"Slowly, a city blossoms"

Development of Buffalo's Outer Harbor is exciting, promising Ð and flawed

The facelift of downtown Buffalo continues this year, as the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation revealed its plans for Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. By and large, the draft of the area’s redesign is promising, offering open spaces of beach and meadow along with activities like bike rentals, boating and trails.

As a city, having a waterfront is nothing short of a gift. The decision by the state’s Office of Parks and Recreation and Historic Preservation to assist Buffalo in taking advantage of this overlooked area is undoubtedly praiseworthy.

But the project ignores the public’s opinion on housing in the area. Even though the development team reported that a low level of interest in residential developments for the area –7 percent of those surveyed about the project supported the idea – the amount of space devoted to housing has risen from 15 percent in early drafts to 30 percent currently.

The Outer Harbor, which was originally created for industrial uses, can now be transformed into an attractive destination for Buffalo residents. After the success of the development surrounding Canalside, the project holds a great deal of promise.

Much of the proposed ideas sound reasonable, not to mention exciting. A sculpture park, amphitheater and plenty of beach access are all appealing ideas that would emphasize and respect the surrounding environment. The project shouldn’t compromise or eliminate the harbor’s natural elements by bringing the public into the area – and that seems to be a priority for organizers.

Even though the overall space for the project is large, 30 percent is a significant portion of the property to be allocated toward housing. It detracts from land that could be developed for the public as a whole. The housing that will be developed for the harbor will be high-end, luxury homes – exactly the types of residences that Buffalo does not necessarily need. Although it’s important to encourage people to move downtown, the city needs reasonably priced options, not waterfront properties.

The developers claim to be designing for “all of Buffalo,” but expensive apartments on the water caters only to a privileged portion of the population.

The proposed development would offer between 1,500 and 2,100 units, a number which begs the question: Are there enough people in Buffalo who are looking for housing and could afford these properties? Although the downtown market has seen a growth in demand in the last year, Buffalo isn’t bringing in hordes of new, wealthy residents. The city will be relying largely on the current population to fill these spaces.

With extreme economic stratification, Buffalo doesn’t need more exclusivity. This project, as a whole, is inviting to the entire population, with plenty of free activities that welcome people regardless of financial situation. The inclusion of luxury housing clashes with that outlook, creating a sense of inequality that the area can obviously do without.

Though the inclusion of luxury housing is the primary issue with this project, the plan also generates a problematic need for increased transportation options, provided by the city. Because there is limited parking, an intentional choice meant to reduce the environmental impact of visitors, the city has to find ways to make the harbor accessible via bike and pedestrian walkways, shuttle services and light rail and local buses.

This requires a lot of infrastructure development for a relatively small area, which, especially during Buffalo’s long, cold winters, is not going to draw in very many people. Of course the harbor needs to be accessible on foot and by bike, but expanding public transit options (which already reach Canalside) seems unnecessary.

Despite these flaws, this venture is an invigorating development for the city. It’s well-known by now that Buffalo is a city on the rise, and transformative projects like this one – projects that rely on Buffalo’s natural elements, that respect the environment and attract the public – are precisely what the area needs to continue on its ascent.

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