The construction projects now in progress in and around Buffalo’s historic waterfront are being done the right way according to David Colligan. And he should know.
Colligan currently serves on the board of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC). Founded in 1999, the ECHDC is responsible for waterfront infrastructure projects along the inner harbor (Buffalo River) and the outer harbor (Lake Erie). Completed projects include the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, the Commercial Slip and the Central Wharf. In addition, the Canalside project, adjacent to the Erie Canal Harbor site, is well underway. It covers approximately 20 acres which are being developed for entertainment, hotel, office, retail, residential, restaurant, and other uses.
Along the outer harbor, the ECHDC has overseen the development of green space for runners, walkers, bicyclists, boaters, bird watchers, dog owners and folks who just want to sit on a bench along the spectacular shore. Western New Yorkers have longed for easy access to the water and now it’s here with Gallagher Beach and Wilkeson Point – and both are dog-friendly. Performance venues have also been created: Thursday at the Square concerts moved to Canalside and the Buffalo Outer Harbor Concert Series on Fuhrmann Boulevard features well-known groups like Guns N Roses and The Tragically Hip that have attracted thousands of fans.
While others may view all this activity as a relatively sudden explosion, Colligan says it is the result of a very lengthy and complex process. A lot of money is being spent now but the funding used for recent projects and current projects was actually identified a number of years ago. From Colligan’s perspective, “Buffalo is slowly learning to capitalize on its endowed assets.”
In the 1990’s, elected officials along with leaders of cultural and environmental non-profits initiated discussions with the New York Power Authority (NYPA) which runs the Lewiston power plant. That facility’s use of Western New York natural resources has generated billions of dollars for New York State. At that time, Colligan was representing the interests of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy on whose Board of Directors he served for several years. (Colligan is a well-known and oft-consulted tree expert and also co-founded Re-Tree WNY.)
The goal of these initial efforts was to mitigate NYPA’s impact on the environment by securing a financial commitment to waterfront and related development. Negotiations ensued and legal proceedings followed for several years. Eventually, the Greenway Commission was created in 2005 to oversee the transfer of NYPA funding for a linear park system that could benefit both Erie and Niagara County communities. When Brian Higgins was elected to Congress, he became a major force and secured federal funding in addition to that from the state. Inner harbor infrastructure projects began to take shape.
During this time, Colligan’s civic interest shifted from preserving Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks system to advancing infrastructure and economic development along the water. In 2007, then-Governor Eliot Spitzer appointed him to the ECHDC Board of Directors. To date, he is the longest serving member and is currently chair of its Outer Harbor Committee.
Colligan believes that infrastructure projects would just be “eye candy” if they didn’t also spur economic development from private investment. He credits Governor Cuomo’s WNY Regional Economic Development Council as playing a key role in bringing business into the mix.
As examples he cites the former Donovan State Office Building which is close to being fully renovated by Benderson Development into a Courtyard by Marriott and office space for Phillips Lytle law firm. In addition, the Buffalo Sabres are building a hotel, two indoor rinks and indoor parking in front of the First Niagara Center. This project is estimated to cost $123 million and is scheduled to be completed in 2014.
All of this activity creates jobs for development companies, architects, and construction workers in the short term. Beyond that, Colligan is hoping to see the kind of surge in tourism that has fueled economic growth in cities like Milwaukee and Charleston: “So when a visitor asks ‘What can you do in Buffalo?’ the answer will not be to go see Niagara Falls.” He envisions the authenticity of the Erie Canal Harbor as being the major tourism draw along with entertainment venues, hockey rinks for tournaments and the outer harbor green space that the ECHDC reclaimed and rejuvenated along the shoreline.
Colligan is particularly proud of the artistically designed park and beach at Wilkeson Point which borders the Times Beach bird sanctuary. As chair of the Outer Harbor Committee, he worked for three years overseeing the project. The entrance to the space is tucked away off Furhmann Boulevard and features a beautifully groomed beach, winding pathways, a unique slide and play space for kids and the crowning feature: a set of simple but distinctive wind sculptures atop a hill overlooking Lake Erie.
Next up for the ECHDC is the reconstruction of Ohio Street. According to the ECHDC’s General Project Plan April 2013 the project includes “a complete street and ‘green’ waterfront arterial which would connect the burgeoning Canalside development with the Cobblestone District and First Ward neighborhood, linking key areas along Buffalo’s reemerging Buffalo River.”
Colligan’s efforts will remain focused on the outer harbor. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an agreement with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to transfer ownership and operations to NYS for Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor. Those two parcels of land will become part of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In addition, 130 acres along the north outer harbor will be turned over to the ECHDC for environmental remediation and further development.
Colligan lives in North Buffalo with his wife Nancy, a physician. He recently formed his own firm, Colligan Law LLP.