NFTA to consider call for waterfront land transfer

May 14, 2012 Updated May 14, 2012 at 6:43 AM EDT

By James Fink, Business First

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NFTA to consider call for waterfront land transfer

May 14, 2012 Updated May 14, 2012 at 6:43 AM EDT

After years of stalled efforts and unmet promises concerning a large stretch of prime Buffalo waterfront land, a game plan has been established to turn the property over a state agency whose primary focus is transforming Lake Erie frontage into viable real estate.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is pushing for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to sell more than 384 acres of waterfront land along Fuhrmann Boulevard to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., who in turn would begin a series of improvements designed to increase public access. Higgins estimates it will cost the ECHDC $11 million to make the renovations, ranging creating a sand beach at Gallagher Beach to dredging the waterway and constructing a new series of walking and bike paths.

The land in question, commonly referred to as the Outer Harbor, begins at the Seaway Piers at the northern end and runs south to just beyond Gallagher Beach. It includes the 1,006-slip NFTA Small Boat Harbor and the popular Dug's Dive restaurant. Dug's Dive would remain in operation under restaurateur Tucker Curtin.

Higgins would like the land transfer to take place by Oct. 1.

"Oct. 1 is a hard deadline to me," Higgins said.

The NFTA commissioners are expected to review Higgins' proposal when they meet in a pre-board meeting session on May 17. NFTA spokesman Doug Hartmayer said the authority will not make any comments until the commissioners review the proposal.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.'s directors are also reviewing the proposal.

"I think it is time to take the Outer Harbor to a new level," Higgins said.

The NFTA, which has owned the land for the past 58 years, has been considering a number of ways to divest itself of the property as it wants to focus on its bus and Metro Rail routes and operations at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Niagara Falls International Airport. Earlier this year, it had accepted a bid from Bear Development to sell the Small Boat Harbor and the neighboring Terminal A and Terminal B buildings for $3 million, but that offer was pulled after negotiations stalled.

The Bear Development purchase offer triggered an outcry that the NFTA should turn the property over to an entity such as ECHDC, with the intent of putting more of a public access focus on the property. Five years ago, the NFTA was close to transferring the Outer Harbor property to the ECHDC but that deal fell apart because of New York state's fiscal crunch.

In 2005, the NFTA named a development team led by the Opus Group and Uniland Development Co. as the designated developer of a 120-acre stretch of the Outer Harbor. A number of issues including access and the overall development plan ultimately killed that proposal.

Higgins said the Opus/Uniland plan that called for a mixed-use development anchored by high-end residential units, a hotel and convention center did not make sense.

"We don't need another city there," Higgins said.

Higgins has a lot of supporters in Buffalo and Albany for his proposal.

"I'd like to see the Outer Harbor get the same attention that the Inner Harbor has gotten," said state Sen. Tim Kennedy, who vowed to help push Higgins' effort in Albany. "Western New York wants progress and they want progress now, today."

The Higgins proposal comes as newly-elected Assemblyman Michael Kearns, a former Buffalo councilmember, has called for an 11-member commission to review Outer Harbor ownership and development possibilities with its report due back by January. Kearns' proposal does not have an accompanying sponsor in the state Senate. The harbor site is in the district represented by Kearns.

Kearns' proposal was shot down by his fellow rookie Assemblyman Sean Ryan.

"Now is not the time for blue-ribbon studies," Ryan said. "We've had enough of those. Now is the time for action."

Higgins said the momentum that is building inside downtown Buffalo's Canalside footprint, which is being developed by the ECHDC, could easily translate to the Outer Harbor, which is becoming more accessible than it has in recent years. More than $125 million in public sector-driven infrastructure improvements have been made to the Outer Harbor in the past few years.

The Outer Harbor, at one time, served as a key component in the industrial landscape that dominated Buffalo's waterfront from the 1800s until the early 1970s. Some have raised questions about environmental issues, given its industrial past.

Those should not be an issue, Higgins said.

Studies indicate the property may be environmentally safer than must assume.

"It is not as significant as people think it is," Higgins said. "For too long, people used that as an excuse for not doing anything on the Outer Harbor."

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