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'Not any old lakeshore': Report urges Outer Harbor become state park

A new report backed by a coalition of groups urges that the Outer Harbor be turned into a state park.

The report, released today by the Partnership for the Public Good, said an analysis of the land's assets and challenges led to a conclusion that a state park would be the best way to protect the waterfront property far into the future.

The report recommends transferring ownership of the Outer Harbor to New York State Parks from Empire State Development and its subsidiary, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. The report also calls for creating a local advisory council and suggests that the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy manage the site, noting that Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned a park on the Outer Harbor that wound up being built inland at South Park.

"We're very happy with the way Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has moved to a park-like approach, but it's very important to say this is not a state park," said Sam Magavern, the report's author and a senior policy fellow with the Partnership for the Public Good.

"The harbor corporation can sell off pieces of it if they choose to; they can turn to totally different uses if they have a leadership change over time," Magavern said. "The current leadership is great, but they may not be there forever. So part of what we're seeking is that perpetuity — that protection forever that this be state parkland."

Representatives of the Our Outer Harbor Coalition, including Citizens for a 21st Century Park, the Sierra Club and Preservation Buffalo Niagara, joined in the call for a state park, noting the land's environmental and historic importance to the Great Lakes.

"This is not any old lakeshore — it's a really important piece of this being the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet," coalition member Margaret Wooster said.

"We are at the point where the pool of Lake Erie funnels into the Niagara River, and that juxtaposition is very rich as a biological habitat — it supports life," Wooster said. "This is a really important place for fish to spawn in the whole Great Lakes. The bird migration lives off the fish migration and funnels along the Niagara River."

Melissa Wischerath, president of Citizens for a 21st Century Park — which wants to bring Olmsted's vision back to the Outer Harbor — acknowledged the waterfront site already functions as a park, even if it's not officially designated one. But she said long-term protection is still needed for the Outer Harbor.

"This space is being used as a park already," Wischerath said. "People are coming here, but it would make sense to have a long-term vision and investment and plan that will keep it protected in the public interest."

In May, Erie Canal Harbor Development, in consultation with Our Outer Harbor Coalition, released a $125 million master plan that envisions the Outer Harbor as a largely passive recreation area. That's in contrast to the more built-up Canalside, where development is expected to accelerate over the next several years.

The plan includes boardwalks and waterfront promenades, five miles of new trails, the Connecting Terminal silos used as a welcoming station, and new shoreline and aquatic habitats. It puts a priority on leisure activities, access to the water, ecological restoration and the site's industrial heritage.

In a statement, Empire State Development said the comments of Our Outer Harbor Coalition will be taken into consideration as it proceeds with the architectural and engineering design phase of projects being paid for with $15 million from the Buffalo Billion II economic development fund and additional dollars from Erie Canal Harbor Development.

"ECHDC and its consultants engaged in a robust public input decision with open houses, online surveys and stakeholder meetings in 2018 and the beginning of 2019 to determine its vision for the Outer Harbor moving forward," said Laura Magee, deputy director of public affairs for Empire State Development.

"With the majority of participants in the public process having a positive response to the direction being taken on the Outer Harbor, and appreciating the opportunity to have their opinions heard, ECHDC is moving forward with a plan that emphasizes outdoor recreation in three unique waterfront zones: First Buffalo River Marina; the 166 acres that include Wilkeson Pointe to Bell Slip; and Terminal B," Magee said.

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