The wheels are turning in people’s minds. Even as Buffalo is shaking free of the economic and psychological shackles that have held it back for decades, minds are opening to possibilities that only a year or two ago seemed too fantastic to consider.
Here’s the next one: a giant waterfront park.
That’s the goal of a group called 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor, and it is an enticing vision. Instead of a waterfront given over to industry, transportation and other suboptimal uses, Buffalo can – a century after the fact – follow the lead of its Great Lakes cousin Chicago, which long ago reserved miles of its lakefront for parkland.
Buffalo’s lakefront is different from Chicago’s, of course, and part of it, along with its riverfront, is given over to an ill-conceived highway. Still, with the pending transfer of land on the outer harbor from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the city has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rectify the civic sin of cutting off its residents from the asset that makes Buffalo unique: its spot on the eastern end of Lake Erie.
Not only would a lakefront park reunite Buffalo with the waterway that is its heritage, but it would fulfill a historic vision of the city by one of its great designers, Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of the city’s string of great parks.
Indeed, among the supporters of the group’s proposal is the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, along with GO Bike, Buffalo Maritime Center, Partnership for the Public Good and Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture. And, not insignificantly, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – a major force in the effort to reconnect Buffalo to its waterfront – is encouraging the organization in its efforts.
The latest vision for the lakefront includes a promenade with small restaurants and an amphitheater. Commercial development away from the water is also anticipated.
This is only one proposal for the use of this land, and while it is a strong one, other ideas may come forward, including other park designs.
It is, as Higgins noted, premature to advocate any one path forward, partly as a way to encourage other ideas, but also to examine the costs, which will include brownfield remediation.
Still, a great park that honors and expands Olmsted’s vision for Buffalo is an undeniably worthy idea. Not only would that be a great benefit to the people of Buffalo and all of Western New York, but it would serve as an attraction to visitors, as well, just as Chicago’s string of parks along Lake Michigan does.
But perhaps the critical thing is that Buffalonians are recognizing this opportunity for what it is. What eventually becomes of this land will be determined, in great part, by understanding that the city needs to take maximum public advantage of a resource that it has squandered for too long and that other cities can only envy. That path will lead us in the right direction.