A battle could be brewing between Rep. Brian Higgins and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority over what money – if any – should be spent to transfer the Buffalo waterfront from one state entity to another.
Higgins said Monday the NFTA should sell its 384 acres of waterfront land to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. for $2, amplifying his October comments that labeled “outrageous” the concept of one state agency charging another for a land transfer.
But the NFTA dismisses Higgins’ contention that it served as a poor steward of its prime waterfront land for more than half a century. It points to millions of dollars it spent to acquire some of the property, millions more in improvements, and its obligation to preserve the authority’s fiscal position.
Now it appears the NFTA will wait until it formally receives two bids – one from the harbor corporation and one from the City of Buffalo – to determine plans for the property before girding for a potential brouhaha between the authority and waterfront champion Higgins.
“We don’t know what the government agencies are going to offer,” said NFTA General Counsel David J. State. “Whatever the offer, we’ll review it within the Public Authorities Law and then go from there.”
In the meantime, however, both sides seem committed to positions they believe best serve the taxpayers. Higgins reignited the standoff Monday morning by summoning reporters to his office at the Larkin at Exchange to release his formal proposal for the $2 transfer.
In a new letter to NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel, Higgins formalized his “strenuous disagreement” that a premium price should be extracted for the land. He said the NFTA has caused “unnecessary” delays in transferring the property by citing legal requirements to obtain compensation. He also questioned any obligation to receive a significant price under the Public Authorities Law, citing a similar transfer of 21 acres in the Times Beach area to the harbor corporation for $1.
“It’s a very unreasonable position for them to want anything for this property,” Higgins said, citing what he called poor NFTA stewardship of the land and the more than $30 million in repairs needed to make the Small Boat Harbor a viable operation.
“Perhaps they should consider making a contribution to the property, which they have not done in 55 years,” he said. “If that property had been maintained and kept in good repair, [then] you sell it as an asset. Now it’s a liability because it’s been neglected.”
Higgins was among those public officials supporting the private takeover of the NFTA property last year, when the authority resolved to exit the waterfront development business and concentrate on its core transportation mission.
But the congressman Monday said he changed his view because of concerns over maintaining public access and over potential hikes in rental fees for slip holders at the Small Boat Harbor. He also noted that few private developers are interested in taking over a facility requiring $30 million to dredge the harbor and rebuild a crumbling breakwall.
Now he says the land should be maintained under public ownership – a position also held by the NFTA – that avoids any major development but that will foster some projects like an expanded Dug’s Dive restaurant and mixed use of the now-vacant port terminal complex. And he cites the 2005 transfer of Power Authority land to the harbor agency for $1, which he says nixes the need cited by the NFTA to gain a maximum profit for the land.
He backed away from suggestions that he might pursue legal action to advance his plan, because he believes the law allowing a $2 transfer is “as clear as it can be.”
“I would hope clearer heads would prevail,” he said.
The congressman noted that the land was transferred in 1957 to the Niagara Frontier Port Authority – predecessor agency of the NFTA – in two separate transactions for $1 each. He now says transfer of the Outer Harbor property should cost $2 or less, since any exchange of money only lessens funding available for new public improvements along the waterfront.
“If the transfer were to come at a cost, it is the public that truly pays the price in lost access, improvements and, ultimately, less economic activity for our region,” he said.
But Minkel said the $30 million in harbor improvements should be likened to the need for a potential home buyer to eventually replace a roof – it could be 10 years down the road. She also said the authority paid more than $2 million decades ago for the land in other transactions involving the city, railroads, the state, and Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Co., which at one time operated an assembly plant in the port terminal buildings.
The NFTA has also spent $7 million in improvements to the Small Boat Harbor and $14 million on the Greenbelt path along the waterfront, while the entire parcel is assessed at $47 million. The transfer would also result in the loss of a revenue-producing operation to the NFTA, she added, referring to the Small Boat Harbor.
“So I don’t think we’ve sat on the property and done nothing,” Minkel said.
Authority officials also note that Higgins supported a proposed transfer of the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in 2004 for $4 million, though state fiscal problems eventually scuttled the idea.
Since abandoning previous plans for private ownership and development of the Outer Harbor earlier this year, the NFTA anticipates formally closing the request-for-proposals process next week and determining the land’s new steward sometime in January.
Higgins says he still views the harbor corporation as “best suited” to owning property that many see as crucial to the future image and development of the city and region. The congressman also said he is intervening in a potential transaction between two state agencies because the federal government significantly contributes to the NFTA and spent $85 million in upgrading Fuhrmann Boulevard into a waterfront parkway.
“The federal government has a huge relationship with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, and I have demonstrated through the years to be a good advocate on their behalf to focus on their core mission, which is transportation and airport management,” he said.
“The big issue here is process,” he added.
The congressman also labeled “way overstated” the extent of contamination the NFTA estimates on the land from dumping over the decades. He again dismissed suggestions for massive Outer Harbor development, such as a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, saying such mega-projects are inappropriate for the waterfront.
“What we have learned is that the water is the attraction,” he said.