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Outer Harbor: The Empire Strikes Back

Taken aback by a rebellion against its fast-track plans for the northern Outer Harbor, Empire State Development’s relentless march toward a pre-election groundbreaking suffered a surprising setback this fall. But, as in popcorn moviedom, there is always a sequel in the works. As Artvoice has learned—spoiler alert—ESD is far from licked, and in fact is pushing back by air and ground on several fronts.

It was not a good October for Empire State Development’s Buffalo waterfront subsidiary, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, and its Chairman, Robert Gioia. Just the month before, he had been advancing on all fronts, making it known that their final, preferred plan—essentially, the plan shown in September—would be publicly presented in October. ECHDC’s focus would then turn to fast-tracking implementation. It was widely anticipated that there would be a pre-election gubernatorial groundbreaking.

But that September plan drew heavy return fire from the community, partly over process but primarily for being far more development-heavy than the expressed public preference. And big guns Congressman Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan took up the cause with a series of announcements: that they opposed so much development on the Outer Harbor (“we don’t need to be building another city on the Outer Harbor,” said Higgins, at a press conference at Gallagher Beach), that they prefer the compromise concept floated by Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper (which keeps many of the ecological features of ESD’s plan but drastically reduces the housing), that Higgins wants to transfer approximately $15 million earmarked for an unneeded Canalside parking ramp to create the “21st Century Park,” and that Ryan wants greater transparency in the process and a public forum.

Clearly caught off guard, ESD halted its advance and dug in—at least, until after election day. The Governor being greeted by protesters on the Outer Harbor would have made lousy pre-election optics, an elected official told me. But hardly idle, ESD and ECHDC have skirmished to recapture the narrative high ground.

ECHDC Chair Gioia published an op-ed in the Buffalo News, perhaps most memorable for its sharp contrast to the views of nearly two-dozen letter writers and to the views of the News’ nature columnist Gerry Rising, who made an unprecedented appeal to his readers to sign an opposing petition.

Sam Hoyt, Regional Vice President for Empire State Development, made his first appearance on WBEN’s Hardline with Debo since leaving the Assembly. He revealed that he met with Higgins for a long discussion about the Outer Harbor, saying, “...he made it clear to me that he doesn’t oppose housing on the waterfront, notwithstanding anything else that has been said. He just wants to make sure that we do it right.”

Although Hoyt, several times, said, “it’s a DRAFT plan,” he reiterated ECHDC’s desire to include 2,100 units of housing, while acknowledging that will ultimately depend on market demand. That led to one of the most interesting exchanges, with caller Dan Sack, who asked, “It seems to me that you’re selling a residential plan without even starting the economic analysis. How does it make sense to be trying to push this residential plan before getting all of the information in place?” Hoyt began his response, “we’ve got a lot of information, Dan,” without giving specifics.

Gioia, perhaps seeking a friendlier audience, gave a presentation to The Buffalo-Niagara Partnership and its members. About 75 people attended, “many from construction and development companies,” according to notes taken by Douglas Funke, President of Citizens for Regional Transit. As the Partnership did not record the appearance, these notes are, apparently, the only record. But the tone of the presentation was much less friendly than the audience, according to Funke’s notes. “Mr. Gioia did not try to hide his dislike for the groups that he says are trying to impose their will over the ECHDC plan developed by professionals.”

“He specifically criticized the Riverkeeper plan as being of poor quality, saying that it looked like they just cut and pasted changes onto the ECHDC plan. He sarcastically asked what urban planning expertise the Riverkeepers had.” Astonishing for someone tasked with planning Buffalo’s waterfront, Gioia apparently doesn’t know that Riverkeeper has a Greenway Team of urban planners, ecological planners, and landscape architects. And one might ask the same expertise question of Gioia: before being hired to head the Oishei Foundation, he was in the food business—his former company a target of legal action over tainted hamburger (

As of press time, the community still doesn’t know when ECHDC’s Outer Harbor sequel will debut. If, as Gioia told the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, he wants a vote on a plan in December, they would have to publicly screen their preferred option this month. That leaves very little window of opportunity before the holiday blockbuster season begins.

Stay tuned.

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