Thursday, May 3, 2012

Old port, new park?

Buffalo's Toronto Islands?

by Bruce Fisher




Why Western New York needs a green front yard in the Outer Harbor

Back before anybody knew that giving the New York Power Authority a new license could bring a couple of hundred million dollars for waterfront development, there was a pretty good consensus about what to do with the 120 acres of brownfield-spotted landfill that used to be the Port of Buffalo—namely, that we should ask New York State to make it a park.

Back in 2003, then-Assemblyman Brian Higgins was keen for the State of New York take over Gallagher Beach. Then-Erie County Executive Joel Giambra had cut the ribbon with then-Congressman Jack Quinn on the Times Beach Nature Preserve. Giambra had paved a bike path from the gates of the Coast Guard enclosure on the Buffalo River all the way to the Union Ship Canal. And golf-addicted Giambra spoke to anyone who would listen about covering up the brownfields of the former Bethlehem Steel property with a Scottish links-style golf course, flanked by the Laird Robertson wind turbines on that high Bethlehem Steel “dune” of inert slag, so that the formerly industrial and commercial waterfront would be green, public, and accessible all the way from Lackawanna to Tonawanda Creek.

Then came the money, and it was the developers’ turn to churn out plans for how to take the public’s money and its land, too. One developer wanted to “invest” several tens of millions of public dollars and slice the Outer Harbor into boat slips, so that the land between the Bell Slip and Times Beach could become a replica of the townhouse colony that graces Erie Basin Marina. That plan got shelved when it became clear that brownfield remediation, plus new utilities, and the structural problem of the land there not being land at all but rather landfill, were too costly impediments even in a community accustomed to massive handouts of public funds for developers. Our region’s shrinking, aging population, where the median household income is $10,000 below the state median, and where a quarter of that income comes from transfer payments, also provides no identifiable demand for more million-dollar condos and townhouses than those already for sale in Montante’s Avant, Paladino’s Pasquale, and soon enough, potentially more coming in Croce’s Statler Towers and Termini’s Lafayette Hotel.

Nor did a developer duo’s plan for the Freezer Queen building bear fruit, theirs being a plan to give Buffalo a publicly subsidized waterfront hotel overlooking the Small Boat Harbor on one side and the former Ford assembly plant, yet to be re-purposed beyond warehousing, on the other.

Now the former Port of Buffalo land is once again being discussed as green space, and with the same good reasons that a few current and many former elected officials, including former Erie County Legislator Joan Bozer, have long noted. The park option is cheaper and more achievable than any handout-driven developer scheme, to be sure. But the true value of green space for a depopulating Rust Belt region is that it’s the most sensible option for land that once had a critical economic function, but that lacks such a function now.

The regional real estate market offers no rationale for adding housing units or office space on the city's waterfront.

More wallet than wit

The various development plans for the Outer Harbor have not included any wealth-creation components, such as, say, restoring the former Port of Buffalo to functionality as an actual port. There have been no plans advanced to reclaim the land for industrial use, say, for a manufacturer of wind-turbines, or for any other product. None of the plans for the land have included any proposal to construct an office campus for a prospective tenant that would employ people, either current residents or newcomers, in any income-producing jobs. Instead, every plan has been about wealth-absorption, either as a taxpayer-subsidized housing development or as a taxpayer-subsidized recreation zone.

It’s a given that money is no obstacle, so long as Albany can send the money to any of the real-estate developers that fund the political machine here. As both the Buffalo State College Center for Economic and Policy Studies and Albany’s Rockefeller Institute have shown, Western New York is a dependency of Albany, routinely receiving a billion dollars a year more than we pay into the state till. Any project that has a political upside is bound to get funded, so long as a developer gets a piece.

In the lull before some new developer-driven wealth-absorbing scheme is presented, advocates of a public park should move quickly to get their arguments marshaled. Here are the strongest points to emphasize to Albany:

• The place works fine as it is. The NFTA approved and completed a $12 million project to create the Outer Harbor Greenbelt. There is now a bike path, a 95-foot-wide green area around the path, a repaired shoreline, and much-improved spawning habitat at the Bell Slip for muskellunge and other native fish species. The public does not know much about this, but much of the old debris has been removed, and the place is quiet, pretty, and accessible. My trip from downtown to this breezy place of wildflowers, birds and peace took four minutes and 30 seconds over the Skyway, and along the way, I got a look at the south coast of Canada, and counted up another half-dozen Laird Robertson turbines, and glimpsed faraway lake freighters headed to Port Colborne and the soft hills of the southtowns.

• Toronto Island works for Toronto. This is ours. The kind of development that user-fee-paying users are clamoring for is soccer fields. Parents of young children might like to take the four-and-one-half-minute drive from downtown Buffalo, rather than the two-hour drive to Toronto, to take their pint-sized kids to a seasonal kiddie amusement park like Centreville. Or not. See point #1, above, with the possible caveat that we could do worse than to plant a hedge maze.

• We already have too many houses and commercial buildings. There is a looming two-million-square-foot surplus of commercial space in the Central Business District in downtown Buffalo. The City of Buffalo owns almost 6,000 vacant parcels. The US Post Office keeps track of more than 20,000 undeliverable addresses inside Buffalo alone and a growing number in both Tonawanda and Cheektowaga. There is no market rationale whatsoever for increasing the supply of either housing units or commercial office space.

• Until industry returns, wildlife and greenspace are good branding. The Outer Harbor used to produce wealth. Since the end of the 140-year era of Buffalo’s predominance as eastern Lake Erie’s waterborne freight destination, the Outer Harbor has had limited economic relevance. There are important new freight-transfer activities on the 1,200-acre Bethlehem Steel site, including the multimodal facility for Canadian lumber exports at the south end of the site, and some new freight-transshipment-oriented activity at the north end of the site. The long-delayed movement of rail lines and demolition of decrepit steelworks will open up the Bethlehem Steel site for more of that work, and the site also has a major protected slip able to accommodate four lake freighters, which have not docked there for thirty years. In sum, there are the stirrings of new commercial activity on the sites to the south of the Outer Harbor, but still insufficient demand even for the sites with established rail access, so banking the Outer Harbor as a clay-sealed and thus, green, wildlife-friendly, walkable, passive park makes much economic sense until there’s an economic rationale for doing something else.

• There is a $500 million bill awaiting us. The federal Environmental Protection Agency set a deadline of April 30, 2012, for the Buffalo Sewer Authority to submit its plan to deal with the 52 combined sewer overflow outlets that annually discharge four billion gallons of raw sewage into the Buffalo River, Scajacuada Creek, Buffalo Harbor, the Black Rock Canal, and the Niagara River. The EPA warned, in its March 15, 2012 statement, that an acceptable plan may cost as much as $500 million and take 15 years to implement. After Albany sends Buffalo a $1 billion check for economic development, somebody, probably including Albany, is going to have to pay for the sewer system reboot. Unless there is some demonstrable economic return for a new Albany investment in the Outer Harbor, one expects that it will soon get bumped down the agenda once again.

Outer Harbor park advocates have already gained a nod from Congressman Brian Higgins. Their next job is to convince the major media in Buffalo to stop referring to the Outer Harbor as inaccessible. Perhaps if a timed YouTube video of the actual trip from Niagara Square to Fuhrmann Boulevard could be set to music, the reality of our existing waterfront green zone might go viral, and end the developer-speak that still convinces many of our developer-funded politicians that our own version of Toronto Islands needs condos, townhomes, office buildings or canals. It doesn’t.