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Waterfront Drama: Gioia Responds to Higgins’ Suggestions

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation Chairman Robert Gioia has responded to Congressman Brian Higgins’ calls for less development on the Outer Harbor. Gioia points out that the goal of the master plan was to create a year-round destination that was financially sustaining. The draft plan earmarks just seven percent for development according to Gioia, “an unusually low share relative to most successful and sustainable public urban waterfront property.” Gioia also reminds Higgins that he once supported a project floated by Uniland Development and Opus that would have put over 1,000 residential units in a number of high rises along Furhmann Boulevard. Ouch!


Here’s the letter:

Dear Congressman Higgins:

I am in receipt of your letter and, as always, appreciate your input regarding Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s continuing efforts to transform the once neglected Outer Harbor. As you know, we are at a crucial point for defining what Buffalo’s Outer Harbor will and will not become in the future. Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is extremely grateful for the ideas, opinions and questions that have been shared by many citizens and groups during this exciting public process.

That process was driven by public input, which you participated in, and ECHDC’s guiding principles, which are to ensure that the Outer Harbor would be accessible year-round, full of a diversity of things to do, and financially self-sustaining; to avoid the necessity of increasing the public’s tax burden to pay for such amenities.

On the whole, the draft plan for the Outer Harbor offers early implementation commitments and a comprehensive and ambitious long-term vision for an active, livable place with an emphasis on open space, waterfront access, wildlife protection, housing and cultural and recreational activities; with flexibility allowed for unforeseen conditions and opportunities (or shifts in preferences) in the future. The draft plan presented by urban designers, Perkins+Will was created to make the Outer Harbor an iconic waterfront destination of Buffalo.

Key uses under the 30-year draft master plan include restaurants; a new outdoor amphitheater; nightlife; an indoor market hall and recreation center; a signature museum; a public promenade; and a large “Great Lakes Park,” with a destination public playground. Despite recent statements to the contrary, the draft plan also preserves a vast share of open space and public waters between Buffalo Harbor State Park and Times Beach Nature Preserve. The draft plan recommends less than one-fourteenth (or about 7%) of public Outer Harbor lands for development—an unusually low share relative to most successful and sustainable public urban waterfront property.

While many people have expressed a desire for housing, others are worried that the preliminary plan has too much residential space on it. We have learned from other waterfront development in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, that the plan will need economic activity in order to be financially feasible and maintain a user base sufficient to support other activities. The public preference for housing for multiple income levels that would maintain public access to the waterfront is reflected in the plan. This housing will be market driven and will not be comparable to the exclusive housing that limits public access at the Inner Harbor.

Successful waterfronts are popular and economically sustainable because they are woven into the fabric of their cities, full of diverse things to do for many different people, and connect their populations to the water. As the Outer Harbor is significantly isolated in this respect, it will not be a financially viable location for other exciting uses such as cultural institutions, amphitheaters, restaurants, playgrounds and recreational facilities unless it has a highly active, year-round user base. Adding a small residential population contributes to the overall viability of the Outer Harbor and helps achieve the goal of increasing the available activities for all visitors across the site.

The proposed plan needs to stand apart from previous efforts that never got out of the gate, such as the $350 million Opus-Uniland development project, which you strongly supported. That plan proposed more than 1,000 residential units on the Outer Harbor and added an array of projects including an indoor sports field house, concert amphitheater and a 300,000-square-foot convention and conference center, while generating over $22 million in tax revenues to the city and the county.

The new plan must be action-oriented, diverse in its uses and offer benefits to all of Buffalo, and not just one group or use. This is an opportunity to position Buffalo to have a waterfront that will celebrate our unique location on Lake Erie. It is a chance to promote the natural environment, provide a waterfront destination for residents and tourists to visit and encourage limited commercial and residential investments that will benefit the community. This moment in the City of Buffalo’s continuing recovery is a special window of opportunity that has not been open for generations. Let’s not miss it—let’s build a diverse, remarkable and sustainable waterfront together.


Robert Gioia
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

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