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A Grant Park For Buffalo

Grant Park, Chicago.

Greening the Outer Harbor all around the Superfund site

As Buffalo-born Austin Hoyt’s magnificent PBS series Chicago shows, it was the newly minted bluebloods of Chicago’s Gilded Age who rescued that city’s waterfront and created Grant Park. They also created the rest of the 18-mile-long waterfront parkway that allows public access to the city’s entire Lake Michigan shore. In the past decade, newly minted bluebloods revised and extended that park. Right in front of downtown Chicago’s office towers, condos, hotels, and museums is the former Illinois Central railroad yard now known as Millennium Park. It, too, is public: No politically connected real-estate developer got any piece of that public space.

Hoyt’s documentary collates several historians’ conclusions that in Chicago, the movement that succeeded in rescuing waterfront land for general public enjoyment was a product of the social anxiety of very, very rich people. Tycoons of the time wanted their city to be esteemed by their social peers in New York and by European aristocrats, too. They also wanted the toiling masses to calm down, and thought that access to truly expansive parks and lakefront vistas and unoccluded dawns might help.

Imagine being able to ride your bicycle along 18 miles of civic green space, starting where the old steel plants used to employ tens of thousands, and going the full length of the city’s waterfront, with nothing between your wheels and the water except an occasional sailboat marina, swimming beach, picnic ground, or ball field. The closest we in Western New York have to such a linear waterfront park is about a mile from Buffalo, directly west across the never-busy Peace Bridge, where one can cycle the 18 miles from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls, Ontario, along a linear parkway.

Sadly, we lack aristocratic anxiety here. Luckily, two new documents may help spur the movement to claim Buffalo’s waterfront for the public.

The Buffalo 116

Now that a community inventory of our toxic waste sites has been assembled and published, shortly after a report on the Niagara Greenway’s failure to invest public funds in a coherent waterfront strategy, what we lack in aristocratic vigor may now be supplied, paradoxically, by something we have in abundance: namely, facts -- facts about why to green our own waterfront, with a fresh set of embarrassing revelations about how dirty and corrupt we will remain if we don’t.

The Environmental Protection Agency publishes a list of toxic hotspots located in Buffalo. Buffalo has 116 EPA sites in various stages of cleanup, including one at 1818 Fuhrmann Boulevard. It is a Superfund site, which means that it’s eligible for special remediation funding from a kitty reserved for the worst of the worst. It is designated by a throbbing red lozenge there on the map. It’s just south of the Bell Slip.

Thanks to the Western New York Environmental Alliance, which worked with the UB Urban Design Project, we now have a comprehensive overview of where we are and what our waterfront actually is. The map shows that in addition to having a river that is an international “area of concern,” and having dozens upon dozens of toxic waste dumps and hotspots near or actually adjacent to our water, plus sewage-belching storm drains inside city limits and sewage-belching pipes upstream that discharge directly into our water, we also have, on the vacant land that used to be Buffalo’s port, one of the most specifically poisonous spots in a region terribly overburdened by them.

If you choose to believe that the spongy lakeside landfill has been somehow squirreled away by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Agency for the past many decades, and that the NFTA agency has cheated this region out of a glorious economic development bonanza, please note: A Superfund site is a particularly difficult and expensive place to clean up. There have been successful redevelopments of Superfund sites all across America, but parse the list carefully: For every Florida or California corporate campus of slab-on-grade construction over former industrial sites, there are many more acres of parks, golf courses, and nature preserves in the many places where nobody is clamoring to build. Location matters: For all those “family-run restaurants, industrial parks, shopping centers, and manufacturing plants” that have happened on former Superfund toxic waste sites, there is a regional economic context that is lacking here, where our waterfront could look like Chicago’s, and should, given that the regional population continues to contract along with the regional workforce, and where there is simply no credible plan—other than fallowing—that makes any short-term, medium-term, or long-term economic development sense.

Capitalism is what it is: The Rust Belt has been left behind, pretty much, unless it starts to clever up. Our political economy of rent-seeking real-estate projects has not stopped the brain drain, the population drain, or the fund drain. Would cluttering up our waterfront change our economic, demographic, or aesthetic trajectory?

Of course it wouldn’t. That’s why the recent proposal for a stadium/children’s museum/convention center sited on the Outer Harbor is such a head-scratcher: Didn’t anybody mention to the National Football League’s architects that there is a particularly nasty old toxic waste site right in the middle of where they were told to design a $1.4 billion complex?

Apparently also forgotten was the enormous public price-tag for remediating that site, and for coping with the overall dirtiness of the land and the water of that area just south of the proposed waterfront entertainment island, namely, the 1,200 acres of the former Bethelehem Steel site, which itself contains several hot-spots so toxic that it, too, has proved near-impossible to redevelop.

The model for Buffalo’s Outer Harbor lands was established more than a century ago in Chicago, but we have one up on Chicago: We have both a Frederick Law Olmsted plan, and the money to implement that plan.

Change the Greenway Fund

As former Erie County Legislator Joan Bozer and a group of patient activists have explained to anyone who will listen, there is a genuine “development” victory awating Buffalo that would cost far, far less than any of the lame notions so far advanced for the outer harbor. The plan for that wind-swept expanse of lakefront has existed since the designers of Buffalo’s inland park system came to town more than a century ago.

Hoyt’s documentary about Chicago doesn’t mention it, but the big boys in Chicago who were so intent on not losing out to other cities in the esteem of bluebloods and aristocrats, foreign and domestic, were intensely aware of Buffalo as the 19th century became the 20th. Buffalo in 1900, when the Chicagoans were clamoring to save their lakefront, had had Olmsted’s successful public spaces installed and maturing for more than two decades—the parks and parkways, and the parade grounds, and most especially the Front that overlooked the Niagara River and the peaceful border. A Chicago guy named Darwin Martin was soon to hire a Chicago architect named Wright. Chicago wasn’t electrified in 1900. Buffalo was. Then, accidents of ballistics, of medical incompetence, and of geography intervened: President McKinley was shot and died of poor doctoring in Buffalo, but only Mayor Cermak and not President Roosevelt died in Chicago when another shooter shot. Chicago grew big enough, diverse enough, rich enough to survive deindustrialization with a combination of boodle, brainpower, and political brawn, while Buffalo dumbed down, hunkered down, and spiraled down.

Sam Magavern’s report on the Niagara Greenway Commission’s unbelieveable squandering of massive monies shocks few and surprises even fewer. A revenue stream in perpetuity of $8 million a year need not be securitized and squandered in the way that the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has squandered more than $150 million on fake canals and contracts with politically wired New York City consultants. Just a few year’s worth of a few Buffalo-bound Greenway dollars could get Buffalo what not even Chicago has: more Olmsted.

The question is, however, whether we have enough bluebloods, or aristocracy-minded nouveaux riches, plus some of the angry class-conscious labor leadership that prevented Chicago’s waterfront from being devoured by that town’s old version of Buffalo’s voracious new rent-seeking developer class.

The cause of a green and clean waterfront, with toxics contained rather than paved over or turned into another Hickory Woods disaster, and with waterways rescued from endless spews of sewage, would be helped if somebody were to run for public office on the More Olmsted platform. A little gubernatorial intervention would help, too, to steer football inland, to get some of the Buffalo billion to work cleaning up the stinkholes, and to restructure and reboot a mis-governed Greenway Commission so that it gets us our 18 miles of greenway to match Ontario’s, and maybe even go one better than Chicago’s. We’ve got the plan, and the money. What are we missing?

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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