Future of Outer Harbor generates a multitude of ideas

August 8, 2014 Updated Aug 8, 2014 at 8:49 AM EDT

By James Fink, Buffalo Business First

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Future of Outer Harbor generates a multitude of ideas

August 8, 2014 Updated Aug 8, 2014 at 8:49 AM EDT

Do you have an opinion about what should happen with Buffalo's waterfront - including the Outer Harbor?

You are not alone.

Ask any five people about the future of the city's shoreline, especially the nearly 400 acres that comprise the Outer Harbor, and you will get a deep and varied list of answers and wish-list items.

The fate of the Outer Harbor and other water's edge property continues to be a hot button issue that triggers a wide range of emotions.

That was crystal clear during a pair of Outer Harbor potential development plans that were put up for public review Aug. 6 by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and again, less than 12 hours later Thursday morning, during a waterfront panel discussion sponsored by Business First.

Opinions were many, but there was one overriding theme at the breakfast - whatever takes place should be done thoughtfully and with a lot of input from many different sources.

"We're not sure why Buffalo is not known as a waterfront city, but that's got to change," said Tom Dee, president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Dee was one of five panelists taking part in the Business First discussion. He was joined by: Buffalo RiverWorks developer Doug Swift, business leader Howard Zemsky, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper Executive Director Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, and Mark Thomas, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation western regional president.

With the Outer Harbor land now in the hands of the ECHDC and the state Parks agency, its short- and long-term fate is fueling much debate. New York is turning nearly 200 acres into a state park that includes the 1,016-slip Small Boat Harbor. The ECHDC is reviewing options for the remaining 160 acres while the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which previously owned all the Outer Harbor property, retains about 50 acres where the sprawling Terminal A and Terminal B buildings remain. The NFTA hopes to find a buyer for those buildings and adjoining property.

San Francisco-based Perkins+Will is working with the ECHDC on a possible blueprint for its share of the Outer Harbor land is developed. That plan is being vetted and should be finalized this fall.

How the waterfront and Outer Harbor is transformed will go a long way towards helping the Buffalo region craft a new image both locally and outside of the 716 area code.

"We are determined to grow Buffalo into a cool, funky place," Zemsky said. "The waterfront is a big part of that."

Dee said when everything is tallied together, Buffalo's waterfront currently attract 4 million annual visitors. That includes people bound for Canalside events or to hockey games and concerts at First Niagara Center to those who go to such destinations as Wilkeson Pointe and put a jet ski in the water.

"I think we passed the tipping point last year," Dee said.

A key is finding that balance between providing unfettered public access to the water and land while also allowing for some level of private-sector development to take place. Finding the right mix is akin to walking down an urban planning tightrope.

"We shouldn't privatize the front of Lake Erie," Jedlicka said.

Swift agrees.

"We don't want to make the same mistake Toronto did when it walled off its waterfront with high-rise condos," he said.

"We don't need to create a second downtown on the Outer Harbor," Zemsky added.

Swift's Buffalo RiverWorks project, located on what was once industrial land along Ganson Street overlooking the Buffalo River, is considered a good example of marrying private-sector development interests with the need for public access along the water's edge. Buffalo RiverWorks, an $18 million development, will house a number of attractions including hockey and curling rinks, a microbrewery/restaurant, events center and, possibly turning the former GLF Grain Elevator into a hotel.

Buffalo RiverWorks will include enough amenities to serve as a year-round attraction.

"Getting people down here in the summer is a no-brainer," Swift said. "But, in the winter, people don't naturally think of coming to the Buffalo River. We're changing that with curling, hockey and the roller derby."

Swift said winter carnivals and other attractions will be developed as well.

The same is true for the series of historically aligned, Erie Canal replica waterways that will cut through a portion of Canalside, beginning this fall. With 37,000-square-feet of ice surface, Dee envisions the canals to be used for hockey, figure skating, public skating and, even broomball.

"We need to embrace the weather," Dee said. "We seem to hang our hats on bad weather. We shouldn't be doing that."

Waterfront development and public space both at Canalside and the Outer Harbor can help break those perceptions.

Thomas said fishermen love the Outer Harbor year-round capabilities. The state will be enhancing that with upgrades to the park that encourages more angling activities.

"We have to be able to get the fishermen there," he said.

The bottom line, all agree is finding that right mix for the Outer Harbor land and other Canalside and waterfront parcels.

"There's enough room for everything," Dee said. "We just have to be smart about it. We need to do what we did at Canalside, which is make it appealing."