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A Strategic Pause on the Outer Harbor?

Our last update on the Outer Harbor (Outer Harbor: The Empire Strikes Back, v13n46) told of activists opposing Empire State Development’s juggernaut having won an initial skirmish, with air support from powerful allies, but that their fight was by no means over. ESD’s generals, regional head Sam Hoyt, and Chair of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, ESD’s Buffalo waterfront development arm, Robert Gioia, were continuing to fight to seize back the narrative high ground, and win hearts and minds—at least in front of friendly audiences.

A renewed offensive was widely expected, as early as ECHDC’s December 8 board meeting. But a funny thing happened on the way to that forum, unnoticed in a city digging out from six feet of lake effect: Buffalo’s Common Council quietly passed a unanimous resolution [see posting on AV blog] opposing ECHDC, and supporting the community, on the central issue—new housing development—of ESD’s draft plan. Perhaps in response, ECHDC quietly cancelled its meeting.

That cancellation is all the more significant as it’s the second in a row. I put the “what’s up with that?” question to Assemblyman Sean Ryan’s office, who said they are “not getting much information from ECHDC. Last we heard, they were headed for approval of a plan in December, but with the meeting cancelled, it doesn’t look like that could happen.” Spokesperson for ECHDC, Laura Magee, told me they “had no business that required [board] approval.” And as for the Outer Harbor planning process, “our consultant, Perkins + Will, is working on updates to the draft Outer Harbor plan that includes additional input from public meetings and phasing options. When those are finalized, we will schedule a public meeting.” Clear?

But while no one cited the Common Council resolution as a factor in yet another delay in bringing a plan to a vote, it’s a fair assumption the resolution took ECHDC by surprise—as it took everyone by surprise, even the activist community whose policy positions clearly inspired its several “whereas” clauses. It seems the resolution was pushed from within the Council by councilmembers themselves—promoted by neither the activist community nor any other elected officials who have recently taken public stands.

Delaware District Councilman Michael LoCurto, one of the proponents, told me that councilmembers have been watching the planning process, seeing the community opposition to the proposed development, hearing the statements of Congressman Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Ryan, and wanted to weigh in with their support. He also said that ECHDC’s plan to keep half of the tax revenue from new development on the Outer Harbor hasn’t yet gotten the agreement of the city administration.

South District Councilman Christopher Scanlon, prime sponsor of the resolution, whose district encompasses the Outer Harbor, told me that he is especially concerned about the housing component. “People are moving back into the city constantly now, so why dilute it, instead of strengthening existing areas such as downtown and the neighborhoods?” Instead, Scanlon supports “water-dependent uses, access to the water, and places for people to enjoy.” Also, “the Outer Harbor has been underutilized for years. We need to take the time to do this right.” He also told me that he is concerned that the housing shown in the draft plan appears to be mostly for the well off, and also wonders who will pay for the infrastructure needed to support it.

Intriguingly, given that they don’t exactly play on the same political team, Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, who represents South Buffalo, has a very similar position—suggesting the emergence of a broad consensus. “Those promoting private housing developments on a unique public asset like the Outer Harbor are in the minority, and will have a difficult time finding support,” he told me. “Our waterfront should be fully accessible and filled with amenities for the people of this community, as well as for visitors coming to enjoy the best of what Western New York has to offer.”

So, with Buffalo Common Council’s unanimous resolution, ECHDC repeatedly pushing the “pause” button, and even rumors of public forums being organized, it’s impossible to predict a likely dénouement. But what’s certain is that much will be revealed in the next act of this play, and you won’t want to miss a minute of it.

Visit to read the full text of the Common Council’s resolution on preserving public access to the outer harbor.

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