ECHDC's plan for condominiums at Wilkeson Point, beside the Times Beach Nature Preserve.
ECHDC's plan for condominiums at Wilkeson Point, beside the Times Beach Nature Preserve.

GreenWatch: Outer Harbor Development

by / Jan. 27, 2015 8pm EST

Last summer the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) fast-tracked a planning process for Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. This rushed and poorly conceived plan ignored decades of ideas, strategies, and existing plans for the Outer Harbor. The process ignored significant input from the City of Buffalo and long-time activists and strategists including representatives of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Friends of Times Beach, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, and Congressman Brian Higgins. Higgins has long championed “appropriate development” strategies for the Outer Harbor, including open space. ECHDC ignored all of these investments and strategies. Almost all that are on the relatively recent historical record include considerations of significant open space and speak to profound ecological contexts and development that supports those ideas. Not the fast-tracked ECHDC plan. This is a developer-driven process designed to create public investment in infrastructure. One can speculate that the quick and relatively secretive process benefits ECHDC’s narrow stable of developers.

Concerns about the ECHDC plans to develop the waterfront were voiced early and often by many. The criticism seemed to catch the ECHDC by surprise despite the fact that the critics had tried to engage the ECHDC and their consultants repeatedly before, during, and after the fast-tracked process. The “final plan” was introduced at a presentation at WNED Studio’s last September. The event did not allow public comments. Many attending the event were dismayed and angered by the presentation. The plan includes development including the creation of a new urban “neighborhood” in Wilkeson Pointe and around Times Beach Nature Preserve. You may recall that Wilkeson Pointe, directly adjacent to Times Beach, was introduced two summers ago as a beautiful new park destination for citizens and wildlife to enjoy. The final plan calls for turning this park into a condo village, which will greatly hinder public access to and enjoyment of the waterfront.

After significant public outcry, the final plan was stepped back as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ECHDC leaders—including Chair Robert Gioia, and President Tom Dee—scrambled to protect their interests. Evolving critiques include insightful public concerns about turning pubic space into private development, an ignorance of the ecological value of places such as Times Beach and the public shorelines, and a lack of any real economic argument as to how the sprawling development proposed by the ECHDC would pay for itself. What, many people are asking, are the real benefits of this plan to the broad community interests? Clearly, developing these new neighborhoods would cost the taxpayers and residents a bundle with little or no short or long term financial return. The only immediate return is a guarantee of restricted public access to a privatized waterfront. Goodbye, Wilkeson Pointe. Hello to a gated condo playground, courtesy of taxpayers who could never afford to live there.

Now, the ECHDC is going to unveil a new “final plan.” This was announced in the January 15 issue of the Buffalo News in an article by Mark Sommer: “Waterfront Officials say changes to Outer Harbor plan ‘will reflect much of the feedback’ they have heard.” 

The article says that the new plan will not focus on the northern end of the Outer Harbor, where both Times Beach and Wilkeson Pointe are located. Instead development will start with a focus on the southern end of the Outer Harbor near the new state park. On the surface it almost seems that this new final plan is a conciliatory message to those who find this whole ECHDC mess to be an abdication of the public trust, an investment in sprawl, and a small-minded, short-sighted, secretly-developed-by-insiders-only slam dunk that the ECHDC has tried to ram down our communities throat.

But that veneer is not very deep.

This so-called new approach continues the smoke and mirrors campaign that we wrote about last September. 

Let’s make this clear: Gioia and the ECHDC are not backing down from development around Times Beach and in Wilkeson Pointe. When Tom Dee, president of the ECHDC, was asked last fall about maintaining public and open space on the Outer Harbor, he said, “No, we will not commit to that, that is just bad planning.”

Sprawl or vision?

The intent of the ECHDC plan is to fully develop the Outer Harbor into privatized neighborhoods that will restrict public access. The few green spaces that they are pretending to pay attention to are mirages. The alluring, “green” images provided by Perkins and Will, the contractor that created the final plan, depict expensive coastline alterations and other extravagant public park accommodations, including expensive maintenance, lawn, concert, and parking contexts. 

Gioia and Dee have made it clear that all future development will be “market-driven.” “If you want green space, you need to pay for it with the residential development” is the mantra coming out of the ECHDC public relations machine. But how is ECHDC going to pay for a plan that promotes sprawl for which there is no existing market? There is no market for this kind of development unless it is a created market. This whole plan is about creating a market.

Whether or not this market eventually comes to fruition, public money and lots of it will continue to be thrown at it both by creating infrastructure and by engineering public opinion toward supporting the concept of privatizing the Outer Harbor as its highest value. As Sean Ryan has often said, “It will take tremendous public investment to make this area marketable.” That’s why the ECHDC has a public relations team.

Privatizing public land is bad for Buffalo. What we need a plan that benefits a wider community. We can have a world-class waterfront, city, and region. Sprawl and a campaign to create a market for that sprawl is the dictionary definition of bad planning.

An important part of a world-class vision has to recognize that public participation, public land, and public access should not be diminished. These are community resources that build opportunities and quality of life. This concept helps to inform a vision that recognizes that the highest values center on stewardship and not the emaciating values of exploitation.

We live in a unique place and in a unique time. This should drive us toward a world-class vision for our community and region. The Great Lakes in our front yard contain 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water. The lakes and fresh water systems around the globe are in steep decline. Although we are working hard to reverse this, we are facing challenges with the environment and climate change that humans have rarely if ever faced. This has a lot to do with how development and economic exploitation impacts our water. This has a lot to do with habitat destruction, development strategies, and cultural values. This has everything to do with Buffalo, our Outer Harbor, and how we understand and plan for our future and our relationship with our surrounding ecosystems. Our quality of life and our future is at stake.

A world-class vision needs to recognize the importance, beauty, and ecological integrity of where our waters and lands intersect. It needs to recognize that the Outer Harbor is both part of a greater whole, meaning connected lands, waters, and communities. This includes all of those that are in and adjacent to designated boundaries, and beyond. This view effects and characterizes our economic strength and resilience. What we do on the Outer and Inner Harbors has profound impacts for instance on what we do in the urban core, along the Buffalo River, and all along the Niagara River strait.

The message of the vision is simple. We need to focus on our most valuable assets: water, biodiversity, and the human quality of life that they sustain. Our economic development standards need to step up and promote a vision that will ensure a vibrant and thriving future for many generations. Short-term economic scheming by low-minded thinkers needs to be kicked to the curb, just as the Bass Pro idiocy was kicked to the curb.

ECHDC leadership fail

The best thing that can be said about the ECHDC and its leadership at this point is that it represents a disingenuous artifact of a process run amok with vast sums of public money. Sadly, the ECHDC leadership does not seem to be willing to work with a wider community on how we design and plan our waterfront. Both the process and the attitudes toward the public that Gioia and Dee express are divisive and cannot help us as a community move toward a mutually beneficial future.

Gioia expresses a deep contempt for those that dared to critique the ECHDC Outer Harbor plan and process. He has derisively called critics of the final plan “environmentalists” and “carnival barkers.” He says that the environmentalists “are more concerned with headlines over dialogue.” 

We are concerned more with public benefit over private profit. Mr. Gioia, these ad hominem attacks on so many of us that have invested significant parts of our lives in finding ways to both protect and enhance the value of the Outer Harbor and our community is not a way to encourage dialogue. Many think that your lack of transparency and your leadership style has harmed our community’s capacity to move toward a truly sustainable future and a world-class waterfront. We have and will continue to try to work with our community’s leaders to build a waterfront and a community that will be world class.

Many of us invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into the summer-long “process” and into trying to connect with ECHDC. We know that the ECHDC Outer Harbor process and plan has failed this community, just like the Bass Pro fiasco failed this community. We see no evidence that the ECHDC will change this pattern of behavior and we are not willing to enable you to continue. We know who is barking to the media, who is chasing the headlines, and who is refusing dialogue. It is not us. We have availed ourselves of your one-sided process. We have not been heard. We are still willing to meet. But we have lost our confidence in your ability to lead. The environmental community wants a thriving economy and a resilient sustainable community based on our treasured resources. The Outer Harbor and the Great Lakes waters that surround us are high on the list of our most treasured resources.

Please, Mr. Gioia, stop now. Step aside and let this monologue turn into a true community dialogue that must evolve from citizens. We will not give up in our efforts to defend our community’s assets. We will fight hard for our future. We will not give up. We will not give in. We will not be silenced.

Jay Burney is a founder of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve and founder of GreenWatch, a Learning Sustainability Campaign project designed to help media makers and media consumers understand environmental and sustainability contexts.