POTY / Brian Higgins
An attitude of endless possibility
Photo by kc kratt
“The governor announced it today; he wants a process to identify a new location for Amtrak. I think the Terminal is possible. Look at Larkinville—the Zemskys have expanded the boundaries of downtown Buffalo. People think the Terminal is far from downtown, but it’s not. It’s almost the same distance from City Hall as Larkinville.”
He makes no bones about it. As US congressman for the 26th District since 2005, Brian Higgins considers his Western New York constituents his priority. As he says, “I didn’t go to Washington to change the world. I went there to change my community.” Higgins has led initiatives to transform Buffalo’s waterfront from a debris-filled wasteland to Canalside—with its facilities, amenities, and entertainment—and the Outer Harbor, with its new parks and recreational opportunities. Higgins’ Wikipedia profile may speak of his positions on social security, health care, and education at the national level, but, for most of us, this is the leader who turned our waterfront from a depressing joke to a vibrant destination. We look for action at the local level from Higgins, and he delivers. And now, Higgins has a new target: the renovation and reuse of Buffalo’s Central Terminal for its original purpose: trains.
Your office has been very active all along the waterfront over the past few years. What are the most recent developments?
It’s the continued build-out of what started eight years ago. I use Ohio Street as a microcosm of what occurs when the federal government makes the investment of infrastructure development—roads and bridges—in communities. It unleashes the creativity and the resources of the private sector. Our $8-million investment in Ohio Street helped produce probably $40 million in development. They are now building a restaurant in the Ellicott Development building, and then you have Buffalo River Landing (Savarino) which is seventy-eight units and will be completed in eight weeks. Look at Niagara Street: $28 million of mostly federal money to create a new gateway, and now residential development is happening there. Look at Main Street; federal money returned cars to Main Street. Now you walk out of the Hyatt and you see mixed-use development all up and down Main Street. The proper role of the federal government is to bring in the infrastructure dollars necessary to unleash the resources of the private sector. Private development is a direct effect of infrastructure dollars invested by government. That is going on all throughout Buffalo, creating an expanded property tax base, jobs, and an enhanced quality of life. We’re helping to lead an effort from the water’s edge to downtown Buffalo that has had a monumental impact on the economic viability and life quality. We also fight very aggressively for federal research dollars for Roswell Park Cancer Institute; when Roswell is successful in securing a research grant, they bring rock star researchers to Buffalo, and those researchers want to live in downtown Buffalo. People like Rocco Termini—he’s an outlier, with great vision, but he’s also responding to a demand. One hundred percent of the apartments in the Lafayette Hotel were rented the day he opened.
What happened eight years ago that made all this possible?
I was a teacher at Buffalo State College for about eight years before this congressional gig got in my way, and they allowed me to teach a class in the economic history of Western New York. I would use Mark Goldman’s books, including High Hopes: The Decline of Buffalo and Western New York. He starts with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, when Buffalo was the eighth largest economy in the nation. What we had was a lake that fed a river that produced the cleanest, cheapest electricity anywhere. The point is that it’s still here, but we allowed it to be taken away from us. Eight years ago, we helped to win that settlement of $300 million for Buffalo through the federal relicensing of that power project. It’s financing every waterfront development project in Buffalo today. It created Canalside. It created Wilkeson Pointe. Federal money created the parkway to replace the old industrial roadway known as Furhmann Boulevard. It’s changed everything. It also helped rebuild the psychology of Western New York. We chased Bass Pro for ten years. We looked pathetic but, eight years ago, we learned to stand up for ourselves. Then, you could count the developers doing important projects on the fingers of one hand, but now we have roughly forty developers doing edgy projects, and that is a direct result of the new confidence that people have in the economic viability of Western New York. Buffalo was a community that believed that its fate was determined by external forces over which it had no control. Now that attitude is one of endless possibility.
What challenges remain? How you can further bring federal power to bear on Buffalo’s problems? I’m thinking about out continuing water quality problems and the poverty that still exists.
The renaissance of Buffalo is now finding its way into the neighborhoods—on the East Side, the South Side, and the lower West Side. There's a waitress named Sharon at Santasiero’s who has worked there for forty years. Forty years ago, she bought a house on Normal Avenue, and her parents begged her not to buy that house and raise a child on Normal Avenue. I saw her the other night and she was jubilant. She said the house across the street from her just sold for $299,000. Sharon has a nest egg in the new Buffalo.
As for water quality, in 1971, the Buffalo River was declared biologically dead because of all the pollution coming from waterfront industries. Today, EPA officials are saying that the Buffalo River will be swimmable in the next twenty-four months and that the fish that are caught there will be safe for human consumption in the next decade. Do you really think that developers like Paladino and Savarino are going to built luxury apartments on a polluted waterway? That riverfront has been cleaned up; we just spent seventy-nine million federal dollars over the last eight years on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. We removed sixty-seven semi truckloads of contaminated sediment from the bottom of the river. The industry is gone; the freighters have been replaced with kayaks and other recreational boats. Our vision is to position Buffalo to become a destination for recreational activity on the Great Lakes. All the development along the river, as well as the Buchheit Freezer Queen project on the Outer Harbor, will feature very generous public access and transient docking for recreational boating. It will be online next year. We are also creating more parkland at the Outer Harbor. What’s going on in Buffalo is incredible. You’ll be seeing announcements about the Peace Bridge soon.
What obstacles stand in the way of this progress?
We have to have the collective confidence to make things happen for ourselves. We can’t say “Please come develop our waterfront for us. We can’t do it.” It’s not just about getting money either. Bureaucracies can get in the way.
Today we’re reading about a possible new train station.
I just left the governor and I am leading an effort to site a new Amtrak station at the Central Terminal in Buffalo. I took people through there three weeks ago, including [Buffalo Councilmember] David Francyzk, who still lives on Fillmore Avenue. It’s heartbreaking what’s happened to Broadway/Fillmore, but revitalizing the Terminal is possible in the new Buffalo. The governor announced it today; he wants a process to identify a new location for Amtrak. I think the Terminal is possible. Look at Larkinville—the Zemskys have expanded the boundaries of downtown Buffalo. People think the Terminal is far from downtown, but it’s not. It’s almost the same distance from City Hall as Larkinville. I was shocked by how structurally sound the Terminal is. There is money in the New York State budget today for a new Amtrak station; $25 million is in the five-year capitol program. It won’t be available until 2018, so let’s utilize the time between now and then to give Central Terminal a shot.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree, and believes, given everything else that has happened recently in Buffalo, that a revitalized and reused Central Terminal will happen in her lifetime.