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Our Waterfront, Ourselves

Seattle's Pike Place Market

After Bass Pro, new ideas take shape

There is great news from Norway, a country with limitless oil revenue and a pretty much uninhabitable interior. Norway will be host to an international conference later this fall that will bring together many experienced designers, planners, and developers to discuss good ideas about waterfront development. Next week in Sweden, the Canadian Urban Institute will host a similar event in Malmo, a Buffalo-sized city that has been water-oriented since, oh, about the time its native Vikings rowed their longboats to practice their version of cultural tourism in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Russia, and other places whose gene pools they enriched.

Can Buffalo learn from other cities? Of course—just so long as we remember some facts about ourselves. When we forget that every responsible observer projects continued population decline in Buffalo-Niagara for the next 20 years, when we overlook our sprawl-induced lack of population density, when we gloss over our isolation from the major population centers of the East Coast, we enter our own version of Neverland—the land where we never get it right.

The challenge that some folks in this community are now bravely undertaking is to make sure that Buffalo’s models for redevelopment be relevant to Buffalo.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation got this community into trouble by designing a waterfront development proposal based on Baltimore, which is in a metro area of 22 million people that includes the nation’s capitol and which expects significant population growth by 2020. Buffalo, like so many Great Lakes cities except Chicago, is not a big place. We are in a metro of 1.1 million that will become 1.0 million by 2020.

Numbers matter. The distinctive challenges of the Great Lakes communities begin with a recognition of what we are. That doesn’t mean throwing up our hands in despair—but it does mean figuring out whether we are after visitors or whether we are after a sustainable context for the people who live here.

Strangely enough, folks who have been working for years on the sustainable context seem to have stumbled upon the right formula for attracting visitors. Architectural tourism, which used to have major support from Erie County and from New York State, today gets Buffalo about 70,000 visitors a year, up from 1,000 about 10 years ago. Fallingwater, the Wright residence in western Pennsylvania, gets about 140,000 a year. A realistic goal for Buffalo is to get up to the Fallingwater number. It has taken 10 years to get halfway there. The word is getting out about other distinctive Buffalo offerings. The Garden Walk gets a few thousand out-of-towners, but the reason the Garden Walk works is because it’s mainly about sustainable context for residents, and about re-invigorating the urban landscape for people who live here or nearby. These are successes—but the reality is that the in-city population, like the metro population, continues to shrink. Buffalo was 328,000 in a county of 960,000 in 2000. Buffalo today is at best 275,000 in a county of 908,000. The 50,000 people who are no longer here decided to leave the very place where we have succeeded so very well with our community sustainability projects.

What we have to ask ourselves is whether our post-Bass Pro visioning will be more pie-in-the-sky imported from places where the economic fundamentals are very different, or whether get down to the business of thinking about how to succeed in our own context.

I think we can succeed. The vision of clean water and green space, of an environment that is a safe public play space, seems financially achievable and also sustainable. If the Goldman v. Bass Pro lawsuit is successful, then this community will have about $9 million a year for the next 20 to 30 years from the New York State Power Authority re-licensing settlement available for getting us something sustainable.

Think of the Buffalo River today—a filthy, sewage-laden stream that this fall will start getting some of its toxic sediments dredged out by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Notwithstanding the fact that untreated sewage flows into the Buffalo River at least 50 days a year (i.e., whenever it rains enough for the storm sewers to mix with the sanitary sewers), people love the Buffalo River. East Side locals cherish the Seneca Bluffs project, which won a national award a few years ago as a model for urban reclamation. Drive to the foot of Smith Street and see the lovingly painted murals on old railroad abutments, and if you can shoo the necking teen-agers away and get a parking spot, you can see where kayakers put in to a quiet, wind-protected river that winds past grain elevators that loom overhead as if part of the set design from The Lord of the Rings. At the foot of Hamburg Street, a new mini-park will house the ice boom and give small-boat users some new access. Downstream from the Ohio Street bridge, past the Bison Rod & Gun Club, there’s a park, then the new Scholastic Rowing Association’s white fabric boathouse, then some land known locally as “Peg’s Park” because South Buffalo icon Peg Overdorf, who runs the Valley Community Association, helped spur Erie County and New York State to get a few more acres of riverfront given over to public access.

Some folks like to think that if those green spaces could be strung together, connected to the Inner Harbor and then to the 100 or so acres of the Outer Harbor, Buffalo would then have a new, sustainable park system that would be a fit addition to our Olmsted legacy.

That’s what locals have been quietly working on. But here’s what could happen to us if we anoint visionary outsiders to come in and tell us about the great waterfront successes of the growing population centers of America, places like Seattle, on the theory that Buffalo and Seattle have a lot in common.

At one time, Buffalo and Seattle did have much in common. Back in 1975, just like in Buffalo, there were billboards that read “Will the last person to leave Seattle/Buffalo please turn out the lights.” Back then, a couple of Seattle’s major old-line industries were in deep trouble. But Boeing and Weyerhaeuser, unlike the steelmakers and grain-millers and aerospace engineering firms of Buffalo, did not leave. Nor did the massive US military presence in and around Seattle and Puget Sound depart. God bless our Buffalo Naval and Serviceman’s Park, but not since Admiral Peary and the War of 1812 has Buffalo had nearby Navy yard employing thousands. And we didn’t have Bill Gates, either. He’s the Seattle native who went home in the early 1980s, then got an antitrust exemption from the US government that made the IBM-Microsoft “tying arrangement,” which every law student learns is flatly illegal, legal. Afterwards in Seattle, as in formerly down-on-its-luck Portland, Oregon, came the astounding boom in containerized cargo from the Pacific, making their ports boom. By sad contrast, Buffalo lost its relevance as a port when the Saint Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1957.

At the upcoming conference in Norway, the Seattle folks who run the phenomenally successful Pike Place Market will tell everybody how their market became an anchor for the distinctive culture of their waterfront city.

Sure it did. The Pike Place Market got rebuilt because the demand was there. Supply rose to meet it. In Buffalo, the demand is not here. Yet the public sector keeps creating more and more supply—of infrastructure, of entertainment venues, of education spaces, and, through tax breaks that are effective developer subsidies, of private spaces, too, especially housing and commercial real estate. We have a massive excess capacity of all of this stuff, an excess that we cannot absorb. Four houses are being built for every household being formed. There is a 22 percent oversupply of central business district office space. Buffalo-Niagara has over-retailing as bad as Cleveland’s or worse. No wonder Harvard’s provocative economist Edward Glaeser got so much play a couple of years ago when he came to town and told Buffalo to stop investing in things and instead invest in its people.

As preservationist, restaurateur, historian, and litigant Mark Goldman pointed out in a recent Buffalo News column when he criticized the plan to massively subsidize retail stores in Erie Canal Harbor, creating supply does not create demand.

So here is a bold suggestion: It’s time for settling on some common goals—things that we might be able to get everybody to agree on, like clean water, beaches that won’t make you sick, and green space that people can actually get to, and that should stay undeveloped today and tomorrow until somebody wants to invest their own money rather than ours.

Can we aspire boldly? How about we aspire to creating uniquely beautiful parks that will endure for as long as Olmsted’s has endured. How about we aspire to creating a new riverfront park and trail system that starts at the polluted old grounds of Republic Steel and goes the entire length of the Buffalo River. Preservationist Tim Tielman, East Side activists Greg Olma and Yuri Hrescheschyn, South Buffalo community leaders, Kaisertown citizens, and longtime civil servants who succeeded in giving us Seneca Bluffs and Smith Street and Ohio Street green space have lots of ideas, and some solid achievements along the way, too. If those achievements were not created as a unified system, it’s high time to start thinking of these jewels as elements of a greater whole, for piece by piece, this community has already demonstrated that it has a very clear idea: It wants access to the waterfront, even if the water today is so damned dirty that it makes us sick.

As the community meetings start happening and the big events start being planned, Buffalo should keep the doors open to outsiders and to their proposals. It helped focus us tremendously 10 years ago to have Roy Mann lend his credibility to the community’s decision to bring back the Commercial Slip, the bowstring bridge, the Central Wharf, and the historic street pattern of our old Canal District.

But we also need to do a better job of welcoming our own competent locals. That’s why there’s a buzz underway to create a series of community events at which knowledgeable locals can step forward and tell the rest of the world what they’ve been up to, some facts about where Buffalo is in its history, its economics, its population trends, and also in its finances. There are local experts who can tell the community which environmental challenges are urgent and which are super-urgent. What’s needed is a series of forums at which people can wish out loud for what they want and explain not only how to pay for it today, but also how to sustain today’s decisions in the years to come.

Bass Pro may be gone, but the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation still has a plan to find an anchor retail tenant for a retail-centered development. If Goldman v. Bass Pro loses in court, there may be no way to stop the stores for which there is no demand. Nonetheless, there’s some energy on the street these days. People are talking about coming together to think together about what to make of our waterfront. A central question, the question that the 40-odd member groups of the Canalside Alliance have been asking all along, is how to ensure that there is a net community benefit in whatever choice is made.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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