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ECHDC Ignores Ryan’s Call for Transparency in Outer Harbor Planning Process, Public Forum

This post contains additional information related to Alan Oberst’s story in this week’s Artvoice.

On Thursday, October 16, 149th District Assemblyman Sean Ryan held a press conference at Times Beach on the Outer Harbor, to discuss the Outer Harbor planning process currently underway by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), with a consulting team led by Perkins + Will. Below is a transcript of Ryan’s statement, made by the author from video taken by the author at the press conference. Following that is the text of a related letter Ryan sent to ECHDC about this matter, provided by Ryan’s office.

As of November 12, nearly a full month later, Ryan’s office said they still do not know ECHDC’s timeline for approval of the draft plan, as they requested, nor did they receive a response to their request that ECHDC hold a public forum where the public would be able to speak openly. Further, Ryan’s office was not aware that Chairman Gioia recently told the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, as Artvoice is reporting, that he adamantly opposes such a forum.

The image accompanying the post showing Ryan at Terminal A and Wilkeson Pointe on the Outer Harbor was tweeted by Ryan on October 3.

SeanRyansHandyAndEasyToUseGuideToOuterHarborDevelopment

TRANSCRIPT (Created by author from video taken at October 16 presser.)

Thank you for coming out today. It’s a bit of a foreboding day, but I think we’re going to get some more sun.

As you know, we’re in the middle of a public conversation about developing our waterfront.

Perkins + Will is a firm that’s been selected by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation to develop a plan for the Outer Harbor. They’ve released their draft plan, and are expected to release a final plan in the coming months.

I recently joined Congressman Brian Higgins to announce that we are endorsing an alternative plan for the Outer Harbor, and that was a plan developed by the Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper. The Riverkeeper plan focuses their development in Terminal A and Terminal B, which is up on this side of the Outer Harbor [points south] and puts a greater emphasis on creating opportunities for the public to get to the water’s edge, and creating more recreational opportunities for the general public.

The public has made it abundantly clear that they do not want extensive housing developments scattered around the Outer Harbor. But ECHDC does not seem to be hearing the public. There is a firm disconnect between what the public is clamoring for and what ECHDC is trying to deliver. The disconnect happens partially because of the public process that ECHDC took to get to this point. If you attended any of the processes, you will know that you were able to see a lot of different pictures, and you could put your yellow Post-It Note where you thought what we should do on the Outer Harbor.

So the yellow Post-It Notes were what people perceived as their votes. Well, when the votes were counted it became abundantly clear that housing wasn’t something the public was interested in. ECHDC took a different message from the charrettes. They took the message that a substantial number of the public is interested in housing. Well, that defies any sort of logic, if you actually counted the tabs that day. A very, very small number of tabs said housing. And a lot of the tabs that were placed on housing were actually quite critical of concept of making a condoized Outer Harbor.

So the community is a bit in the dark, because they feel as though they’re not being heard. Well, part of the reason they’re not being heard, is because they’re not being allowed to speak. So far the community’s input has been limited to placing your yellow Post-It Notes. But a reason that ECHDC is not hearing the public is because the public has not been allowed to speak.

So there’s some problems going on with the Outer Harbor planning process. One is that ECHDC has never publicly posted the RFP that they issued for Perkins + Will. So we don’t know, as the public, what Perkins + Will is being paid to deliver. Second is that, when they unveiled their draft plan, for the public to view, they did it on primary day — certainly a day where most of the public’s mind is somewhere else. So we’re calling on ECHDC to put the RFP up on the web site so people can take a look at it.

But we’re also calling on ECHDC to tell us their timetable. Since they’ve released this draft final plan, there has been a big public clamoring and uproar about what is ECHDC going to do next, what is their timing on this? No one knows the timing, because the ECHDC hasn’t told the public. They told me that the final plan won’t be looked at until the end of this year. But then they’ve expressed to different people that the final plan will be approved in October and November. The public deserves to know what the timeline for approaval is, and also the ECHDC has responsibility as a public authority to share this information with the public. ECHDC can’t play “Hide the Ball.” They can’t try to avoid public outcry by not telling the public when they plan on approving their plans.

Some troubling things have popped up since we looked at this whole plan closer. One is if you just go down to Wilkeson Pointe here, you’ll notice that it was never integrated into Times Beach. Ever since Wilkeson Pointe opened, the public loves it, they love going out here. But I’ve had several calls asking me, “when are they going to finish Wilkeson Pointe?”, because the front two thirds haven’t been finished yet. It’s been revealed that, in ECHDC’s mind, it will be finished with 700 units of private development, that will go right to the water’s edge at Wilkeson Pointe. That’s not what the public is interested in! Also, that decision was made over a year ago, before there was any public planning process. So, it’s pretty clear the direction the ECHDC wanted to head. And it almost makes you question: why bother having a public planning process if, in fact, you know what the outcome is already going to be — and that outcome is 2100 units of condominiums on the Outer Harbor. So, it’s a bit troubling that it looks like there was a predetermined outcome to the process, and perhaps the public’s voice wasn’t heard at all because they already knew where they were going.

So many elected officials and public leaders gathered together to ask NFTA to transfer this land to the ECHDC so we could develop it for a public use. We didn’t work that hard to transfer the land, to make the Outer Harbor into a condominium development. That was not our intention, and that’s not the public’s intention.

So at this time, we’re asking ECHDC to do a few things: One, is release the RFP — put it on their website so the public can see. Two, establish a timeline, so the public will know when you plan on approving the draft plan, but also when you plan on approving the final plan. And three, the most important: ECHDC needs to hold a public hearing where people can speak to the Harbor Development Corporation. It’s abundantly clear that the ECHDC has it in their obligations to listen to the public. But we need to set up a forum where the public can be directly heard on this issue. I’m confident that if ECHDC holds this forum, they will listen to the public, and they will change their plan. But they’ve got to create a forum where the public can be heard. And if ECHDC refuses to hold a public meeting, I will waste no time organizing one myself, so the community has a voice in this process going forward.

Thank you very much.

Q [WGRZ]: Is this in the same vein as what you announced with Congressman Higgins recently, or is this different?

A: It’s in the same vein. What Congressman Higgins and I were talking about is we need to push our development to Terminals A and B. They’re historic buildings, built on the strength of what’s already on the Outer Harbor. We can’t build a vibrant harbor by ignoring more than a half million square feet of built space and we’re just going to develop around there. That doesn’t work. You need to develop from your strengths. That’s a built-out area already — there are roads there, water there, sewer there. Any development we do out there needs to start there.

Q [WGRZ]: You’re still in line with Riverkeeper?

A: We’re still in line. What we’re asking for is the public process. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is spending the public’s dollars. We need them to be transparent, but we also need them to listen to the public. They’re saying, “the public wants housing on the Outer Harbor. We can’t deny the public the opportunity to live on the water’s edge.” Well, that’s not the public I’m nearing from, and ECHDC needs to open up.

PHOTO: Sean Ryan speaking at presser. Image credit: Alan Oberst

PHOTO: Sean Ryan speaking at presser. Image credit: Alan Oberst

RYAN’S LETTER TO ECHDC:

Robert Gioia
Chairman
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation
95 Perry Street, Suite 500
Buffalo, NY 14203

Dear Chairman Gioia:

I write today concerning the plans for Buffalo’s outer harbor developed by Perkins and Will. New York State, through the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), has done outstanding work in recent years to transform Buffalo’s waterfront into something we can truly be proud of. The success of Canalside in Buffalo has been breathtaking, with hundreds of events each year, and tens of thousands of people flocking to see the transformation of this great public asset. Attention is now focused on the development of 170 acres of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. Going forward, two very important steps must be taken to ensure transparency and accountability. First, ECHDC needs to publicly release their timetable for approval of a final plan for the Outer Harbor. The community is currently in the dark, and decisions are being made without any additional public input. It is important for ECHDC to fully disclose their process for the planning of such an important public asset. Second, in order to better engage the public, an open public meeting should be held before the final outer harbor plan is released. An open meeting, with back and forth dialogue between the public and ECHDC will help to improve this plan, and ensure that it is truly the vision our community is looking for.

There have been a number of problems with the planning process for the Outer Harbor. It is vitally important for the ECHDC to correct these problems going forward. The “post-it” public sessions did not provide the community with the chance to give true public input. There needs to be a dialog, person to person, in order to understand what the community wants to see on the Outer Harbor. That is why an open public meeting is so important. We also need to keep in mind, that the draft plan you are currently working with, was released to the public for discussion on primary day in September, a day when many people, especially including elected leaders in this community, were focused on the election. Holding a public meeting on primary day was a poorly conceived idea. In addition, the RFP for the Outer Harbor is still is not available for the public to see. This is concerning because we do not know what guidelines Perkins and Will are following. Are they being directed to construct a certain number of housing units? Are they to devote a certain amount of the space for housing development and related amenities? We do not know the answers to these questions, because we have no idea what is in the RFP. In addition to disclosing the timetable, it is important for the ECHDC to let the public see what is in the RFP.

The goal of outer harbor development should be to preserve and expand the public’s access to the water. After all, the water is the draw that makes all of this possible. Again, I ask that you release your timetable, and schedule an open public meeting soon so that the public can have a frank and open discussion about the future of our outer harbor. I look forward to hearing from you regarding this important matter.

Sincerely,

Sean M. Ryan
Member of Assembly