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About the “Riverkeeper Plan” for the Outer Harbor

—by Alan Oberst

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the past year’s controversy over our Outer Harbor has been the “Riverkeeper Plan.” When Congressman Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan announced their opposition, last fall, to ECHDC’s preferred plan, they instead expressed their support for the “Riverkeeper Plan,” with graphics showing, essentially, the ECHDC plan with less development, and in fewer places. Many in the public, including this author, came to see those graphics as the “Riverkeeper Plan.” And we were wrong. How so?

At a recent panel discussion moderated by Dan Telvock, award-winning environmental reporter for Artvoice’s media partner the Investigative Post, Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper Jill Jedlicka was asked about the “Riverkeeper Plan,” and seemed relieved to have the chance to set the record straight. She emphasized that her organization’s plan is less about a graphic than a set of principles that should guide and inform any plan for the Outer Harbor—it’s more an alternate vision than a “plan.”

Click image for a larger view

Click image for a larger view

 Riverkeeper’s alternate vision was put together hurriedly, in the crisis atmosphere created in the wake of the September unveiling of Empire State Development’s preferred plan for the Outer Harbor. Riverkeeper was as caught off guard as anyone by that development-heavy plan (2,100 new residential units). Jedlicka told the panel that, because they had been working in what they thought was a collaborative manner with ECHDC, they thought they understood the preferred plan would de-emphasize development. (They weren’t alone in this: I was told by sources at City Hall, and even a member of ECHDC’s consulting team, that the question of housing went back and forth right up until the deadline, and some weren’t sure what they would see until the public unveiling.)

Click image for a larger view

Click image for a larger view

At the public unveiling, they learned that ECHDC planned to formally adopt the preferred alternative at their board meeting the following week. With just four days to respond, Riverkeeper’s planning team put together the set of principles and Photoshopped images taken from ECHDC’s plan, suggesting a possible compromise. Thinking they had only a few days to influence the process, they put out their alternative the quickest way they knew how: by posting it on their website.

While ECHDC’s Outer Harbor locomotive flattened all concerns like nothing more than a penny on the tracks, the brakes were thrown when Mayor Byron Brown and County Executive Mark Poloncarz, ex-officio though non-voting ECHDC board members, asked that the vote be postponed. That’s when the “Riverkeeper Plan” was taken up as a banner by Congressman Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, whose October press conferences made clear that ECHDC needed to go back to the drawing board (where, as of press time, they remain). Jedlicka is now taking great pains to clarify that it was not the Photoshopped drawings, but the principles, that Higgins and Ryan are supporting.

Those principles are:
1. Lake Erie is a public trust resource [in other words, It’s Everybody’s Waterfront (notice a theme?)]
2. High standards of excellence are needed for our entire waterfront
3. A vision for the emerging blue economy
4. Utilize comprehensive and integrated planning

If you haven’t yet (or it’s been since last fall), it’s worth taking a look at what Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper has to say about the Outer Harbor. Click here to visit the link.