For that bargain price, New York State will buy Gallagher Beach, which could become Buffalo’s first public swimming beach, and the Small Boat Harbor, with its 1,005 slips, and turn the area into a state park.
The deal also transfers waterfront land that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority controlled for nearly 60 years.
“You have a location that most cities would die for,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday in the Templeton Landing restaurant near Erie Basin Marina, where he made the announcement in front of several hundred invited guests. “Being on the waterfront is everything, and it has been an asset that, up until now, hasn’t been fully developed. Canalside is an investment in that way, a long time coming. The outer harbor is going to be the next step in the development.”
The two parcels at the south end of the outer harbor – and a grassy field between them, with a walking path and a view of the outer harbor – would be transferred to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Cuomo said.
Despite being strapped for funds in recent years, the state parks system is expected in years to come to spend up to $30 million to rebuild the breakwater, dredge the harbor and replace docks at the Small Boat Harbor.
Despite earlier indications that an admission or parking fee might be imposed in the new state park, the park will be free to the public, according to Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sam Hoyt, an Erie County Harbor Development Corp. board member.
“There is no parking fee anticipated, or any park admission fee,” Hoyt said.
The NFTA has owned a total of 384 acres on the outer harbor. With the deal announced Thursday, the parks agency will take over about 170 acres on the southern end, including the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach.
The NFTA also is transferring to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a state agency, control of 130 acres of the northern part of the outer harbor, most of it contaminated by industrial and municipal waste.
The remaining outer harbor property owned by the NFTA – Terminals A and B – will stay under its control but only temporarily, because it has sales or leases pending. The NFTA will transfer the Small Boat Harbor to the state in May 2015, closing the door on the NFTA’s six-decade control of the outer harbor.
The City of Buffalo gave its approval for the transfer, and Mayor Byron W. Brown was on hand to herald the announcement.
“I feel absolutely great about it,” Brown said of the transfer. “It’s a huge investment in the City of Buffalo by the State of New York. It’s our first state park in the city, and it is a major sign of additional progress.”
The NFTA in the past had sought millions of dollars for the outer harbor, and nearly sold the property to the state during then-Gov. George E. Pataki’s administration. The transportation authority has tried in recent years to get out of the business of waterfront development, but the state parks system declined as late as last year to bid for the land.
“We want to focus on our core mission of transportation, where we have a light rail system, two airports, hundreds of buses and nearly 1,600 associates,” said Howard Zemsky, the NFTA chairman who introduced Cuomo.
“The NFTA’s image has been hurt over the years for not realizing the community’s aspirations for the waterfront,” Zemsky added. “We have a huge job and important mission in Western New York, and our keen interest all along has been maintaining public access and enjoyment of the beach as well as the Small Boat Harbor, so this allows us to get out of that business, so to speak, and assures continual public access by virtue of being a state park. It’s really the best of all possible circumstances.” The land transfer also lets the NFTA off the hook for deferred maintenance or future environmental concerns.
Speakers Thursday praised Cuomo for his focus on Western New York and for accomplishing a land transfer that four previous governors failed to deliver.
The announcement was a long time coming for Higgins, who first began calling for the creation of the state park in 2002. Last year, he got into a public spat with the NFTA, calling for the parcels to be transferred to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. for $2. That was what the NFTA’s predecessor agency paid the City of Buffalo in December 1957 to take over the land.
“This is very, very good news,” Higgins said Thursday. “The capital investments going in there should create a real jewel at the outer harbor. This couldn’t come at a better time, and we applaud the governor for his vision and for again trying to help Buffalo realize its full potential as a great waterfront city again.”
Progress on the outer harbor in recent years has included construction of a new parkway along Fuhrmann Boulevard, a pavilion and boardwalk at Gallagher Beach, a boardwalk at Times Beach, two parks at the Union Ship Canal and ongoing development of 21 acres formerly used by the New York Power Authority and Cargill. In addition, construction is slated to begin later this year on a parkway along Ohio Street, which connects to the outer harbor, while an environmental review to consider the placement of a bridge that would link the inner and outer harbors is nearing completion.
A recent study determined that Gallagher Beach’s sand could survive the wind and waves of an outer harbor winter.
Hoyt said the public would be involved in determining what happens with the northern portion of the waterfront.
“We’re excited about the prospect of having a very public process, where we engage the public to give us their opinions of what they’d like to see. In the end, we’re going to give them what they want – waterfront access and a world-class waterfront,” Hoyt said.
Tucker Curtin, who operates Dug’s Dive at the Small Boat Harbor, said slipholders who come into the restaurant were concerned about future pricing, quality and service. The parks system could decide to operate the park, or lease it to a private operator.
“Believe it or not, the NFTA has done a great job,” Curtin said.
Tom McMullen of Angola, who was enjoying the view of Gallagher Beach on Thursday with 4-year-old daughter Makenzi, said he was concerned that the state park system would not be able to maintain the new park sufficiently. The beach area, he said, is now “leaps and bounds better than when I was a child.”
“It better not go the same route as Evangola, because it’s rundown; they don’t mow the lawn half as much,” McMullen said of the state park in Irving.