Making the case for more than a park

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

The Outer Harbor represents Buffalo’s opportunity to get something big right.

And what an opportunity it presents. Lake Erie out front. Downtown out back. Just a few miles from a busy international crossing.

Is there another city in the nation that has such a prime piece of undeveloped real estate?

There’s a push on to redevelop 120 acres of the Outer Harbor into a park.

What’s not to love about a park?

Well, in this case, several things, if all that’s developed is a park.


  • Our winters pretty much assure that a stand-alone waterfront park would go largely unused for more than half the year. Witness LaSalle Park.
  • A park means land that has the potential to generate tens of millions of dollars a year in property taxes would stay off the tax rolls. That’s no small consideration, given the city’s anemic tax base.
  • The Outer Harbor could help land development Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to attract with the $1 billion he has pledged to the region. Do we want to take away that option?

There’s also the question of how to pay for the upkeep of what would be a huge park, one-third larger than LaSalle Park and its 77 acres. The city struggles to maintain the parkland it’s already responsible for. The state? Even worse.

The temptation to do something, anything, after decades of inertia, is understandable. The lack of progress makes the false start at Canalside look like a hiccup.

But a park and only a park would represent a lost opportunity and amount to “lighter, faster, cheaper” on steroids. We’d be trading inertia for small thinking.

Congressman Brian Higgins is leading the charge on this and others in the community, including a coalition called Citizens for a 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor, are chiming in, as well.

I give Higgins credit for once again moving the conversation along. In many cities, that job falls to the mayor, but Byron Brown has been largely absent on this issue, as he is on most of the important ones.

A few years back, Higgins told Bass Pro to you-know-what or get off the pot. Of late, he’s among those who has pushed the NFTA to relinquish ownership of the Outer Harbor in favor of the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp. All good.

Elements of his vision for adjoining waterfront parcels have appeal. Grow the Dug’s Dive location beyond a glorified hot dog stand. Rehab the breakwall to make it accessible to the public. Perhaps construct a small beach. Improve access from downtown by converting Ohio Street into a parkway.

But Higgins and other park advocates want to leave the Outer Harbor itself as green space, save for the handful of buildings already there.

“What we need are parks and public access,” he said.

True. But that’s not all we need.

We need to give people a reason to visit the waterfront between October and April. Open fields, leafless trees, and bone-chilling winds aren’t going to cut it.

We also need a tax base in a city that has become largely a ward of the state because it lacks one.

I did some back-of-the-envelope estimates and calculated that a modest amount of residential and commercial development would generate some $10 million a year in property tax revenues. Plans that date back almost a decade that envisioned more dense development projected property tax revenue of up to $40 million a year.

None of this is chump change when you consider the city generates about $123 million annually in property tax revenue.

No one is suggesting wall-to-wall development. And setting up the waterfront to compete with downtown for, say, office space, would be self-defeating.

But it would be nice to offer a GEICO-type company looking to build a corporate campus an option in Buffalo rather than only the far-flung suburbs., especially with Cuomo dangling money.

Or build high-end housing. The success at Erie Basin Marina demonstrates there’s a market.

Or give Terry Pegula elbow room to build that hockey complex he’s been talking about that, coupled with a hotel and a bit of retail, could be the anchor of an amateur sports hub that could attract tournaments from throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Southern Ontario.

You could do some or all of the above and still have plenty of parkland left over.

What to do with the Outer Harbor needs to be the focus of public debate, much as Canalside has been the past couple of years.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about LaSalle Park. After all, if we’re really gun-ho about waterfront parks, we ought to be talking about the one we have, as well as the one we want.

I walked LaSalle Park Wednesday evening. Ugh. I’ll let the photo below do the talking, and no, the picture is not crooked.

A thought: Look at the city’s waterfront as a whole. LaSalle Park. Erie Basin Marina. CanalSide. The Buffalo River. The Outer Harbor. Do it right and we’ve got the makings of a mini Toronto or Chicago waterfront.

Another study? Please no. But connect the dots, make them feed off one another.

There’s a danger of over-reach, of course, but now is not the time for small thinking. There’s finally some momentum. Build off it.

And by build, I mean build.