Higgins, Gioia split on Outer Harbor

Two prominent politicians have endorsed a nonprofit environmental group’s Outer Harbor development plan that significantly scales back the residential and commercial footprint proposed in the state’s version last month.

Congressman Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan both said at a press conference Friday at Gallagher Beach that the state’s proposal does not have broad public support.

“The current plan put forth by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation would not create an Outer Harbor that Buffalo and Western New York had been longing for,” Ryan said.

As a result, they both backed Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper’s plan that focuses the residential and commercial development at the vacant Terminal A and B buildings located just north of where they held their press conference.

Unlike the state’s plan, Riverkeeper’s concept is more environmentally friendly to the Times Beach Nature Preserve by reducing the amount of development near it.┬áThat was a thorny issue for the development corporation during the public planning sessions and the subject of a protest a week ago Saturday that was organized by Jay Burney of the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve.

“The rest of this land should be preserved for the people who have been denied access to their waterfront for way, way too long,” Higgins said.

Robert Gioia, the chairman of the development corporation, said Friday he had coffee with Higgins earlier in the week and the congressman did not express the level of concern about the state’s plan as he did Friday.

Gioia compared the controversy to the Peace Bridge in which public opposition thwarted a decade-long attempt at expanding the U.S. side of the plaza and building a new span.

“If we are going to get into these discussions where it is either my way or the highway then we are going to get stalled,” Gioia said. “We are not going to get anywhere.”

Nonetheless, Gioia said the development corporation is willing to scale back the commercial and residential footprint.

But development corporation officials have long contended that housing and commercial space is needed on portions of the 171 acres in order for the open spaces to remain economically sustainable. Gioia said it costs about $200,000 annually to maintain Wilkeson Pointe, a small pocket park at the Outer Harbor next to Times Beach Nature Preserve.

Thomas Dee, president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, said he, too, was surprised by Higgins’ remarks.

“They think that once we say residential that we are denying access to the waterfront,” Dee said. “That’s just simply not true. We are pledging access to the waterfront.”