This past weekend the problem was massive traffic jams near Buffalo’s Canalside. But the omissions that helped to create vehicular gridlock on a pleasant summer evening may result someday in more dire consequences for Buffalo’s Lake Erie shoreline.
As reported by WIVB-TV on August 29, 2016, the presence of a massive rubber duck is being blamed for hours of traffic gridlock on a pleasant summer evening:
The world’s largest rubber duck was a huge hit. Officials say it’s the most popular attraction to ever come to Canalside. But the big crowds caused a traffic nightmare at the waterfront.
[Uncredited photo of “World’s Largest Rubber Duck” from Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s website .]
Don’t blame the duck. The guilty parties are the state and local officials who have failed to do the thoughtful planning they were obliged to do each time a new development project was being considered for Buffalo’s waterfront.
While public officials have expressed concern over the weekend gridlock, they have not acknowledged what they could have done to prevent the unintended creation of Buffalo’s largest parking lot.
Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development (the state agency most involved in development of the city’s waterfront), told WGRZ-TV that ESD takes seriously the public’s concerns over congestion, and then exclaimed, “… [W]e’re thrilled with the popularity of Buffalo’s waterfront.”
Mr. Hoyt’s sentiments were echoed in a Buffalo News August 31st editorial entitled “Growing Pains – Gridlock during waterfront events is an indicator of a city on the mend”:
… [T]he main point to be taken from the weekend’s gridlock is that people want to come to the Buffalo waterfront. It was all but unthinkable just a few years ago. Today, it is so popular that organizers will have to plan their events more carefully. And, what’s the problem with that?
With all due respect, let me tell you what the problem is: State and local officials have consistently failed to follow the intent and purpose of SEQRA [the State Environmental Quality Review Act] when considering new development along Buffalo’s waterfront. They have opted for expedited approval of projects – such as HarborCenter – rather than gathering useful information through the Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] process.
In 2012 and 2013, both Buffalo’s Common Council – while deciding whether to transfer ownership of the “Webster block” from the city to the Pegulas – and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (a subsidiary of Empire State Development) – when deciding whether to modify its Canalside development plans to allow for the construction of HarborCenter – had the legal authority (and, I would argue, obligation) to require the HarborCenter developers to prepare an EIS. They decided instead to issue a “Negative Declaration” and claim that HarborCenter, with its multiple hockey rinks, hotel, restaurants, night club, retail space, etc., etc., would not adversely impact the environment – including traffic levels.
Asking the Pegulas – deep-pocket owners who did not have the option of building a similar three-rink hockey complex any place else – to prepare an EIS to address, at a minimum, traffic impacts in and around its proposed project, would have provided a framework to perform four important functions:
(1) objectively assess potential cumulative traffic impacts of the various Canalside projects and activities;
(2) carefully consider alternative projects and activities for the parcel, including a reduction in the scale of the proposed HarborCenter;
(3) realistically identify mitigation measures to reduce or eliminate potential traffic problems; and
(4) provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to offer informed comments to assist the government agencies in making its decision whether to go forward with the project as proposed.
The failure to fully and effectively utilize SEQRA to address potential Canalside traffic congestion is certainly disappointing. But what is truly disconcerting – and inexplicable – is how an obscure state agency, the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), has placed in jeopardy the future health and sustainability of the Buffalo River and Buffalo’s Outer Harbor.
CSNE – an entity under the control of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and totally unaccountable to the residents of the City of Buffalo – approved the largest piece of the “Buffalo Billion” program, the Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub @ RiverBend, in May 2014 without the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.
As I explained in greater detail in a posting a year ago:
Under law, an EIS is presumed necessary whenever a project would physically alter 10 or more acres of land, or exceed construction of 240,000 square feet of non-residential facilities. Nonetheless, the Cuomo administration knowingly circumvented the safeguards built into SEQRA by approving construction of a 90-acre, 1-million square-foot complex in a highly sensitive area in May 2014 without preparation of an EIS.
The decision to place RiverBend’s Innovation Hub along the Buffalo River prior to conducting the proper environmental review to determine if the site is appropriate for such activities was inexcusable. The by-products of manufacturing solar panels at the RiverBend site have never been identified publicly. We cannot rationally and responsibly research, develop, and manufacture “clean energy” products if the processes involved could harm the surrounding environs, including the fragile Lake Erie shoreline.
The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering – which, since September 2014, is also known as SUNY Polytechnic Institute (SUNY Poly) – has the distinction of praising “the vision and leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo” in the very first sentence of its website’s “About Us” page. Its Home page also boasts a photo of our Governor proclaiming, “Nanotechnology is a juggernaut for the activation of the entire economy.”
Sadly, for the future of the Buffalo River and the Lake Erie shoreline, CSNE has not been a juggernaut for the protection of the environment in Western New York. As a sobering omen of what may lie ahead as a result of a state agency – in the midst of a gubernatorial election campaign – failing to conduct a thorough environmental review, CSNE has recently encountered a bit of a problem. According to a SEQRA notice filed with the State DEC, slag materials “containing low levels of technology enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM)” were excavated during redevelopment activities at the RiverBend site. CSNE has proposed “placing the material over an approximate 10 + acre area of the 90 acre Project Site followed by placement of a demarcation layer and covering…”.
Not surprisingly, consistent with its decision not to prepare an EIS for the entire 90-acre, 1-million square foot manufacturing project, CSNE has issued a Negative Declaration claiming that the on-site placement of this radioactive material will not adversely impact the environment. [Note: There is still time for an appropriate agency to challenge the Negative Declaration in an Article 78 proceeding in State Supreme Court.]
There’s no duck to blame for this problem. But I do know a number of turkeys masquerading as public officials who should be held accountable.
With All Due Respect,