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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.


#Placemaking #Buffalo

 

Look at me! I’m an urban planner! 

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Canalside: How to turn a Thruway underpass into something dynamic

A couple of weeks ago the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation held a Public Hearing which was an essential step in addressing two elements in the Modified General Project Plan for the Inner Harbor. One was the changes in their layout of the replica canals being proposed, the second the addition of Harbor Center, the exciting new project slated for the Webster Block directly in front of the First Niagara Center.

So I went to talk, and as far as I know, I was the only speaker in what was a sparsely attended affair for handling routine business. But it gave me a chance to speak, and vent a bit, about the need for better attention for the aesthetics of this emerging neighborhood which is now beginning to get a lot of notice from the public, thanks to the excellent job to date in developing the Central Wharf and the terrific programming and schedule of events there. People are clamoring for more, and the marketplace is responding.

But the ECHDC, which stands for the “development corporation”, needs to become more hands on to all the public spaces that have been too neglected, whether it be the bedraggled parking lot west of the Aud Block which is run by the Municipal Housing Authority, the below grade Amtrak right of way bisecting underneath the Thruway, where overgrown vegetation, debris and crumbling support walls make this channel an eyesore. The condition of the Aud Metrorail Station is an absolute disgrace. When is the NFTA going to step up and do the right thing and show some pride in what should be a showcase rail station for this city?

Then there is the Thruway underpass.

The I-190 bisects downtown in that area from east to west. Unlike the Skyway, where there has been continuing dialogue about its eventual removal, the Thruway is here to stay. Unfortunately, this elevated highway cuts off the central core of downtown from the Inner Harbor. The neighborhood beneath the bridge is dark and dank, a miss mosh of roadways, public parking lots, and gravel strewn nothingness.

Interestingly, the ECHDC has identified that real estate as future development parcels (labeled T1 and T2 on their MGPP). They would like to see the city abandon the stretch of Lower Terrace between Main and Pearl and cede it to their agency. And there is some talk of parking, perhaps some sort of kiosk type structures. The space poses some challenges, but done right, should present an opportunity not only to bridge the public spaces between downtown and Canalside, but do something dynamic and iconic.

Here are two examples presented from Florida. In recent years, the entire stretch of I-4 from Tampa to Orlando was rebuilt and in some places expanded. When the Florida DOT took on this project, they gave particular attention to critical neighborhoods, where overpasses could be made into assets instead of dead space.


In Ybor City, the historic district just on the outskirts of downtown Tampa, the first exit of I-4 just off of I-275 spills into this “town square” area. What they did here was finish off the support beams with a brick and stucco facade, add brick pavers, attractive landscaping, iconic light fixtures, and a wrought iron gate surrounding a reflecting pool. During the evening fountains spew water in the center of that pool, done to a light show of changing colors. It is an attractive and warm spot both by day and by night, and yet cars sail over the area and around on all four sides.

And check out the influence this public space has had on adjoining development. This is a Mickey D’s, of all things! Awesome!

Sixty miles to the northeast, I-4 bisects a very bustling and very busy Downtown Orlando. Right in the center of things stands the Amway Center, the glitzy new home of the NBA Orlando Magic. The arena sits right next to I-4, and even though it’s been open just a short time, has already been an economic shot in the arm for the adjoining neighborhood, where new retail, mid rise condos and townhouses, and parking structures also sporting ground floor shops are in abundance.

Just on the other side of I-4 is a neighborhood called the Church Street Station, an historic neighborhood which had become the bar and party district back in the 80s and 90s, but had fallen on hard times. Thanks to the new arena and explosive residential growth, it is enjoying a resurgence.

Again, what they did with the I-4 underpasses between The Amway Center and Church Street Station is pretty cool.

This is view looking eastward from the front door of the Amway Center

This is a hologram bouncing off one of the underpass support walls, changing colors and messages constantly

Check put the landscaping, light sculpture and passive mood lighting bathing the support trusses in different colors

Looks even more awesome at night!

The area was transformed thanks to mosaic brick pavers, street furniture, brick and stone planters with abundant landscaping, light sculptures, and passive lighting which floods the support trusses in ever changing colors. It is an attractive and inviting area which provides immediate connectivity to two critical districts in downtown Orlando.

Right now ECHDC President Tom Dee and his team have a bunch of balls in the air, what with the canals in the Aud Block, the Donovan Building, the Harbor Center the biggest marquee projects now in progress. Additionally, getting things actually done by the ECHDC poses yet more challenges, when they have to deal with other public entities, some of which might always not be too cooperative. Think about it, you’ve got the City of Buffalo, the Department of Transportation, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the New York State Thruway Authority, a very hands on Congressman Brian Higgins. All of which have a piece of this neighborhood.

Nonetheless, the dark and foreboding land which sits beneath the Thruway between Washington Street westward to past Pearl Street would greatly benefit from the attention and public infrastructure investment similar to the examples presented above.

2013 will be the most exciting year yet for those of us who have been watching and supporting and speaking out and working so hard to help deliver to this community The Waterfront We Deserve. Lets hope the finishing touches, the attention to detail, the cleaning up of pieces of the landscape and streetscape which need t.l.c., are items that the ECHDC and the City embrace and take up, as work concludes on the first section of the canals and One Canalside gets set to open its doors in the old Donovan building a year from now.

follow Andrew Kulyk on Twitter @akulykUSRT


Canalside: When is the NFTA going to step up?


Looking out at the panorama of the Central Wharf and the Inner Harbor at Canalside, it is almost like a dream come true. Cranes are in the air and shovels are in the ground everywhere one looks: the newest series of canals on the Aud Block are beginning to take shape. The new lawns and landscaping on the development parcels abutting the cobblestone streets under the Skyway have given the neighborhood a fresh new look (Props again to Terry Pegula!). Work is progressing steadily on the Donovan Building, redubbed One Canalside. One can only hope that things will move methodically along with the Webster Block and come next year at this time we will be looking at a big hole in the ground and a magnificent new structure will be taking shape.

With all the good things happening right before our very eyes, and people coming in throngs right now to enjoy the waterfront and its growing list of amenities and things to do, there remains one very large sore spot that needs to be addressed, and needs to be addressed now. And that is the sorry state of conditions of the two Metrorail stations that serve the Erie Canal Harbor neighborhood.

A little historical timeline here: when the Metrorail began service in 1983, the “Auditorium Station”, as it was then called, was the southern terminus of the main train line. Beyond that station was nothing but vacant rubble strewn lots, some old decrepit buildings and plenty of nothingness leading up to the rail storage yard at the old DL&W Terminal.

Things changed in 1996, when the new arena opened. Coupled with the HSBC Atrium, and new interest in Inner Harbor development, ideas were proposed to relocate the rail station to a location closer to the arena and the Central Wharf. In fact, then Congressman Jack Quinn secured funding for such a project in a Federal transportation bill. The station never got to the final design stage, the proposal languished, and the NFTA instead went ahead and built a temporary “events” station, basically two platforms augmented with some pretty hanging baskets, to be used when the arena was open for business. “Lighter, Faster, Cheaper.”… The mantra of the obstructionists who have sucked the life out of this community. That is what we got instead of a sleek, state of the art rail station to complement the emerging Inner Harbor.

As proposal after proposal and rendering after rendering for Canalside was rolled out in the past decade, the ECHDC’s planners and designers never addressed the condition of Main Street, and how road and rail station redesign would affect everything else going on around it. It became apparent that the NFTA had not been a participant in the planning and design of Canalside. Main Street was always drawn as a blank slate. Yet that piece of real estate, and the efficient design of public transportation to serve all of this neighborhood, is vital and crucial, and can not simply be ignored.

So what do we have today? The “Aud Station” is a rotting eyesore, with peeling paint, tumbledown platforms, and garish sports art that might have blended well when the Aud was steps away, but looks hideously out of place today. The track bed is crumbling and unsafe to cross over. The red tile pavers are uneven and falling apart. And sadly, the designers and builders of One Canalside are unable to move forward with their arterials and road plan for their new building, while the fate of the Aud Station remains in limbo.

The “Special Events Station” is no panacea either. Patrons have little protection from the elements in the cold weather, yet amazingly, hockey fans pack the rail cars in droves and Metrorail is a key component in delivering people to the First Niagara Center whenever something is going on. With the construction of the new building on the Webster Block, what a great opportunity this would be to build a permanent rail station on the west side of Main Street, and connect that with wide, weather-protected overpasses into the new structure and then across Perry Street into the arena pavilion. Climate controlled access into a sports venue is not a novel or unique concept – Montreal’s Bell Centre has a subway station right underneath the arena; in Washington DC, the Verizon Center is served by a Metro station. New York’s Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station and is connected to the city and the world. Why not here in Buffalo?

The NFTA needs to step up; they need to take part in planning and development discussions with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, the City, and the private investors who now have or will soon have a stake in Buffalo’s waterfront. And they need to respond.

There is one more key player in this scenario, and that is the involvement and leadership of Buffalo’s Senator, Tim Kennedy. This past year he took on the NYS Department of Transportation, for its egregious shortfall of funding in its allocation of state dollars to pay for road and bridge repair here in Western New York. The sum came to a massive $167-million shortfall. Kennedy held hearings, he demanded action, and in the end got the results for this community.

Once he is past the campaign season, Kennedy has an enormous opportunity to brand himself as the “Transportation Senator”. With his big win in restoring the rightful dollars to Western New York for roads and bridges, he can and should turn the spotlight to the NFTA in addressing the public transportation needs of his constituents, especially now that he will be representing most of the City of Buffalo. He needs to help bring the NFTA to the table in ensuring their cooperation with the DOT and the ECHDC as Main Street is reopened to cars, and that the transportation buildout serving Canalside and the cleanup of the station eyesores is accomplished post haste. And then there is the bolder brush: dusting off the 70s regional Master Plan for the buildout of the Light Rail system. Rights of ways, design studies and plans are in place. All it takes is the will, the political leadership and the fight for funding to make it happen.

Memo to The NFTA Board of Commissioners: Do the right thing. NOW. The Aud Station is an eyesore and it has got to go. Put the plans in place for a dymanic new Erie Canal Harbor Station and let’s get it going. This is yet another important component of The Waterfront We Deserve and you are the ones who can make it happen.

Follow Andrew Kulyk on Twitter @akulykUSRT


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. 


ECHDC Food Market Survey

Filed under: Waterfront
Tags: , ,

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is asking for the public’s input concerning restaurant and food market opinions and decisions.  I have an email in to ask, but take a look, fill it out, and let me know what you think it’s all about. 

I think it’s part of the planning for a proposed food market at Canal Side, and also possibly to prioritize what sort of restaurant concessions are approved or pursued. This way, when Goldman et al. complain about what ends up there, the Authority can point to the survey and argue that they sought and received public input, and avoid controversy over who speaks for whom. 


Outer Harbor

The Outer Harbor will cost millions to environmentally remediate, but has tons of potential once this place starts getting its act together again. Here’s something I wrote about it in 2004.

Personally, I think that the outer harbor should be designed as a mixed-use urban village, incorporating the ideas of New Urbanism. It shouldn’t be another office park. It should have character – cobblestone streets and brick fronts. It should have integrated, convenient underground parking. The NFTA should without a doubt extend Metro Rail to this new community. There should be ample retail and restaurant space. There should be easy access to a waterfront promenade/boardwalk & fishing pier. The possibilities are limitless.

Somewhat unfortunately, they still are.


Moot Suit: LP Ciminelli vs. Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation

In this week’s “7 Days” column, I referred to a suit filed November 5 by LP Ciminelli accusing the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation of irregularities in the bidding process for the construction of an underground parking ramp on the old Aud site.

The lawsuit is being withdrawn: ECHDC voted on Monday to table plans for the parking ramp for the time being, and on Tuesday sent letters explaining that the entire project was being reconsidered and rejecting all bids to the contractors who’d bid on the ramp, including LP Ciminelli and the Pike Company of Rochester, the company whose bid come in lower than Ciminelli’s, but only after the bid was revised after the bidding deadline, according to the suit.

So, a clean slate for ECHDC. Still, I think the suit makes for an interesting read. There are, of course, two sides to every story, and ECHDC’s side would have come out in court. That won’t happen now—but you can still read Ciminelli’s version of events.




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