Negotiations in works for Outer Harbor site
By JAMES FINK
[email protected] | 716-541-1611
For years, the nearly 400-acre Outer Harbor stretch of property that overlooks Lake Erie has been something of an economic development bane for its owner, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, and the public.
From leaders in the private and public sectors to residents, people have clamored for something to happen on what most consider to be prime real estate. To them, it represented economic development opportunity lost as the land sat fallow.
The Outer Harbor, which has been owned by the NFTA for more than six decades, is poised to have a new owner and a new future. Sometime this year, ownership will shift to a joint entity overseen by Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and the City of Buffalo.
"Don't think of the land as a headache anymore," said Andrew Rudnick, Buffalo Niagara Partnership president and CEO. "It can't be a headache anymore. We finally have all the right players thinking the same way about the Outer Harbor."
Brendan Mehaffy, Buffalo's economic development chief, said while the city and ECHDC are excited about the prospect of taking over the property, there are issues that must be negotiated with the NFTA, including price. Last year, the NFTA had a $3 million offer to sell the land to a private developer but the deal fell through. In December, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, urged the NFTA to sell the property for $2, the same price it paid when it acquired the land 65 years ago.
The price remains an issue at closed-door negotiations between the authority and the Buffalo/ECHDC ownership tandem.
"These delays are unnecessary," Higgins said. "It is bureaucratic nonsense. This is not the way to develop Buffalo's waterfront."
While the City of Buffalo and Erie Canal Harbor Development focus on waterfront development, it makes sense for them to assume ownership and chart a future course, he said. That template can be seen in how the Canalside area of downtown Buffalo has evolved.
"The ECHDC's singular focus is on the waterfront," Higgins said. "Buffalo is their perfect partner."
They were among four agencies the NFTA asked to bid on the Outer Harbor. Erie County and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation opted not to respond. Buffalo and the ECHDC, in late fall, decided to band together.
"The dialogue is happening (with the NFTA)," said Tom Dee, ECHDC president. "It has been a very progressive dialogue."
Mehaffy said the development and evolution of the Outer Harbor is something that will happen over a period of time.
"Given its size, it could 10 years or longer," he said.
The area is loaded with potential. Among its assets is the thriving, 1,106-slip Small Boat Harbor - the largest harbor in New York state and second-largest on Lake Erie. Each summer, most of the slips are rented and the harbor is a beehive of activity. Next door is Dug's Dive, a popular restaurant destination since being taken over by Tucker Curtin. Once the Outer Harbor ownership scenario is decided, Curtin has expansion plans for the restaurant.
The ECHDC is conducting a "sand survey" to Gallagher Beach, and land south of Times Beach can be made into public beaches on a permanent basis. A revamped Ohio Street will end at the Outer Harbor. Much of Fuhrmann Boulevard has already been rebuilt.
A two-mile-long greenway path, developed by the NFTA, circulates around the Outer Harbor and serves as a new public walkway that takes pedestrians and bicyclists near the Chinaman's Lighthouse at the edge of the Buffalo Harbor.
Douglas Hartmayer, NFTA spokesman, said whatever happens at the Outer Harbor, the authority insists on public access to the waterfront.
"We want it to remain that way in perpetuity," he said.
There are other issues, however.
Repairs to the Small Boat Harbor could top $30 million, including $11 million in breakwall repairs. Just how much environmental cleanup remains a question.
"Personally, I think people are using the environmental problems as an excuse not to go forward," Higgins said.
Mehaffy said remediation issues will be addressed.
"Remember - this is land with a history of industrial activity. Whatever happened there in the past has to be addressed."
Still, thought of developing almost 400 acres of prime waterfront land has Mehaffy and others in City Hall and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. excited.
"It is all very promising," Dee said.