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The Outer Harbor. Again.

When I first started blogging about local issues in mid to late 2004, one of my first topics was the Outer Harbor. At that time, the NFTA was circulating three competing centrally-planned proposals for that land – the parkland proposal, the nice proposal, and what I called the “Elevator to the Moon” proposal, because it seemed to offer everything up to and including that feature.  I also called it Amherst-sur-Lac. (Of course, the NFTA picked that plan way back in early 2005. We’re still waiting.)  The Buffalo News endorsed it, as well. 

Parkland Edition

Mixed-Use Version

Elevator to the Moon Plan

The biggest problem with the Outer Harbor isn’t land use; it isn’t whether we lay a strip of parkland along the lake, or whether we turn the whole damn thing into little more than a seasonal festival grounds. 

The biggest problem is how contaminated that area is – and that’s not counting the fact that our self-perpetuating governmental, quasi-governmental, authorities, and public benefit corporations can’t decide who should own the land and control the process. It falls under the ECHDC’s jurisdiction, but is owned largely by the NFTA. Still. 

I’m not sure why the bus company owns land on the waterfront. Or why it should. Or why it hasn’t divested itself of it yet.  Or why it’s sat on it for 50 years. 

The contamination is longstanding and acute. It makes “what to do with the Outer Harbor” a moot question until millions of dollars are spent to fix it. 

Ultimately, what’s going to happen is a lot of finger-pointing, a never-ending process of public hearings, public “debate” over how the land should be used, and absolutely zero direction from Mayor Brown. We’ll probably have at least one or two lawsuits, and Donn Esmonde will periodically exit his semi-retirement to scold everybody, invariably supporting whatever group is first to court to seek injunctive relief. We’ll have the NFTA protecting its turf against the city, the state, and the ECHDC. We’ll have loads of renderings, 3D models, and maybe even a fly-through video presentation of what might be built there, but none of it will ever happen. 

10 years from now, the Outer Harbor will likely look largely as it does today because the primary goal of all these competing entities and interests is self-aggrandizement and self-perpetuation. It’s going to take initiative and motivation to pull together the money it’s going to take to turn that land into something that won’t poison anyone who spends more than a few hours at a time there, and money is hard to come by nowadays. 

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether the NFTA owns the property or someone else does. What ought to happen is that government involvement should be quite limited. A zoning plan with architectural guidelines should be drawn up, streets should be plotted and paved. Utilities should be brought to the properties, and a broker retained to market them. 

When it comes to projects such as this, Buffalo seems allergic to anything except a centralized plan, but what happens to this potentially valuable property ought to be left almost entirely up to the private sector. 

As for the parkland demanded by the Citizens for a 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor, I don’t have any problem with direct waterfront access being preserved for the public, and don’t have a problem with a strip of parkland bordering whatever development takes place and the water. What I would be opposed to is any notion that the entirety of that property be turned into parkland.   

The Outer Harbor should someday be home to people and retail businesses that support residential city living. Access should be available by boat, car, and the Metro Rail should be extended south to the small boat harbor and Tifft Nature Preserve.  

This area has been patiently waiting for decades for someone to carefully restore it to a safe and attractive use. Maybe this time we’ll get it right. But I’m not holding my  breath. 


  • Jesse Griffis

    Keep on pounding Alan.

    Though your call for minimal government control is strange to hear, it’s welcome. Clean it up and get the hell out of the way.

  • Anyone seeking a leadership role in government service, to solve problems and serve their community, should be required to do two internships. One in a competent city or county government (New York, Portland, etc) to build optimism, hope, and see what is possible with government planning and funding. The other in Buffalo, cuz, well, you know why.

  • joeschmidbauer

    Long live the Horizon Commission- on and on it goes-

  • Jesse Smith

    Is there really a pressing need to develop that land when Erie County is currently still losing population, and there is plenty of other vacant (and uncontaminated) land in Buffalo waiting to be redeveloped that would not require new streets and utilities to be built?

    • No. That’s why it shouldn’t be subjected to some sort of 3,000-member Mickey Kearns-led commission on what to do, followed by a top -> bottom plan with circles and arrows on the back of each rendering. 

  • Chris Ostrander

    There isn’t a better way to sum up the back-asswardness of the entire process for developing the waterfront. 5 renderings + 3 committees + 2 studies = 1 final project.

  • The biggest piece of the puzzle that is missing here is the grade level bridge connecting the foot of Main Street with the new Outer Harbor Parkway. Once that is in place, pedestrians, cyclists, cars and metro rail trains will easily be able to traverse from the Inner Harbor to those thousands of acres of land which lay fallow. It will be a compete game changer for outer harbor development plans,

    So what is the delay? Congressman Higgins had once stated that this was to be funded via some sort of 2012 transportation bill. I know they were working on environmental studies, looking at alternative designs etc. There has been nothing but silence from the Congressman on this important issue of late. Where are we at Brian?