By Phillip Campanile
Data from Google’s “COVID-19 Mobility Report” revealed that while sheltering-in-place has resulted in a 47% decrease in public park usage across New York State, park usage is up 64% in Erie County. This, despite the fact that we here in Buffalo remain under-parked: According to the Trust for Public Land, Buffalo is 7.6% parkland, below average for similar-sized U.S. cities. By comparison, surface parking lots constitute 13% of our land. I interpret this to mean that Buffalonians rely on parks and need more of them.
Juxtapose this data with some other recent news. The Queen City Landing (QCL) development group shuttered plans to build a 20-story luxury condominium complex on the Outer Harbor. The Common Council rejected its proposal after QCL apparently requested additional public funding. While finances undercut this project, citizen pressure to protect the Outer Harbor likely had an impact, too.
It is interesting to look at the QCL proposal in light of the history of Buffalo’s waterfront. Since settlement, the Outer Harbor has never been for the public. It was originally built as infrastructure for commercial and industrial capital and now developers are looking to rebuild it to suit the interests of real estate capital. Yet, in a perverse form of Orwellian doublespeak, when the QCL leaders pitched their project to the Planning Board, they insisted that their luxury condos were all about the “public, public, public.” The only thing public about this kind of development is the financing. Surely, a more democratic vision is possible.
Since at least the time of Olmsted, Buffalo has dreamed of a waterfront park. It’s time we finally get it. Instead of letting the QCL site sit abandoned, it should be purchased and incorporated into a unified Outer Harbor Park, whose sole mission is the public good.
Such a park would not only serve our health, recreation and general wellbeing, but would function as a barrier island that minimizes flooding from record-high lake levels and increasingly frequent seiches. Habitat on the park could be enhanced to support spawning fish and migrating birds. Given the giant Terminal A and B buildings on the site, there should be ample opportunity for this park to generate jobs and income through appropriate commercial development.
Currently, the Outer Harbor is under the jurisdiction of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., whose plans and budget for the site are unclear. Let it help Buffalo set the table.
As the City’s last significant undeveloped green space, the Outer Harbor is our best hope for a future that includes what the public needs and demands: high quality public access, clean water, climate resilience, biodiversity and a sustainable economy.
Phillip Campanile of Buffalo is a PhD candidate in geography at University of California, Berkeley.