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The Fog Begins to Lift on the Outer Harbor

On Little Cat Feet

The iconic image from Winter Storm Knife will forever be seared in our collective memory: the Lake Effect snow wall as seen from the What-Are-We-Calling-It-These-Days Tower. Especially striking in that image is the Outer Harbor cut in half: the northern half having a sunny fall day, while the southern half is cloaked in snowy invisibility.

But for the future of the Outer Harbor, the picture has been very much the reverse: we generally know what is and will be happening to and on the south half: upgrades to the Small Boat Harbor, now Buffalo Harbor State Park, expanded facilities at Tifft Nature Preserve, redevelopment of some kind at the Canadian Pool elevator and Freezer Queen sites, and more. But north of that, within the scope of Empire State Development’s planning process, a stormy curtain of controversy and uncertainty has descended across the landscape—especially in regard to new development, privatization, and prospects for substantial parkland and ecological regeneration just a bike-ferry-hop from Canalside.

But in the last week, an image of the future of the northern Outer Harbor has finally begun to take focus. First, sources are categorizing ESD’s waterfront development arm Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation as having largely “gone back to the drawing board” on their draft plan, especially with respect to new development. And, much to the relief of community advocates, the Buffalo News reported last week that ECHDC appears to be in line to take title to NFTA’s port facilities known prosaically as Terminals A and B: two large structures and the surrounding land, including 500 parking spots. Further, according to ESD Regional President Sam Hoyt, they intend to focus mixed-use development on the north outer harbor in and around these former port facilities.

Hoyt told the Buffalo News he “envisions the complex used as a ‘water-related’ attraction that could feature housing, recreation, retail and entertainment. ‘Concentration of any development would likely take place at that parcel,’ he said. ‘It would make sense, given the existing infrastructure.’”

If borne out, this would be a big win for community advocates, who have been making the case from the beginning that any development between Fuhrmann Boulevard and the lake should follow exactly that pattern: at the former port terminal site, and with a mix of uses, including recreational and cultural. In fact, a letter advocates sent early in the planning process, suggesting that these facilities be included in the scope of planning, and calling for a halt to NFTA’s previous RFP process seeking to sell them to industrial interests, could well have provided the impetus for this change.

This suggests that the Outer Harbor planning process may be regaining its integrity, by getting past the development issue that ground it to a halt in October and returning to taking its cues from the aspirations of the community. On other issues, ESD and its planning team have listened to the community, for example by moving ahead with plans for a bicycle ferry, and putting talk of a new auto/truck bridge on the back burner in favor of the made-over Ohio Street connection. Ecological connectivity, shoreline softening, trails, and waterfront access, concepts that attracted so many green dots in the public planning meetings, have featured strongly in all draft alternatives. A re-alignment on development removes a major hurdle to public acceptance and could un-stymie the process.

Indeed, sources indicate the process is getting ready to move forward again. Hoyt told the Buffalo News last week that the next iteration of the Outer Harbor plan “is four to six weeks away from release.” Along those lines, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told me last week he’s heard that the ECHDC board (of which he’s an ex-officio, non-voting member) could take up a revised plan in February.

So with as much certainty as Buffalo ever has about these things, the forecast calls for a long-awaited clearing on the Outer Harbor.

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