Should the Outer Harbor host large concerts and special events?
That's the central issue that divides supporters and foes of a state agency's proposal to transform a derelict former port warehouse into an open-air pavilion.
The agency, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., and its backers say the setting for the new amphitheater – with the lake behind the new stage, surrounded by natural habitats with nothing to obstruct the views – is perfect for those events, and will highlight the beauty of Western New York.
Critics say the pavilion would take away from the Outer Harbor's natural appeal and push back about efforts to bring more activity to the lakefront park.
The divide is the latest example of the decades-old clash between the differing visions for the Outer Harbor area as it transforms from wasteland to restored natural habitat and how much recreational activity is appropriate there.
It also is narrowly focused on a small portion of the $150 million plan to revive the Outer Harbor. The proposed pavilion would take up about 9 acres of the 208 acres covered by the park.
The pavilion would be capable of hosting up to 8,000 people on folding chairs and blankets, on its sloped crescent-shaped front lawn and surrounding areas. It would be connected by paths and greenscape to the nearby bicycle park, pedestrian paths and natural habitat that the state agency has already been working to create.
"It’s going to transform an abandoned warehouse into an amenity for the residents of Buffalo and Western New York," ECHDC CEO Steve Ranalli said. "It will showcase Buffalo at its best."
But critics say the entertainment use – with its large crowds and noise – would be a desecration of the lakefront landscape, all of which should be set aside as a public park for passive and recreational use.
"The Outer Harbor is a park, and a park can be a natural landscape, which is what the people of Buffalo have been asking for since 1982, over and over and over again," said Lynda Schneekloth, a member of the Environmental Alliance and the Grandmother's Council of Western New York. "Not for an entertainment venue. Not for a place to raise money. Not for games."
Supporters say the $12 million amphitheater project is part of the agency's broader plan for the Terminal B site on Fuhrmann Boulevard.
That effort will remake the surrounding landscape with new greenery to open it up for public walking, bicycling, recreation and enjoyment. The 9-acre property is just a small component out of the vast swath that makes up the Outer Harbor.
"We are bringing the public closer to the water, in an area that has not been accessible to the public for quite some time," said Mark Wendel, the agency's senior director of design.
The amphitheater project cleared a key hurdle after the Buffalo Planning Board approved it Monday – but not before environmentalists and other opponents lambasted the proposal as wrong for the site.
Opponents said the plan doesn't address climate change and violates the spirit of the Green Code. They said it would harm the environment for migratory birds, waterfowl and other species, encourage too much car traffic and pollution, and generate excessive noise.
“Every concert down there will violate the city’s noise ordinance,” said Daniel Sack, a professional sound engineer. “The city doesn’t need this concert venue.”
Critics also said ECHDC, as an economic development agency, is the wrong organization to spearhead the Outer Harbor effort, when many people have called for the entire area to be declared a park.
"Any destruction of the existing landscape should be halted until it is decided if it should become a park," Schneekloth said.
Ranalli noted that the amphitheater was part of the larger $150 million Outer Harbor plan that the agency's board approved earlier this year – after five years of communitywide planning that saw significant public input through forums, stakeholder groups and online surveys.
"We tried to do a good job to reach out to a wide swath of the community in all of those meetings," Ranalli said.
Even environmental groups supported the plan, he noted.
"The rehabilitation of the entire Outer Harbor is being done in a way that protects the overall city," Ranalli said. "We're not putting anything that is susceptible to significant damage or related climate change concerns. We're maintaining open space on the Outer Harbor as a giant buffer for the city itself."
Terminal B is not located in the park area, but in a mixed-use neighborhood zone. The building's foundation is integrated with the sheet-pile walls of the shoreline.
"We always planned to reuse the building in some way," Ranalli said.
Ranalli sees no incompatibility between recreation and entertainment, citing live events at Delaware Park, county parks and state parks.
"We have been holding concerts and festivals and other large-scale events since we've owned it, and concerts were there long before that," he said. I don't believe having a concert within a green space is really an issue."
And he's not concerned about the volume of music. "The noise ordinance is written with human concerns in mind," Ranalli said. "No one lives or works or has a permanent presence on the Outer Harbor."
Ranalli said the project is "100% compliant" with the city's Green Code, which restricts development to a 39-acre area at the southern end of the Outer Harbor, by both Terminal A and B, and at the marina.
"We were very aware and very respectful of the zoning when we put this project together," Ranalli said.
The project also would bring a major change to Terminal B, the long-vacant eyesore on the Lake Erie waterfront pier. Under its plan, ECHDC – which oversees both the 200-acre Outer Harbor and Canalside – intends to tear off the building's exterior shell, leaving its 100,000-square-foot steel frame on an elevated concrete slab, with stairs and ramps that would be added along the perimeter for pedestrian access.
A small stage with an open-air canopy would be added on the north end, facing east. That's where the landscape will be changed to reduce the 12 acres of paved surface, improve drainage and lighting, and increase greenspace, while taking out invasive species and replacing them with natural growth. The area to the north would become meadow.
But it won't have all the "bells and whistles" of venues like Darien Lake, Saratoga Performing Arts Center or Canandaigua's Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, Ranalli said. Its capacity will be less than what Lafayette Square and Canalside accommodated.
An overlook deck, bicycle trails, bike racks, habitat restoration area, walking path and limited lighting will also be added or extended, near the new Great Lawn and bike complex that were completed two years ago.
Seven acres of the site will also be remediated, while the deteriorating parking lot alongside Terminal A would be repaired and used for large-scale events, with 1,500 spaces. No additional parking is planned, and officials highlighted the ease of access to the site by foot or bicycle from either direction, including the bicycle ferry from Canalside. Another 500 parking spaces are also available along Fuhrmann.
"If there are going to be major events at the waterfront, this is a pretty good solution," said Planning Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz. "This plan removes a whole lot of concrete and hard surface. I like the approach to reusing the skeleton of Terminal B."
Still, critics criticized the plan, both in verbal comments to the board and in more than 28 written letters sent in advance. They said the state agency had ignored public input and opposition, and disregarded their preference for the site to become part of the state park, open to passive and recreational use.
“Public comments have been overwhelmingly negative against this additional concert venue,” said John Whitney, chairman of the Western New York Environmental Alliance, one of several organizations that has sued to block the plan. “We think it’s inappropriate to allow this proposal to move forward while this matter is being litigated.”
Schneekloth complained about the loss of more trees and "functioning habitat" around it, and its replacement with lawn.
"We have concerns about the landscape," she said. "A grass lawn is a desert."
Planning Board members pushed the state agency to agree to convert one-third of the three-acre Great Lawn into a butterfly garden along the edges, to restore some natural habitat.
"Every time we have a chance to increase nature use into these sites along the waterfront, we should take advantage of it," Schwartz said. "I think the Great Lawn is secondary and it’s an opportunity to provide more natural area that buffers this site."
The Planning Board also recommended that the Common Council reapprove a special-use permit for the project.
News staff reporter Mark Sommer contributed to this story.