Buffalo Waterfront Project Begins, Group Tries to Halt It

Fri September 26, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Carolyn Thompson



BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) An environmentalist group said Buffalo is going about redeveloping part of its waterfront wrong and went to federal court Aug. 8 as part of its push for a new design.

The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper group wants the state Department of Transportation to alter the design of an $80 million construction project already under way on the Outer Harbor on Lake Erie, saying it wastes lakefront land and doesn’t do enough to improve access to the water.

“We’ve waited so long for a positive, attractive and forward-thinking waterfront project,’’ Julie Barrett O’Neill, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said at the construction site Aug. 8. “Let’s not have our children and grandchildren look back in 50 years and say ’What were they thinking?’’’

Papers filed in a U.S. District Court Aug. 8 as part of an existing lawsuit ask a judge to order a supplemental environmental review.

Buffalo’s historically underutilized waterfront consists of an inner harbor and outer harbor, both of which are in line for major new development, including housing, shopping and parkland.

The current Outer Harbor plans call for a four-lane tree-lined parkway to replace a confusing configuration of one-way streets, while lowering but leaving in place an existing parallel roadway to handle trucks and other traffic.

The Riverkeeper group is instead proposing a single four-lane boulevard, saying it will free up 77 more acres of prime waterfront land.

“According to traffic estimates, we need four lanes to carry the traffic that goes through this corridor. Right now were looking at having eight lanes,’’ said Barrett O’Neill, who said the sale of the land would offset any cost increases to the project.

While she said the revised plans would not require additional state or federal funding or delay construction, a DOT spokesman said the change would be costly and time-consuming, and ignore 10 years of planning.

“We would have to go back and redesign the road, do all the changes that would be required from what we are actually building right now, which was the result of more than 10 years of public hearings and a process that we think results in a road that meets the vision the community had for what they wanted to see develop along the Outer Harbor,’’ DOT spokesman Charles Carrier said.

U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a proponent of the original plan, said the Riverkeeper alternative would result in “permanent, irreversible damage’’ by creating a congested boulevard on which commercial truck traffic vies for space with low-speed automobile drivers out for a scenic drive.

“The parkway plan, which is under construction now, is the best plan to balance recreational access and private development,’’ Higgins said.

The Riverkeepers, along with the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, two Common Council members and two other groups, filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in January against the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration seeking to force the change. The defendants have until Sept. 12 to respond to the papers filed Aug. 8.

“If we make a mistake here, we won’t get a second chance,’’ South District Council member Michael Kearns, a plaintiff in the Riverkeeper suit, said in a statement. “Good infrastructure leads to good development. Our Outer Harbor has the potential for good infrastructure that will lead to great, historic development if we make the right choices.’’