Strip away the pomp, peel off the layers, and I think this mainly comes down to one man.
Our waterfront waited a half-century for a champion. Someone with muscle and vision, willing to wrestle alligators and make enemies in high places. That’s what it took to end decades of inertia, to reclaim our prime real estate, to transform acres of scrub brush into a communal front yard.
It wasn’t easy, but Brian Higgins didn’t think it would be.
“Now people can enjoy an amenity that had been denied to them for generations,” Higgins told me this week.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday officially ended the NFTA’s half-century stranglehold on our waterfront. The NFTA’s vast waterfront acreage will be placed where it belongs, in the hands of the state’s locally run waterfront agency. The governor was smart enough to deny the NFTA or the city a face-saving piece. This day was a half-century in the making, and the governor made it happen.
But make no mistake: This is Higgins’ cause, his crusade, his near-obsession. I know he had help. No one moves a mountain alone. But for two decades, Higgins – as a Common Council member, an assemblyman and now a congressman – shaped the waterfront vision and led the charge.
“The history of silver bullets never panned out,” he said. “I think we’ve learned to stand on our own as a community. We don’t need outsiders to impose a vision for us.”
Anybody could see the logistical challenge of the last half-century: a maze of roads and bridges that blocked us from the waterfront, instead of leading us to it. Everyone understood the larger problem: control of the land by a transportation authority specializing in buses, trains and planes, not waterfront development.
No one, for decades, did anything about it. Politicians came and went; the waterfront stayed the same.
Reclaiming the land meant taking on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. It meant arm-twisting whoever was governor. It meant trench warfare with the state’s Power Authority, which was poised eight years ago – until Higgins stepped in – to play us for suckers with a lame 50-year hydropower relicensing deal. Higgins took on not just the New York Power Authority, but fellow Democrats and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, who bought the Power Authority’s blather that we risked the deal we had by demanding more. Instead, the amped-up agreement that Higgins brokered came with a revenue stream for waterfront revival.
When Cuomo on Thursday said Higgins “had a vision for the waterfront, and never gave up,” it was more than political backslapping.
As a boy, Higgins played hockey on the ice shadowed by the Cargill grain elevator. As a Council member 23 years ago, he pushed to turn the rocky cove into a swimming beach. As an assemblyman, he discovered – hidden in the budget – $1 million set aside for “urban waterfronts.” He pumped it into reclaiming the cove now known as Gallagher Beach.
“It wasn’t much at first,” he told me. “But it showed people that something could get done.”
He battled then-NFTA head Luiz Kahl over waterfront control. He pushed then-Gov. George Pataki 11 years ago to do what Cuomo did Thursday – turn Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor into a state park. He engineered a face-lift for the lakefront Fuhrmann Boulevard. He’s fighting to take down the development-smothering Skyway and build a cross-channel harbor bridge. Every step of the way, he separated himself from the political crowd.
Higgins, to my mind, made some mistakes, retaining – in an about-face – the Route 5 berm wall, and backing Bass Pro for the downtown waterfront. But he later gave the big-box retailer the build-or-go ultimatum that ended its charade, then got behind the community-shaped “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” push.
We see the waterfront changes in crowds and construction cranes at Canalside. We see it in roads, paths and pocket parks on the lake south of downtown. We soon will see it in – among other places – a reclaimed Ohio Street, connecting Canalside to the outer harbor.
“We’re not there yet,” Higgins said, “but we’re getting there, and people can see that.”
It is cause for community celebration. All of us have friends and family members who did not live to see what is, or what is yet to come. Our waterfront progress honors their memory. I think it is one of the things Higgins kept in mind, all of these years. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us – less so for those on the far side of 50. Patience is not a virtue that many of us can afford. A half-century of waiting is long enough.
More than any elected official, Higgins understood that. That’s why he fought. That’s why he – and we – have won.