Erie’s future lies in an empty lot at 216 Bayfront Parkway.
It’s not much to look at. Surrounded by chainlink fence- peppered “No Trespassing!” signs, its highlights are piles of rubble and enormous weeds pushing through cracks in decayed cement paving. With 20,000 cars passing by each day on the parkway, it’s urban blight located in one the most visible areas in the city. Residents no doubt drive right by, but visitors likely notice the gash it makes in the downtown landscape. A romantic might squint and see an urbanized mirror image of a winter lake — only with frozen waves of brick, not ice.
But to city officials and developers, the site looks like gold.
It’s the GAF site, next to the Convention Center, and seen from above — from a helicopter, say — it looks like a flat, blank rectangle positioned in the middle of the developed bayfront. Situated next to the Convention Center, the GAF site is within walking distance of Dobbins Landing on one side, and Liberty Park on the other. And because the site’s northwest corner juts out into the bay, two of its rectangle’s sides abut water, including its west end, which gives a visitor standing there sunset views across the bay to Presque Isle.
To some, the GAF site represents the potential to weave together the redevelopment of Erie’s port and its transformation from industrial to public use. To others, the GAF site represents potential tax revenue in a city already perilously overburdened with tax-exempt property. To still others, the site could be an opportunity to put Erie architecture on the map and set the tone of city development for the next 100 years. And to still others — perhaps the most important group to the site’s future — the GAF site represents money.
If development is done correctly, the GAF site could meet all these expectations. If not, we’ll have to live with the mistake for years. Decades. Generations.
After all, the GAF site housed roofing suppliers for over 120 years before the city acquired the property in late 2010. That manufacturing tradition stretches back to 1885, when the H.F. Watson Company opened its factory to manufacture roofing paper. And when the latest owner of the property — GAF Materials Corporation — halted its production of roofing shingles on site in favor of a modernized facility in central Pennsylvania in 2007, it took more than two years of threats, wrangling, and negotiation before the Erie County Convention Center Authority purchased the site for $3 million and perhaps $7 million more in environmental liability.
In short, we’ll probably live with what’s built there for a very long time.
For a midweek public meeting on a blustery winter night, the room is packed. We’re in the southwest corner of the Convention Center in a new and brightly lit room, and it’s full. All the chairs are occupied, and then some. More than 100 people.
We’re here, of course, to hear the Erie County Convention Center Authority present the GAF concept plan it unveiled days earlier.
The friendly chatter that fills the room is interrupted when Casey Wells, the executive director of the Convention Center Authority, stands up and calls for attention. He’s dressed in a gray suit and nondescript tie, has a round head that’s balding, with hair and mustache gone to white. He speaks in a slow and careful voice that easily carries to the far corners of the room.
“We want to clean this site so that people could live there, if market forces decides that happens,” he says, explaining the purpose of this concept plan. In order to submit the plan for environmental cleanup to the environmental agencies, it has to have its intended use explained, “so they can assess whether the level of cleanup we intend is consistent with its intended use.”
Wells stresses that the concept plan does not dictate what will eventually be built on the GAF site. It’s just a proposal of what could be there as a result of the authority’s efforts to make the “highest and best possible use of the site,” as Wells puts it.
“It’s a road map,” says Wells, “not a blueprint.”
Wells then introduces AJ Schwartz, who’s the head of the Pittsburgh-based firm, Environmental Planning & Design that’s responsible for both the concept plan and the initial stages of cleanup and development. Schwartz’ firm was selected in large part because of its experience transforming sites with environmental contamination into usable property.
Schwartz presents a strong contrast to Wells, dressed in pink shirt with mauve tie and sporting a neatly trimmed pencil-thin goatee under a slightly unruly head of salt-and-pepper hair. He speaks, too, in a soft, almost sad voice.
“Basically,” he opens, “we want to give you a whirlwind tour of a planning process that’s been about six months in length. So far.” He fires up a projector, which lights up a screen behind him on the wall of the room. “It’s important to remember,” he says, reiterating Wells, “this is a concept plan. When the property is put back out to the private sector after it’s been cleaned, there will probably be some proposals different than what’s on the plan.
“That’s something the city — and you — are going to be able to shape.”
And then he takes us through a PowerPoint presentation of the concept plan — available at gafbayfrontvision.com — which was the result of the site’s environmental constraints, the public’s input and aspirations, and regional market observations.
For the most part, these factors seem to be self-evident. Site contamination exists — the worst is located in the site interior. There are issues around access to the site. Erie residents want access to the water — especially for ice fishing. Market research determined the site needs another hotel directly adjacent to the Convention Center, as well as additional parking for big events or conventions. That research also showed a need for residential development, but not of office space. And so on.
And then Schwartz shows us a slide of the proposed concept plan. It looks something like this:
On the west side of the site, starting in the southwest corner, are a row of townhouses. They stretch along a new road to the north, to where the proposed low-budget hotel sits with two sides flanking the water. To the south, bordering the Bayfront Parkway, are two apartment buildings with ground-floor offices. Just behind them to the immediate north, filling the space behind the townhouses and below the hotel, is a parking garage built over the site’s worst contamination.
Other features include a long pedestrian walkway connecting the parking garage, hotel, and Convention Center — to protect convention-goers from the winter weather. There’s also a “promenade,” a strip of public walkway along the lake running in front of the proposed residential units. The walkway will have several access points to the lake for kayaks and ice fishing. And just to the south of the Convention Center parking lot is the proposed marketplace. It could be open-air, a place for a farmer’s market with a little plaza and maybe an anchor restaurant, with its own parking lot, and visible from the parkway.
Clean up will take all of 2012, says Schwartz. The first proposals for development from the private sector likely will appear in 2013, and we’ll begin to see the first development in 2014 or 2015.
“Questions?” Hands go up.
A former neighbor of mine stands up. “I saw the drawing in the newspaper of the site,” he says. “Aesthetically speaking, I felt there was something lacking. I think it needs something more inspirational, some focus, something that will say it’s a centerpiece.” Maybe a fountain? Like Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Fountain?
Another question, about pedestrian access from downtown. Another on the other development projects. And another about “the children.” Will there be anything here for them? An aquarium, perhaps? (No, that’s a “subsidized asset.” But there is an “interpretive space” at the marketplace...) The questions paint general dissatisfaction with the plan. What about transit? What about ice fishing? What about space for families? How about a microbrewery!
Walter Rybka stands. He’s the administrator of the Erie Maritime Museum and senior captain of the Brig Niagara, perhaps the city’s most prominent landmark — or, more accurately, its most prominent silhouette: the Niagara’s sails adorn Erie T-shirts, baseball caps, and license plates.
Rybka dislikes the townhouses along the west edge. “In the long run, residential use should be the last use of waterfront property built up at public expense,” he says. Private homeowners have different interests than the public, and he suggests retail on the ground floor of the structures. “We don’t want to create a private conclave of all the good views. That’s a limitation on true public use.”
The crowd applauds, and you can feel the room begin to turn on Schwartz.
It’s then that local architect, Jeff Kidder, stands. He agrees with the design principles, the parameters set by the public and market research. “But then I just lose it when I get to the concept plan,” he says, “and I’m just being blunt.” The plan doesn’t transform the principles into something people will live in and use, says Kidder.
“I’m not inspired by anything here — physically, planning, design,” he says, “I’m not seeing anything here. There’s so much more potential.” He’s talking to the crowd now. “We need to push the consultants, the Civic Center Authority, to give us something great. This isn’t great.”
And so it goes. A few technical questions punctuated by passionate expressions for something better, something memorable, for doing it right, each time greeted by applause. Schwartz looks like a man caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella and still a long way to walk. He puts his head down and trudges on.
As the meeting breaks up, I’m intrigued by the proposal’s critics. Personally, I wasn’t appalled. I even bought into the plan a little. A nice promenade? That would be swell. A great place to paddle to in my kayak from across the bay from Presque Isle. Some nice retail shops? Another nice restaurant would be pleasant, anyway.
“Pleasant” was what I was coming away with. But not “great.” What would that look like? And how do we get there?
Likewise, my thoughts swirl around the premises that drive the concept plan. Most of the factors — the need for a hotel, say, or residential use — were shaping the design, but not steering the project. There were other, more critical premises that seemed to be the drivers of planning.
To wit: That the site needs to generate tax revenue. That development needs to happen quickly. That as few tax dollars as possible should be spent to maintain the site. In short, these factors demand that the GAF site should be built cheaply and quickly and infuse money into the city’s coffers as soon as possible.
To me, that seems the biggest obstacle to doing it right. To making it great.
The office of Kidder Wachter Architecture & Design occupies the oldest standing structure in Erie. Wedged in the crook of UPMC Hamot Hospital on French Street, Dickson Tavern is almost perfectly square, with elegant rows of multi-paned windows. It’s built in the Federal style of architecture favored by early Americans, and it still exudes a whiff in its clean lines and symmetry of the antiquity architects of the time sought to imitate. At its construction in 1815, it must have stood out over the cluster of clapboard houses that comprised Erie. Even now it stands out, not as a large presence, but as a delight to the eye. In short, it’s a building made for humans.
Inside, the ceilings are high and the rooms spacious. The design is minimal, as austere as its architecture. Jeff Kidder — one of the firm’s principle architects — sees me, says, “oh, you’re here,” and disappears. Did I come at the wrong time? His partner, Chip Wachter, greets me like an old friend, and we make small talk as he takes me to the coffee and then upstairs to a conference room. There, the table is littered with huge color printouts and a tall stack of architecture books.
For a heartbeat or two, I think I’ve barged into a job in progress. I’ve interrupted work. But when Kidder enters with a stack of copies of the local newspaper, and I see the color printouts are enormous aerial pictures of the GAF site, I realize this is for me. I haven’t botched the time or place. I’m being ambushed.
Kidder pulls out the graphic representation of the GAF concept proposal made by the Erie Times News and lays it in front of me.
“Our first impression was that we thought this was a mistake,” says Wachter, “they must have designed something else and the newspaper — “
“This is what we do,” says Kidder, interrupting. They’re both so overflowing with ideas that they’ll do this the rest of the meeting: interrupt each other, finish the other’s thoughts, talk over one another. “This is what we think about seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
What follows is a spirited instruction on design, context, composition, cost, clients. On architecture.
On context: “We don’t look at any building without looking at the neighborhood it’s in, without understanding the context of the city it’s in.” There are layers upon layers of context. Vehicular access. Pedestrian issues. Infrastructure. Timing of the project matters, as does the client and the budget. “You’ve got to pull it all together and do the best you can.”
On composition: “You can create pleasant outdoor rooms by how you assemble the pieces around that outdoor space. It’s more than just putting the pieces on a clean slate.”
There’s historical context, too. Past architecture can teach us important lessons. We can learn from examples of well-built cities. “People knew how to design cities in the 19th century. You can’t forget about what has happened.”
“Everybody occupies space on this Earth,” says Kidder, “everything you see is intentionally created by humans — other than scenic nature — it’s always pretty much the result of a decision, it’s meant to be that way. And if you look around, everything is pretty bad. What does that tell you? What do you conclude from that?”
“Some things are easy to undo,” adds Wachter. “In the ‘60s, people had pretty crazy clothes. So some of these buildings, or even neighborhoods, are the equivalent of the bell-bottom. It’s easy to get a haircut and change your clothes. It’s harder to undo a building or undo a neighborhood.”
Kidder: “Architecture is the theater of life. It’s the backdrop most people live in.”
And then they lay into the GAF concept proposal. Kidder produces a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. “It’s wasteful,” he says. “It’s undefined space.” He runs a finger along the narrow strip of green between and behind the townhouses on the west edge of the property along the lake. “There’s space here,” he says, “but, if you’re standing there between things, what does it feel like?”
“Are you going to remember being there?” says Wachter.
As they’re telling me this, I see it. What before in the concept plan was to me an innocuous and perhaps slightly pleasant vision of the GAF site suddenly looked deeply flawed. Before, I had imagined myself strolling along under the trees of the promenade by the lake looking over the water at, say, the kayaks floating by, or an ice fisherman struggling with his equipment down stairs to the ice. Now I swung my vision over to the townhouses, and...there was a gray area.
What would be over there between the townhouses? What would the area under the walkway between the hotel and Convention Center look like? What would the site look like from the bluff? From the Bicentennial Tower? From the bike path? It was all gray. Under the concept design plan, I couldn’t imagine. And that was a problem.
They’re just getting warmed up. Why isn’t the Convention Center parking lot being used? Imagine walking down Sassafras with a row of shops and restaurants on one side...and a giant, empty parking lot on the other! And that townhouse on the corner! Who would buy a house that’s so far from the water and right next to the Bayfront Parkway? Imagine the noise, the lights, the sheer volume of cars that go by! And a budget hotel right on the water? Why would anyone ever stay at the Sheraton if they could have the same views and walk to the Convention Center for half the price?
And don’t get them started on the walkway from the hotel to the Convention Center! Is the area between the hotel and Convention Center really going to be that unpleasant, that people would rather walk in an enclosed tube than outside?
“I thought it was great when that first guy stood up at the public meeting,” says Kidder, “and says, ‘I’m not feeling it, there’s something missing.’”
“These opportunities only come up every other lifetime,” says Wachter. “How do we want to express ourselves?”
“There’s huge opportunity here,” says Kidder. “I want this thing to be on somebody’s top ten list. That’s what I want. When people talk about architecture, I want them to reference Erie.”
And then comes their plan. It’s just one option, emphasizes Kidder. He pulls out a slip of paper and lays it on the table before me. Right away, I notice the density, the more regular arrangement of the buildings, the integration of the current Convention Center parking lot into the plan. Even with a swath of green space bisecting the site west to east, there’s still more development in Kidder and Wachter’s plan.
At the edge of the property abutting the parkway, Kidder points to two dark blocks. Class “A” office buildings. Yes, they admit, the concept plan assumed little need for such office space, but their personal experience belied that assumption. Plus office workers didn’t mind looking over traffic or at a retaining wall. And imagine the visitors to Erie coming off of I-79, driving down the parkway, and there’s something to look at! Recognizable buildings! Announcing the city! You’re downtown! And a company wouldn’t mind hanging their sign there, what with 20,000 cars going by each day.
Between the office buildings, which form a gateway, there’s Sassafras Pier. “We’d keep Sassafras as it is,” explains Kidder, running his finger along the street. “But we make it nice. A boulevard. Tree-lined. Whatever.” And there, on the plan, are dividers down the middle of the street — I imagine shade trees over sidewalks.
There’s more. A plaza in front of the Convention Center, a row of townhouse along the marina, apartments arranged around a common green. A jetty extending off the west bank. The hotel moved from its prime waterfront location to a spot nestled in the interior, connected to the parking garage — now moved to the present Convention Center parking lot — by a pedestrian bridge. At the tip of the site and next to the green space — a park! maybe with a fountain for ice skating in the winter! — is an odd-shaped building. “You could do whatever with it,” says Kidder, “aquarium, marketplace, restaurant.” This is the anchor, the attraction people come to see.
Unlike the concept plan, I see it, clearly. I look at avenues of building to the lake, turn my head and see the marina. There are skaters on the fountain and people strolling from the parking garage to the Convention Center across a plaza.
But just as soon as they see I’m really getting into it, Wachter says, “we know this will never get built.”
Really? “We’ve been involved in projects early on,” he explains, “ we know they can take five years, a decade. This is a game of patience. We know it’s not going to be built like this.”
So, why all this work? It must have taken them hours to develop this plan. They even have a 3D-model of the site they rigged up on the computer system and five rough drafts of their proposal in the bag. So, why all the effort?
Frustration with the concept plan. “At a certain point you realize no one else is presenting an alternative,” says Wachter, “and we’re saying, we’ve got to provide an alternative. If not you, then who? If not now, when? If we can start the dialog with people who aren’t immersed in this, maybe we can get people to start to think about it.”
“And that they have options,” adds Kidder, “and why one is stronger or weaker than other options. We’re trying to educate the community.”
“Someone could look at this and say these guys are out of their minds,” says Wachter, “they’re arrogant, they don’t own any of this, who do they think they are? We have to start this dialog. Here’s something that’s been done thousands of times across the country, and here’s what we should consider. It shouldn’t just be, here’s the directive, here’s the path, tell me if it’s good or bad.”
But isn’t this just a concept plan? Something to show to state and federal agencies as part of the cleanup process?
“It was so premature,” says Kidder. “I think it’s more damaging than useful. All they would have had to say is, we believe per market research that there should be housing, offices, cultural, hotel, on this property. That means we have to clean it up to a certain level. And that’s where they should have stopped.”
“The danger is,” adds Wachter, “once you put it in paper, people refer to it three years from now. They’ll say, ‘Wait a minute! Why are we doing this? We paid these guys good money to do this!’”
Kidder considers this question some more and admits, that if the concept plan — with design — was required to get financial support for the cleanup, “if you’re satisfying items on a checklist, then everything we’re talking about is kind of inappropriate.”
“But we still need to say something.”
There’s one last question I want to ask. It’s possible that a developer could come in, win the proposal, and take control of the property, do whatever they want with the site, right? After all, with the city wanting to spend as little as possible and get the property on the tax roll as quick as possible, it’s even likely, right?
Kidder admits it’s not unusual. “I’d like the city to be a little more proactive,” he says. “Rather than just putting it out there, opening the door, and saying, ‘Come tell us what you want to do.’”
“I’d rather say, ‘Here’s what we want. You make it happen.’”
The first thing you should know about Christopher Fetcko is that, in grand scheme of the GAF site — the politics, the money, the design — he’s a rank amateur. He’s the manager of a retail store for “gentlemen farmers,” as he puts it. He’s not a developer. He’s not an urban planner. He doesn’t work for the city, or county, or a contractor, or law firm, or for anyone, really. In the grand scheme of things, he doesn’t have a professional stake in what gets built on the empty lot by the lake.
But what Christopher Fetcko does have is an idea. He has the aquarium.
“It started as a dream,” he tells me at our meeting in a 12th Street Panera several weeks before the recent public meeting. When I first sit down, Fetcko peppers me with questions as if I were the interviewee. Where was I from? How did I come to write for the newspaper? How long have you been here? How do you find Erie? It’s a friendly grilling.
“Then the dream became an idea,” says Fetcko. “Then a concept and a full-fledged business plan. Now we’re just trying to get community support for it.”
He’s laid a glossy binder on the table in front of me. It’s impressive. There are floor plans, building plans, a thick sheaf of resumes of experts who are involved with the project.
The idea hatched out of a visit to northern California. Besides taking up surfing — “I was a snowboarder for ten years and thought it would be easy...no f---ing way” — he went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium with his seven-year-old daughter. What they saw blew them away.
Here, Fetcko imitates the wide-eyed stare of a small child with her face pressed against the glass at the jellyfish exhibit — ten minutes of jaw-dropping wonder at animals pulsing across a cerulean backdrop like brightly painted flowers.
“I thought, why isn’t there an aquarium on the Great Lakes?”
Several months later, for an MBA class at Gannon, a professor required students to submit a business proposal. Fetcko decided to write one for an aquarium at the GAF site, recently purchased by the Convention Center Authority.
The students were to give presentations on their proposals, and then, after they were all done, to vote on their favorite by standing behind the presenter.
“I said I have this idea for an aquarium,” says Fetcko. “When it was time to vote, half the class came to me. They wanted to work on the project. They thought it was a great idea. The professor thought it was a great idea. And basically it took on a life of its own.”
Fetcko’s professor urged him to run with the idea, so he worked on it with the help of some former classmates — presumably some of those who stood behind him after his presentation. Word slowly got out. Local luminary Barabara Weber, for one, liked his idea and put him in touch with a group of backers of a failed Cleveland aquarium proposal, and soon Fetcko’s team was stuffed with curators, zoologists, and museum directors.
“I see it as a freshwater aquarium,” he says, “and aviary, too — this is one of the major migratory areas for birds in the world. Why don’t we have an aviary?” His aquarium would host exhibits about the Great Lakes ecosystem and would be accredited to share exhibits with other aquariums across the country.
“The whole philosophy is to build something that’s tight, right, and dynamic,” he says. “It’s not going into a building, looking at a tank and walking away, saying, ‘I did that, there’s no need to go back.’”
Fetcko’s original plan called for a monolithic aquarium that would take up the entire GAF site. But understanding the economic constraints of the site — the city needs its tax money — he’s scaled down his vision to three-and-a-half to four acres of the 10-acre site. The building would have two stories, the bottom for the tanks, the top for the aviary.
But more important to Fetcko than the aquarium is the city of Erie and its waterfront. “This is the last gem on the waterfront,” he says. “It can really tie together Presque Isle, the Bayfront, and the city. I don’t want them to be myopic, to throw up anything,” he says about the Convention Center Authority.
He returns to his vision for the aquarium. “Our goal is to create that metropolitan feel, to get people to come back to downtown, not just as beer drinkers on State Street, but to get them bringing the family down for a night on the town, for the aquarium, for an exhibit.”
As he’s talking, I pore over his glossy binder. One plan jumps out at me. It’s of a modestly sized aquarium perched right on the shore. Alongside it runs a trout stream — an artificial one built for the facility — and it snakes right into the building. I can almost picture it. A warm evening, the stream running out of the aquarium and into the lake. Kids on a bridge leaning over the water, maybe tossing pebbles. And the aquarium over their shoulders. I picture a steel-and-glass building with birds fluttering in the aviary overhead.
It’s a beautiful image. But is it possible?
John Elliott is the chief executive of the Economic Development Corporation of Erie County. Our children also go to school together, so when I ask to talk to him about the GAF concept proposal, he invites me to his house after the kids are in bed. We sit side-by-side in the front room on upright chairs, Elliot wearing a sweater and Birkenstocks and handling an iPad already loaded with the GAF concept plan presentation.
“It’s really important to remember that when you make land use changes like this,” he starts, expanding the site map with a flick of his fingers, “it’s really hard to go back. This is a once-in-a-generation move.”
Elliott quickly identifies some of the same problems with the concept plan that Wachter and Kidder already pointed out: the non-use of the existing Convention Center parking lot, the lack of housing on the marina, the need for a pedestrian bridge from the downtown bluff to the GAF site, the misplacement of the proposed market house on a distant corner, the townhouse plopped down next to the Parkway.
He also identifies a problem with the marketplace as the “anchor” attraction of the site. “What is it that’s going to make the marketplace a part of the Erie lifestyle?” he asks. “It’s going to take some big dollars to hit it quick and make this glamorous enough to make it a destination place,” he says.
But high-end destination retail may not be the answer. “Erie is a price-driven town,” says Elliott, “and I’m not being negative. That’s just the way it is. This marketplace will have to be able to compete with Peach Street.”
Elliott returns to the idea that the GAF site has to be developed properly. “In the past some of these decisions have been made quickly” — or have been influenced by, say, what grant money is available — “and we’ve lost the most valuable property on the waterfront.”
“All of these sites, starting at the Niagara Pier, all the way over to the Erie Coke site, used to be industrial,” he says, “that’s Erie’s industrial legacy, which was built around its railroad corridor, and systematically we’ve ripped out railroad tracks. That’s extremely shortsighted. What we are recognizing is that our harbor and our port are unique industrial assets for our region. And given the concentration of manufacturing employed in or region and some of the specific opportunities we’ve identified, we’re already passing off some of those opportunities to our neighbors in places like Conneaut.”
“This is really the end of Erie as a great port town. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just a thing that we have to recognize.”
But Elliott isn’t pointing fingers or blaming particular agencies or authorities. In fact, he praises the Erie Port Authority’s efforts in creating a plan for the waterfront and helping his group work on industrial projects.
“Here’s the reality,” he says. “We live in a democratic country. Development takes time. And because development takes time, there’s a lot of individual decisions that have to made when they have to be made. And because this is a democratic country, you don’t have a top-down master plan.”
Elliot ticks off the public entities involved in the redevelopment process. There’s the city and its zoning controls. There’s the Convention Center Authority, and the Transit Authority, and the Port Authority. And there’s quasi-governmental authorities. And private developers. “And then you have to shoehorn progress into the fact you’re trying to shake money out of five different state departments, and federal agencies...”
When asked if it’s possible a large developer would come in and dictate the future of the site, Elliott admits the possibility. “What you have to watch out for is disposable architecture,” he says, “a big box that you have to throw away thirty years later.” But a big developer may not be so bad: it’s possible to control the design principles of the site and still find someone to agree to build it.
But, still, the cost to develop the waterfront is ten to fifteen percent higher on the waterfront because of foundations, and then there’s structure concerns and weatherization because of the water and wind.
“We need to be prepared to up the public ante in all of this,” says Elliott. “If that means subsidizing all the infrastructure, all the roads, and all the semi-public spaces through grants and TIFs and tax abatements and direct subsidy, we need to be prepared to do that, to make this work.”
When I mention that those ideas would seem to butt up against the notion that the city must spend as little as possible and get as fast return on the property as possible, he shrugs.
“You get what you pay for.”
Casey Wells is a perfect gentleman on the phone, just as he was when I got his card at the public meeting on the concept plan a few days before. He’s patient and gracious, despite doubt over the efficacy and vision of not only the concept plan for the site, but also for the vision of the Erie County Convention Center Authority itself, of which he is the executive director.
When I raise the concerns of people with the proposed concept plan, Wells reminds me that the plan is just a step in a long process.
“The concept plan is not a blueprint,” says Wells, “it’s simply a road map to enable us to remediate the site to the point where it can be compliant with environmental regulations and enable us to put the site to the highest and best possible use.”
He reiterates the use of the plan for cleanup, and says development would be shaped only by the factors noted in the concept plan: environmental constraints, public and stakeholder input, and the market. After the cleanup of the site, the Convention Center Authority will put out a request for proposals, and then the private sector will make proposals.
I pepper him with specifics. Would the city be interested in crafting design standards for the site? Would the city give over development to developers? Would the city be selling or leasing the land?
“At this point it would be premature to say anything could happen or could not happen,” answers Wells. “We don’t even know if the EPA will give us the approvals. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. That’s where mistakes are made.”
Still, Wells did say this about my speculation on development on the site: “Nothing is sacred.”
“I thought this a good first step,” says Erie city councilman, Bob Merski, on the phone. There were particulars to the plan that Merski didn’t like — he thought it should be denser, for one, and didn’t like the idea of squandering so much waterfront property on parking spaces.
“The quicker we figure out what to do,” says Merski, “and put it into place, the better.” The concept plan works for him because it accurately describes the type of use the city wants to see there — a mix of commercial, public, and residential — and moves the process along. “Government tends to move slowly,” he notes, dryly.
The particulars will come — especially as the site is open to the market. “The market will determine what will succeed,” he says. Along the way, he and the other council members plan to watch the process carefully to ensure it meets certain core principles, that it needs to have public space, that it’s accessible, and has amenities that serve the residents of Erie.
“I think the Convention Center Authority and the others have done a great service to the community by helping shape the conversation,” said Elliot in his parting words to me as he ushered me out of his house. “You have to put something on paper, and use that to get ideas from people, because people speak generally until they have something specific to talk about.
“This is a very healthy conversation.”
“Harbors are God-given,” says Walter Rybka, senior captain of the Niagara, “ports are man-made.”
I’ve tracked Rybka to his office in the back rooms of the Maritime Museum to see if he’d like to expand on his comments he made at the public meeting.
Of all the ideas and visions and principles I’ve heard over the course of my inquiry into the GAF concept plan, Rybka’s warning resonates with me the most, and it’s these words I want to leave you with as a last parting thought.
“That interface between people, ships, and the water can only be made in the shelter of a harbor with built-up docks and piers,” continues Rybka, “and that only happens at large public expense in the few places that could happen.” Homeowners have different interests than the public, says, Rybka. They’re interested in property values and privacy, not public use of the waterfront.
“Once you decide to sell that land for private residents, you’ve basically given it away forever. You won’t get it back.”
It’s not only the slice of land at the waterfront that’s in danger of being sold off, it’s our legacy, our expression of ourselves as a people and a community.
By Dan Schank
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