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By James Carr

The news that Gracious Living Corp. has pulled out of a deal to purchase nearly 50 acres of prime waterfront in Buffalo’s outer harbor may be bemoaned by a few, but is really a major plus for the Western New York region.

The proposed sale was a major step backward, symptomatic of the region’s persistent efforts to look toward the past for solutions while the rest of the nation is looking toward the future.

I know of no other region in the nation that is trying to reindustrialize its prime waterfront land; this despite having shovel-ready industrial land available throughout the region. In fact, Erie County just spent several million dollars to improve rail access to industrial land literally within sight of this valuable parcel.

What makes the old Ford Motor plant on Fuhrmann Boulevard so valuable? Look around the nation and count the number of communities that grounded their own economic turnaround in the careful redevelopment of their waterfronts. Perhaps most important, look at what the citizens of Western New York want, as evidenced at a recent public hearing for the Outer Harbor Brownfield Opportunity Area study.

Those attending spoke nearly unanimously in favor of increased public access to our region’s Lake Erie shoreline. This view is supported by the 40-year-old state Coastal Zone Management Law, which says clearly the highest and best use of waterfront land is a water-dependent use. For generations we have had to cross the bridge to Canada to access the lake’s shoreline, leading to the oft-spoken lament, “why can’t the American side be like the Canadian side?”

A group of citizens has been working for over two years to promote the use of outer harbor waterfront land for a significant lakefront park. The park would be the southern anchor of the slowly emerging Niagara River Greenway. It could draw large numbers of citizens and tourists to the area.

The old Ford plant would be central to making the park a year-round destination by offering shelter from adverse weather. The buildings could house restaurants, swimming pools with sandy edges, museums and sports that normally do not occur in winter, such as an indoor walking trail and bicycling. Even winter sports such as ice fishing and ice boating need shelter and other facilities. There is room for boat building and other maritime facilities.

James Carr is a retired urban planner who worked on numerous regional plans, including the Niagara River Study, the Buffalo River Study and the Urban River Study, as well as planning and promoting construction of the Riverwalk.