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Outer Harbor: Pluck Ideas from Other Successful Advancements

Submitted by Philip Wilcox, President Niagara Greenspace Consortium, 501C3

A blank easel, you and your imagination; some are gifted to visualize things and some are not.  My wife – God rest her – was not.  Remember when you could go look at wallpaper, and unroll a few feet and visualize what it would look like on a larger surface?  I once re-wallpapered the same wall 3 times in 1 week, as the final rejection was always – “I didn’t think it would turn out looking that way…”

I think the same may be true of community issues and the increasing healthy interest into contributing to consensus – or maybe interest has been there all along, such as a generation ago during the debate over harnessing Niagara Falls to make electricity; environmentalists railed over fears that all the water would be diverted from the Falls, and after all was said and done we have a massive renewable power generator and Falls tourism that attracts millions every year, after reasonable consensus was achieved.

Front and center, the Outer Harbor has inspired wonderful input, but has there been enough external visions or examples introduced into the discussion?  I had the recent good fortune of attending an electrical conference at the Gaylord National Convention Center at Gaylord Harbor in Maryland.  Suffice to say that this area has been developed commercially from one end to the other, coupled with public access waterfront hiking and biking trails; absent were noticeable public picnic areas; but taverns, restaurants, shopping and other commerce abound, and from an amateur view, they are architectural and planning accomplishments.

Back home there is wide debate about our outer harbor and the potential for new access, use and development after the NFTA received support from Governor Cuomo and NYS to transfer acreage to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation.

As they say, pictures are worth a thousand words; in Maryland, the Gaylord convention center is part of National Harbor and occupies a portion of the Potomac River waterfront, along with full economic development that makes up nearly all of the available land – from the on-line website:

“The vision for National Harbor embraces arts and entertainment in various forms. Its landscaping, layout, lighting and fountains, as well as a prolific commitment to many genres and styles of public art, will contribute to the development’s sense of place. National Harbor will be brought to life throughout the year with festivals, music and more. Even National Harbor’s main thoroughfare, American Way, a 3,000-foot promenade down the spine of the property, is being designed as an homage to the American experience.”

“At completion National Harbor will include 7.3 million s/f of mixed-use community space, 4,000 hotel rooms, 2,500 residential units, 500,000 s/f of class A office space, 1 million s/f of retail, dining and entertainment space with venues such as McCormick and Schmick’s, and 10,000 on-site parking spaces.”

It would appear few back home in Buffalo desire to see our outer harbor developed this way, but the view of the Potomac from the glass-faced Gaylord Convention Center is breathtaking.

While our local debate seems to be driven by the idea that the our harbor space should limit development, imagine – for instance – a convention center set back from shared public space that provides magnificent views to convention attendees – perhaps worth considering if there was value to the land occupying the current convention center and the City had interest in forwarding that value to a greater vision, if we could part with such an architectural gem currently occupying prime space downtown?  Shared public space could include a fishing pier, trails, picnic access, as well as outfitters to rent bikes, cross country skis, kayaks and other recreational equipment.

National Harbor (lead image) was teaming with locals employed in grounds keeping and landscaping to keep the grounds pristine – this takes development that generates taxes to prevent new costs to the host City.

Locally, there have been very good projects that have enhanced natural wildlife habitat in some of the settlement investments from the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project; and there was absolutely no shortage of wildlife at National Harbor – it was quite entertaining to watch seagulls dive for shells and drop them on the concrete pier to crack as the beginning of harvesting a seafood meal.

The ratio of development at our outer harbor – residential, commercial, restaurants, museums and the like – to natural space can be sorted through by the current welcoming process, but we should not tunnel our vision of this magnificent space, this blank easel, nor become parrots to limited suggestions or predetermined objectives.

The final leg of planning where Buffalo has an enormous advantage over National Harbor, is the opportunity for great connectivity by our outer harbor’s close proximity to downtown through a thoughtful transportation planning process.  Bike lanes, water taxis from days of old are just a few transportation ideas to make it a fun and easy commute into downtown Buffalo, and public transit being  considered in stadium planning can be further leveraged with downtown development that includes the outer harbor.


For a quick pictorial of some ideas from other areas that done good things, Station Square poised on the three Rivers in Pittsburgh reused steel processing brownfields dormant for decades, and converted into terrific public space, commercial and recreational development, along with re-activating existing rail lines for an easy commute – with paralleled hiking and biking lanes.  The activated rail and connector bus stations subsequently stimulated residential investment into depressed properties.

Reductions in texting while driving and DWI, reduced GHG emissions and cleaner air, greater health through the walkability, and freeing up current or future parking for greater use is what rail and public transit stations stimulate.  Just consider the huge gain brought by Terry Pegula through Harbor Center in a footprint that was once a parking lot!

So, if you are among those challenged to visualize concepts – before you join one side of the debate or the other, you really owe an education to yourself and the region to take a look at the pictures other regions have finished painting (or papering) to more objectively form a complete opinion.

I think it would be prudent to put together a tour of interested parties and hop on a bus (or lots of buses) to both destinations and pluck ideas from other successful advancements, and see if they stimulate any fresh visions for our own waterfront opportunities.

Photos: National Harbor – Station Square


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