King Solomon might not have come up with a better solution. The question of which agency will acquire outer harbor land from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has been answered in a way that appears to protect the public’s interest while giving the city a place at the table.
Both the City of Buffalo and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. wanted to control the 384 acres the NFTA will be giving up. The ECHDC was the obvious choice, given the nature of its mission and its welcome insulation from the cold drafts of city politics. But the city and Mayor Byron W. Brown didn’t want to be left out, and there the standoff stood for several months.
On Monday, a deal was struck. The Harbor Development Corp. would acquire the land from the NFTA and enter into a memorandum of understanding with the city for its operation, maintenance and future development. Given that the two entities were the only ones that responded to the NFTA’s request for proposals, it is all but certain that the arrangement will play out that way. All that remains is for the players to settle on a price.
The arrangement looks like one that is both fair and workable. With the Harbor Development Corp. taking the lead role, city politics should be held mainly at bay. The memorandum of understanding, meanwhile, should give the city sufficient influence on the project to satisfy its craving.
This deal has been a long time coming. The NFTA acquired the land from the city 55 years ago, when it was a port authority. As a transportation authority, though, it was the wrong agency to control the waterfront. It was a distraction from the NFTA’s core mission – and an expensive distraction at that.
One of the reasons the NFTA finally decided to get out of the waterfront land development business is that the Small Boat Harbor requires $39 million in work right away – for a new breakwater, dock repairs, dredging of the harbor, rehabilitation of the parking lot and a new maintenance building. Another $10 million is required at the Terminal A and B building, mainly for a new roof.
At a time when the NFTA was talking about increasing fares and cutting routes, it was plainly time for the authority to retrench.
Its initial plan was to offer the acreage to private businesses for development. Fortunately, that didn’t work out and the authority switched gears, opting to offer the land to an entity that would keep it in the public domain. With neither Erie County nor the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation interested, the city and Harbor Development Corp. were left as the only applicants.
Now, with that question creatively settled, the NFTA and Harbor Development Corp. can talk seriously about the price. It may be more than the $2 suggested by Rep. Brian Higgins – a powerful force behind this project – but it also shouldn’t be market rate of many millions of dollars.
Let the NFTA get out of the waterfront development business gracefully and let the ECHDC and the city begin the happy task of creating a waterfront in which the public can revel.