Brian Higgins and Canalside: Still Waiting on Action

At some point in the past I joked that I’d have kids by the time Canalside was developed. Somehow that joke turned out to be a bit more prophetic than I’d planned.

It’s no secret that Canalside is being developed at a snail’s pace. The waterfront gem that draws thousands each summer hasn’t seen any tangible additions since the historically aligned canals opened two years ago – completing a construction schedule riddled with delays. Now, with a child of my own, I’m left to find a new joke to make about the progress at Canalside.

Congressman Brian Higgins recently spoke out against ECHDC for their relative inaction in fulfilling the development portion of their mission. Ironically, that’s what the D in ECHDC stands for. Higgins’ comments came in a Buffalo News article on September 10 which I should have addressed in this space earlier, but I’ve been following an ECHDC schedule in getting posts up as of late.

I thought it best to offer up an FJM, of sorts, as it pertains to the article in question as it came just prior to the shutdown of the Buffalo Amtrak station and new questions about relocating the station to an area within Canalside. So, what is to follow is less an FJM and more a running commentary on Higgins’ comments and the general outlook for Canalside as we near the end of another summer enjoying the waterfront destination.

(The original article will be bolded)

Rep. Brian Higgins was instrumental in the formation of the state agency that oversees the waterfront, and later recommended that Robert Gioia and Tom Dee be named leaders of the agency.

But the South Buffalo Democrat has now become critical of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and its culture. He said he feels marginalized and wonders if the agency has outlived its usefulness.

“ECHDC has shown of late that they may be reaching the end of their useful life,” Higgins told The Buffalo News.

You’re telling me.

He claims the organization has become too insular and doesn’t welcome ideas that aren’t its own.

“ECHDC has changed to a point that it does not accept public input as constructive and well intentioned,” Higgins said. “It is an agency that seeks to marginalize anybody that doesn’t agree with them 100 percent.”

Higgins brings the heat right from the get-go. While I can’t comment on the ideas ECHDC does and doesn’t accept, they’re certainly happy to throw away stacks of money on studies and studies of those studies without any real results. The biggest issue at hand as it relates to Canalside is the inability to finish the job. This was never meant to be a park, it was meant to be a thriving, mixed-use district with housing, retail, restaurants and more.

However, we’re no closer to seeing that come to fruition. Any development that has occurred or is planned has been disjointed and could even be categorized as ill-fitting for what is to be a recreation of the bustling canal district.

Also of note, I’m shocked, shocked, that an agency being accused of being insulated and marginalizing those who disagree with them happens to have a close relationship with Buffalo’s beloved obstructionist preservationist, Tim Tielman.

The agency has drawn praise for its central role in developing Canalside, the 20-acre downtown site that has become synonymous with Buffalo’s resurgence.

Higgins’ involvement on the waterfront has also been overshadowed in recent years by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who often is credited by the state agency for its waterfront accomplishments.

Gioia, chairman of the state agency, said he was at a loss to understand Higgins’ criticisms. The congressman has not complained directly to him, he said.

“I feel badly if Brian Higgins feels marginalized, but I don’t know why,” Gioia said. “The last time I read, we were in this together.”

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, it was really surprising to see Higgins take such a public stand with regard to ECHDC and Canalside. He’s been the true champion of Buffalo’s waterfront and I was surprised to see him call out ECHDC the way he did.

But shouldn’t that be setting off alarms everywhere in the ECHDC office? It’s one thing for someone like me to complain about their lack of action. When someone who has been their greatest ally turns heel the way Higgins did, maybe it’s time to consider getting something done.

Gioia said he and the agency meet with people concerned about the waterfront all the time. He said they need that input to make decisions the public wants and will embrace.

The agency chairman said he’s “perplexed and puzzled” over the criticism with so much good news surrounding the waterfront, including summer attendance numbers recently released that claimed there were 1.5 million visitors at Canalside and 250,000 at the Outer Harbor.

This “good news” is the same story we hear every year. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Canalside every year and take part in Buffalo’s waterfront revival. It’s a very easy and complimentary stat to trot out. I know I’m one of those people. Canalside is a tremendous space and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable spot in summer weather. But there’s still very little to do at Canalside.

The new beer garden is a great addition and that can staple you to a bench for as long as you wish. But finding enough to occupy yourself for more than 15 minutes on a daily basis is still a challenge. At the end of the day there’s still far too many temporary features and not nearly enough effort to find permanent replacements.

“Don’t we all have the same goals in mind?” Gioia said. “Why don’t we try to work together, pick up the phone and say lets talk about this?”

Yeah, we do. I bet you $5 Brain would say the same thing as I would if you called me. “Why haven’t you built anything?”

Higgins said he has grown increasingly disillusioned with what the agency is doing.

“As first conceived, ECHDC was to encourage citizen input in spending $279 million in New York Power Authority settlement funding to make a new waterfront,” Higgins said. “ECHDC was to be a catalyst for development – a starting point, not an end point.”

I’ve often wondered how long it would take for people to start asking hard questions about the money ECHDC is working with. That NYPA money is a hefty chunk of change and at some point more and more people will begin to ask what it’s being spent on.

The agency works under Cuomo, but the congressman is quick to make a distinction between the person at the top and those who serve under him.

“This is not Erie Canal Harbor and the governor against the local community,” Higgins said. “I know from direct, personal experience that Gov. Andrew Cuomo always does right for Buffalo.”

I think Andy might be a little busy with other matters anyway…

Higgins said the governor proved that when he designated Buffalo’s first state park, now on the Outer Harbor.

“ECHDC planned to allow the NFTA to continue their 60-year stranglehold on the Outer Harbor,” Higgins said. “It was (Cuomo) who called them out three years ago, and forced ECHDC to change direction. Because of him, we have a new state park without parking fees on Buffalo’s waterfront.”

That’s not correct, said Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development, Erie Canal Harbor’s parent organization.

“With all due respect to the congressman, Erie Canal Harbor supported the transfer of the 400 acres from NFTA to Erie Canal Harbor Development,” Hoyt said.

With all due respect, the Outer Harbor State Park and Canalside are two drastically different animals. But I have to side with Hoyt on this one. ECHDC took over from the NFTA explicitly to make sure the land didn’t sit stagnant any longer. Now, whether they do anything with it is anyone’s guess.

While Higgins speaks highly of Cuomo, those good feelings don’t extend to the waterfront agency’s leadership.

He bristled at the reference by Gioia in 2015 to critics of the agency’s since-shelved plan for the Outer Harbor.

“The characterization of those who dared to be critical of building 2,100 units of housing on Wilkeson Pointe, and a museum district, was ‘carnival barkers.’ Carnival barkers,” Higgins said.

I want to get an apartment with that quote. Shelving the plans for the Outer Harbor is a terrific microcosm of the dysfunction that often underscores the good done by ECHDC. Consider all the money and time devoted to the plans presented to the public which were derided by common tern truthers at numerous public meetings.

Those plans, which were reworked to include less housing and scaled back development on the Outer Harbor, are just collecting dust now. Just like plenty of other pretty pictures which were created for Canalside over the years.

The opposition to the plans on the Outer Harbor and the seemingly endless string of renderings at Canalside are two totally different points. I just wanted a reason to link to all those different models. However, there needs to be some clarity on the incredible amount of backlash any form of development gets in this city. I understand the terrible choices we’ve made in demolishing some of our greatest treasures. But it’s also time to accept the fact that for Buffalo to move forward we do need to build some stuff in places where people want to be. Like the waterfront.

Cities around the world feature incredible waterfront living which could be created here along the Buffalo River yet getting anything approved, let along built, requires a team of lawyers armed to the teeth for the lawsuits which they’ll have to work through. Building apartments along the river on Furhmann Boulevard isn’t going to cause some sort of mass pandemic on the occupants of Times Beach Nature Preserve. Let’s be realistic, for once.

Higgins also feels more should be happening on the Outer Harbor, which was taken in ownership by the agency in 2014.

“They took their ball and went home and said (forget) that, nothing’s going to happen out there,” said Higgins, after the agency’s development-heavy plan was roundly criticized and then abandoned.

It was probably best that the Outer Harbor plan was shot down. The plans that were presented were far too development heavy and took away many aspects of what makes the Outer Harbor so unique. In my opinion there should be two zones of development on the Outer Harbor: The southern end near the Small Boat Harbor and Port of Buffalo Buildings and the northern end adjacent to the Connecting Terminal grain elevator.

This would allow for slightly more development where there is more action on a daily basis (the small boat harbor, Queen City Landing, Canalside) while leaving the key areas like Times Beach and the expansive middle portion to remain as park space. Northerly Island is a good example of my latter point on green space. The secondary benefit from following that sort of plan is that you’d ideally appease all the people who whine about Sunset Fridays with that preserved green space.

Higgins said progress has stalled as a result.

“I’m baffled at the claim that we haven’t done very much,” Hoyt said.

YOU HAVEN’T

In the past two years, he said, Erie Canal Harbor, its parent Empire State Development and the state parks department have made large investments in the Outer Harbor.

Hoyt pointed to the popularity of Wilkeson Pointe, the agency-created park, which this summer offered food and beverages, bike and kayak rentals, fitness classes and special events. He also pointed to the daily illumination of the Connecting Terminal grain elevator on the Outer Harbor, the bike ferry and new scenic landing spot, and coming projects that include new bike trails, a visitor center at the Bell Slip and enhancements at the Michigan Pier.

These will all be terrific, there’s no doubt. But it’s all such small potatoes. We need to graduate from these small projects and on to more serious projects. We still have a sea of porta potties, white vinyl tents and temporary offerings at Canalside. We’re long overdue to have actual things to do there whether in the summer or winter. Besides, there’s no rule book that says you can’t continue to improve bike paths once you start putting up buildings, is there?

Hoyt said the state agency received $5 million from the Buffalo Billion initiative for the improvements, thanks to the governor’s support.

“In recent years, Andrew Cuomo has become the leading figure on waterfront development in Buffalo, and deservedly has received a lot of attention for his work,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt said he also was perplexed by Higgins’ criticisms.

Are the ECHDC offices located under a rock? Seriously.

“I am surprised because we consider Brian and his office great partners with Gov. Cuomo and Erie Canal Harbor when it comes to everything on the waterfront,” Hoyt said. “The entire region should be grateful for his efforts during the relicensing of the power project,” Hoyt said.

Higgins said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to see happen next. Calling the governor, he said, was one option.

“I don’t really know, but we need a change – at the very least, in attitude about local inclusiveness,” Higgins said. “Whether it leads to a change in ECHDC as it currently exists, I’m not quite sure.”

What this really brings to light, in my opinion, is what seems to be a shifting opinion of what Canalside should be. For so long we had nothing but windswept lots at Canalside and now we have a burgeoning district that everyone can enjoy year-round. However, the pace at which ECHDC is operating is causing the end goal to be forgotten. You’re starting to hear people say how great Canalside is and how they hope they don’t ruin it with buildings. The narrative that this space is just so much better than what we had before shouldn’t be what we settle on.

Imagine having the development parcels actually developed with a mix of two, three and four-story buildings built in the style of the canal era filled with shopping and apartments. Think of how great it would be to have a bar with patios overlooking the river and other fast casual options (think Five Guys, Lloyd or Chipotle) available after events at the arena year-round.

We wouldn’t lose our access to the water by doing this, either. The grassy parcel directly adjacent to the Central Wharf isn’t pegged for development, that would be green forever. You’d still have the communal aspect of what makes Canalside great now (skating on the canals, lounging on the lawn in the summer) while injecting an incredible amount of energy to an area of the city which is already bustling. Not to mention, a properly handled Outer Harbor should keep plenty of park space for people to enjoy.

All the while, this would help fill in the embarrassment which is the Aud Block pit. Previous ideas for relocating Buffalo’s Amtrak station to this space are being discussed again. How this isn’t already in the design phase baffles me. The North Aud block was (is?) to set house a public market (among other buildings) but ECHDC has yet to take any action in developing the space. A below-grade train station (that’s where the tracks are already) could exit directly into the market which would ultimately be at street level.

This effectively kills three birds with one stone. First, it eliminates the eyesore of an Amtrak Station on Exchange Street which is falling in on itself as you read this. Second, it creates a new station for downtown which would be a more appropriate welcome for visitors arriving via train. Third, it creates a reason for ECHDC to stop sitting on the open pit on the Aud Block and get to work.

Of course we’ll wind up with studies and then probably a few more studies before anything is done at the North Aud Block. Underground parking and an underground train station that exits to ground level and the public market would be a killer integration for this public space. And while I’d much prefer to see the Central Terminal take train service back, the combination of incoming train passengers and general visitors to Canalside would drive an incredible amount of traffic through what should be a developed district.

I applaud Brian Higgins for his comments on ECHDC and his push to see these parcels developed. We’ve been waiting over a decade for this to happen and I fear it could be another decade before all the buildings are constructed. Perhaps by the time my son is in high school we’ll have a Hofbrauhaus and other bars, restaurants and attractions to enjoy at Canalside.

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