well as ethnic festivals and other large gatherings.

There will be debate about some of these ideas, but that’s normal when sensitive land is proposed for new uses. What is important is that the ECHDC has proposed a thoughtful series of projects, with more waiting in the wings.

And like Canalside, which was funded by the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project, money is available for work at the Outer Harbor, through elements of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program.

These are good times for Buffalo’s waterfront.

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