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What We Need on the Outer Harbor

Outer Harbor distances
The Buffalo Outer Harbor is a long, thin belt of land along the Lake Erie shore largely owned by public entities. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes to create a chain of useful, seasonal structures governed by what people want, need, and can practically get to. This means providing shelter, sustenance, and sociable places in support of those coming to enjoy the primary resource: the scenic qualities of Buffalo’s front yard on Lake Erie.

Buffalo has been down this path before: Large piece of open space facing the immensity of Lake Erie, a population hungry for recreational space. In the 1880’s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, America’s foremost park designers, conceived a magnificent park on a swath of open land on Lake Erie. Politics and Pennsylvania industrialist John Albright intervened before the Buffalo Parks Commission could secure the land. The Lackawanna Iron and Steel company plant was built there instead. Today, between the long-abandoned and toxic steel company property in Lackawanna, and the Buffalo River, Buffalo again has a swath of open land on Lake Erie. Now it is almost all in the hands of one public entity or another. It is a narrow 3-mile long strip of land west of State Route 5. It is, in fact, a lakeshore greenbelt.  

   The location with the greatest concentration of people on the Buffalo Waterfront is the Central Wharf. If the goal is to draw people to the Outer Harbor, the laws of geographic proximity dictate that it is easier, quicker, and cheaper to start where people already are. Therefore, getting the thousands of people on Central Wharf across the Buffalo River as cheaply and efficiently—in as friction-free a manner as possible—should be a public priority. Making a fast, frequent ferry service an extension of existing bus and rail is the most expeditious means. Secondly, once people are across the Buffalo River, they must be presented with a chain of compelling and easily attainable goals in order to induce them to explore and stay awhile.

   Humans, because of the biological survival imperative (what we call instinctive or natural behavior), have evolved to quickly scan an area for possibilities of shelter (a place of refuge that also affords a prospect of the surroundings) and sustenance. The presence of other similarly-minded humans is validation and added security. That results in sociability.

   In addition to seeking “prospect and refuge,” people will only walk short distances between points. Therefore, supplying quickly-identifiable places that offer refreshment, a view, and social relaxation should be an Outer Harbor priority.

   The Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes a chain of useful landmarks within 1,000 feet of each other (the distance one can expect the majority of people to walk at a stretch). They include a small, rapid ferry service (1, on map at top and upper left in gallery above), a pavilion/cafe (2), a “beach club” snack bar (3), a small deli with a barbecue pit (4), a grand community porch (5), groups of lookout chairs (6), and a large “sail field” with food cart shelters nearby (7). The Campaign, at work on an update of its Canal District plan (wherein we invented “Better, cheaper, faster” in 1993), expanded its thinking to encompass the Outer Harbor, on the theory that the two elements be treated as one unit. The policy that the Outer Harbor must stand on its own and earn “financial payback,” rather than be part of the overall waterfront, is an artificial administrative convenience. It only insures endless battles over development and use. When success is defined by the bluntest of instruments, the turnstile, it leads to inverted thinking: the goal is to draw crowds, and the land must be adapted to serve that purpose.

   This post, and succeeding ones featuring components of the overall approach, gives a brief overview of the conceptual framework we adopt, and structures and sites that are generated from those concepts. Our ultimate goal is to advance the sustainable regeneration of downtown Buffalo. In those terms, the stronger the naturalistic impression of the Outer Harbor, the stronger the urban benefit. The people using the Inner Harbor and the Outer Harbor are one and the same—you go out for recreation in a naturalistic setting, you come back in for recreation in an urbanistic setting. Activities that can happen more equitably, sustainably, and with potential economic spin-off, should occur in urban contexts, while those that can occur only in an open lakefront setting should be planned for there.

   Ergo, watching performances, spectacles, and other mass gatherings are better accommodated, to better purpose, downtown. Watching the sunset, listening to birdsong, building a sand castle, puttering on a boat or watching others putter, running free over the grass, stopping to smell the flowers—these are things we need to reserve the Outer Harbor for.

(This post, and others concerning Outer Harbor components, were published in similar form in September 2016 as Buffalo Outer Harbor Plan, and the subject of a public meeting that month.)