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Another Voice: Outer Harbor plan needs to focus on regeneration

By Margaret Wooster

A final public hearing on the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s plan for the Outer Harbor is due in May. What will the plan be? Hopefully these past few winters have put to rest any notion of housing in an area so lacking in public amenities and so vulnerable to lake effect weather. Last month, a polar vortex closed access to the Outer Harbor with high winds, cold and ice. Imagine being a resident stuck in a shoreline glass tower out there.

As far as we know, even from archaeological evidence, people never lived on the Outer Harbor. There was once briefly a small community at the north end near Times Beach. But it was wiped out by a seiche — a wind-driven Lake Erie pile-up of up to 20 feet above normal levels at our end, capable of tsunami-like waves and extreme flooding. These now occur with increasing frequency.

So, for the sake of everyone, housing should be off the table, and the Common Council should revise the Green Code to make that clear.

The basic question we hope the plan will address is this: What is the best and highest use of Buffalo’s Lake Erie coast?

The ECHDC members are relatively new in town, yet they are the “owners” and developers of the central 400 acres of the lakefront. I say “owners” in quotes because a large group of people with deep roots in the community — including environmental, angler, health and wellness, and heritage groups representing thousands of local and regional residents — see it as “ours.”

We regard the Outer Harbor, already mostly public land, as a public trust. held by the government for the people.

Our lakefront is Buffalo’s best hope for resetting the trajectory of our city and lake towards a future that provides for the common good, for survival of our children and grandchildren. It is the city’s sole source of water. Our water intake is just a mile out from the mouth of the Buffalo River, at the point where Lake Erie begins to funnel into Niagara. As part of one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world, the Outer Harbor is a place where people can and do fish from shore or through a hole in the ice to supplement their diets. There are still PCB-based advisories against eating more than four meals per month of most fish, but, within limits, it is a source of free, fresh protein. The Outer Harbor serves as a buffer where the wind can blow and the ice pile up, leaving river and downtown communities free from flooding. It provides access to nature to all, with simple bike and walking trails and free, often spectacular, natural attractions.

The basics are all there. But two centuries of use as a port and industrial center have left a legacy of contaminants, impoverished soils, invasive plants and almost no native seed bank.

ECHDC has a limited pot of public money and an interest in “regenerative landscapes.” Let this be the foundation of the development plan. Let the lion’s share of resources and energy be put to it: regeneration. We have a past to clean up and a future to provide for. The opportunity is now.

Margaret Wooster of Buffalo is a member of the Outer Harbor Coalition.

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