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A Time To Rally

The Party for a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Waterfront

When: Saturday, November 27, 2-5pm

Where: Commercial Slip, Erie Canal Harbor, foot of Pearl Street at Marine Drive, next to the Naval and Serviceman’s Park.

Why: Celebrate with great music and arts and food, and let the Erie Canal Development Harbor Corporation know: We can do better. Working together, we can start right now on projects that are “lighter, faster, cheaper.” We can win a community benefit agreement that ensures real community planning, green design and operations, quality jobs, and local businesses on our historic waterfront.

Preventing the fake canals

Erie Canal Harbor wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for a couple of hundred volunteers showing up one spring morning with snow shovels, rakes, garden spades, and fearsome-looking red and yellow plastic sandbox tools to demand that an appointed state board restore the original Commercial Slip, which is the actual terminus of the Erie Canal, instead of a fake, “replica” canal-like structure with a bit of water and no reality. The message then was simple and potent: The protestors said, “Dig the real canal or we’ll do it for you.” The state board then, as now, had advanced a plan to make a replica of the Erie Canal terminus. The state board then, as now, had spent a great deal of public money on a New York City architectural and engineering firm. Buffalo folks rallied, petitioned, wrote letters to the editor, and went to court, too, to stop all that.

And when the volunteers won, every politician in town was there to celebrate. Then-governor George Pataki came to town on the 175th anniversary of his predecessor DeWitt Clinton’s inauguration of the Erie Canal one fine October day. Pataki was presented with a jug of Lake Erie water, just as Governor Clinton had been in 1825. Clinton took that water down to New York harbor and performed the “wedding of the waters.” Pataki did, too. Schoolkids cheered. Everybody had a great day, and all the acrimony of the fight was set aside. It took another few years to get all the details ironed out, but by 2004, the court fight had been settled, and the government agencies and their recalcitrant personnel had been tasked to do the new plan, which was the volunteers’ plan—the plan to restore the Commercial Slip, the bowstring bridge, a long stretch of the Central Wharf, and as much of the historic street pattern as could be exhumed from the area that lay between Marine Drive and the Buffalo River.

The volunteers didn’t get everything they wanted. They’d proposed that a couple of buildings be reconstructed to the exacting specifications of the National Parks Service, an agency that activists have been hoping for decades would come to Buffalo and set up an interpretive center, similar to the one they have in Little Falls, New York, toward the eastern end of the Erie Canal. There wasn’t the money in 2004.

The deal was, however, close to being done. By 2007, the Commercial Slip had been excavated and re-watered. The Bowstring Bridge was up and walkable, as was the Central Wharf. The historic street pattern had been laid out again, and the foundations of many of the old canalside buildings had been revealed. Much archaeological work had been done—including an emergency bit of salvage archaeology one sunny weekend, when Tim Tielman and about 400 other volunteers successfully followed a trail of dump trucks out to a dump in Tonawanda where they scratched through all the cinders, slag, busted-up asphalt, and fill that Empire State Development Corporation had carted out of the Canal District.

The public got a lot of its wish: Our own historic site was finally accessible. We’d all hoped for some bathrooms, after all those millions of public dollars, but whatever—it was finally accessible. Local historians were finally able to lead tours there, to show the place where, in August of 1851, one of the great dramas of the movement to abolish slavery was played out—right there, right at that very spot where the Commercial Slip meets the Buffalo River. You can stand where Daniel Davis stood, and see what Daniel Davis saw: Buffalo Harbor, and across it, the Canadian shore, where he went to escape the Fugitive Slave Act that Buffalo’s own President Millard Fillmore had signed into law just a year before.

Local schoolkids and tourists alike could finally get the story about Dart and his grain elevators. A new generation of Italian-Americans could come to the place that their grandparents had known, because the Canal District was a dense Italian neighborhood until it stopped being a neighborhood. The Irish connection to the place is genetic, too, because the descendants of both 19th-century canal-builders and 20th-century grain-scoopers still dominate the neighborhoods just upstream. So many immigrants came through that very place between 1825 and World War I, first on canal boats, then on the railroads that ran into the Canal District, that some allege that Buffalo saw more newcomers into North America than even Ellis Island.

We were on track to have not only a good-looking, authentic historic site— unlike the mall-like Baltimore inner harbor, with its fake fiberglass replica cannons—and with it, a whole bunch of development parcels for entrepreneurs willing to risk their own dough, just as their historic predecessors did, long before Empire State Development Corporation and its various subsidiaries came along. It was a sensible plan, the 2004 plan: restore the old stuff, lay out the design criteria so that the Canal District actually looked like the Canal District, and let some brave soul step in, buy cheap, build, work it, and see if it caught on. As Niagara University’s Eddie Friel tells it, that’s what happened in the Docklands development in Dublin in Ireland. The development authority there did the infrastructure, then sold a few parcels quite cheap. Entrepreneurs moved in, then more, then suddenly, the tornado effect, where it caught on as a destination, and the land that had previously been worthless was the hottest property in the whole damned town.

That’s not what happened in Buffalo. The promise, or the threat, of Bass Pro is what happened here, and suddenly, all talk of small-scale local entrepreneurship, of authenticity of specialness, all went by the wayside. The local architects who had followed the memorandum of understanding that had settled the court case were dismissed, and the previous firm, the New York City firm, was brought back in. Suddenly, the community’s work on restoring the Central Wharf and the historic street pattern—with the 95-plus developable parcels—was set aside for a Bass Pro store that was going to go on the public space, and glass-in the historic street pattern for this particular iteration of this chain store.

Since 2007, the state board has spent more than $5 million on the New York City architectural firm whose previous work led to the rallies, the letters, and the court case—the firm that today offers architectural plans, drawings, animations, and presentations, all at great public expense, that feature fake or replica canals in a design that would put a big-box chain retail development where the 2004 plan envisioned local entrepreneurs.

It’s time to rally.

At press time, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation was still scheduled to hold a meeting on Monday, November 29, at which they will vote on their modified general plan. Here’s what’s in the plan:

• 398,650 square feet of retail space;

• 182,150 square feet of restaurant space;

• 263,600 square feet of office space;

• 120,000 square feet of hotel space;

• 194,400 square feet of residential space;

• 20,000 square feet of cultural space;

• 2,471 off-street parking spaces, including “five parking garages spread across the project area.”

The plan calls for $36 million of public funds for parking, $39 million for the “A-1 parcel development” and “anchor tenant allowance,” and $12.25 million for architectural fees and “soft costs.” Total public expenditure: more than $150 million.

In the past few weeks, while another group of volunteers awaits action by State Supreme Court on another lawsuit against a New York State board, the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” movement has taken shape.

Among its leaders are Tim Tielman and Mark Goldman. Tielman is aiming to convince ECHDC that its money would be better spent, with $100 million left over, on finishing the 2004 plan, including a new version—or even a re-construction—of the pavilion that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux built and which used to stand in what is now Martin Luther King, Jr., Park. The pavilion would allow all those quickly setup, quickly changing events, vendors, artisans, marketers, and entrepreneurs to do what they do, which is to take a public space and make of it a destination. Goldman sees the Erie Canal Harbor as part of a string of venues along the Ohio Street Connector, a string that will include Erie Canal Harbor, Peg’s Park along the Buffalo River, the grain elevators, and the riverfront spaces that are naturals for arts and festivals and programming that could feature the works of our own creative class.

The rally on Saturday, like the 1999 rally of the sand-shovels and the snow-shovels and the garden-spades, is an effort, once again, to let the elected officials and the appointed ones, too, know that local creativity, local culture, a sense of authenticity, and a dogged persistence are all still here, thriving, energized, and also utterly opposed to subsidies for somebody else’s leftover shopping mall.

Perhaps it was easier a decade ago, when the rallies happened in the spring, and when there was a sense of hope in the air. This time, the weather will be a challenge, but the task is arguably more urgent, for if the new state board decides to blow the public’s money on fake replica canals and parking garages and retail and office and restaurant space in a place that has too much of all of it already, we won’t have a popular new governor coming to town anytime soon to embrace the hopes of volunteers, smile at the cheers of schoolchildren, celebrate Buffalo’s liberation heritage, or promote the legacy of his visionary predecessor DeWitt Clinton. If the community shrugs at its challenge today, or stays home around the post-Thanksgiving hearth, chances are quite good that the governor on whose watch our money is spent won’t have anything but another derelict Buffalo commercial development to explain when he runs for re-election in 2014.

So get out there Saturday, and help the poor guy, before he gets stuck with a true turkey.

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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