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It is time for action at Canalside

July 29, 2012

At some point in the future Canalside will be a gleaming beacon for the city of Buffalo. A multi-use district rooted in the rich history of the Erie Canal and it’s impact on the city. When that day will come will remain TBD.

A glut of renderings, plans, hopes and dreams have one by the wayside over the past 15 years as a singular direction has tried to be found at Canalside. Every progressive plan has been met by opposition from obstructionists masquerading as preservationists, newspaper columnists with a personal agenda akin to a 16-year old girl and grassroots complaints from NIMBYsand history buffs.

It is time to find concrete activities for these people at Canalside.

The most recent victory for those who oppose was when Bass Pro was officially wiped from the table as an option for Canalside. What replaced the shopping mecca? A hole in the ground, grass and lawn chairs.

Now, Bass Pro was a foolhardy mission. No matter what kind of shopping numbers were used as an example of it’s purpose in Canalside, it was ridiculous to think an outdoor supply store would be a proper anchor for what was to be a regional destination. Losing Bass Pro was indeed a victory for the city and Canalside as it provided space to explore other, more realistic options.

However, it shouldn’t have served as a catalyst for a crowdsourced lawn complete with different colored chairs and a hot dog stand. Depending on your point of view, ditching Bass Pro and rolling out the sod was real progress towards the “waterfront we deserve”. Tell me, does Buffalo not deserve a waterfront with, you know, things to do?

Lately The Buffalo News has deteriorated to little more than a propaganda machine to endorse alternatives to failed projects. Typically it is Donn Esmonde filling his weekly quota of Tim Tielman quotes – no matter how pointless – and Bass Pro potshots – no matter how outdated. For example, a few articles have run covering the plan to convert Ohio Street into a parkway that connects downtown and the Outer Harbor. In fact, Brian Higgins himself penned a piece about the benefits. It was interesting because it always seemed that Higgins’ passion project was the harbor bridge that received minor coverage in the News.

The Ohio street plan isn’t a bad one. In fact, the work being done along that corridor is impressive. It is simply pathetic that the superior plan has been abandoned for one that is so obviously a second or third option. If the funding for the Harbor Bridge is truly dead, then so be it; the Ohio street option will serve the city just fine. Just don’t act as if Ohio street was the first and best option all along. The best option is for both, whether or not that is realistic is a different story.

A harbor bridge would not only provide a direct connection to downtown from the Outer Harbor (keyword: direct), it would funnel people directly into the arena district and Canalside. Of course, there would need to actually be buildings in and around the arena and Canalside to keep people there.

Something that is apparently lost on people like Tielman and Esmonde is the fact that there is nothing keeping people at Canalside. The dumber, slower, cheaper (lighter, quicker, cheaper) motto is a wonderful way to fill in ancillary items for the area. Grass, lawn chairs and poorly served hot dogs are great, but should not serve as a pillar of progress. Had those Adirondack chairs and Clinton’s Dish been the finishing touches on Canalside, they would have served a wonderful purpose. However, they weren’t finishing touches and they’re not even close to anything that ever existed down near the Canal years ago.

Keeping with the historic fabric of Canalside should be part of the development plans. It would be ridiculous to plop a strip plaza on the water and call it a day. Of course, those who continually call for historic accuracy for the district are likely ignoring the fact that the Canal District was better known for crime and houses of ill repute more than anything else during the Canal’s heyday. I’ll go out on a limb and say we need to fall somewhere in the middle.

A Buffalo Waterfront panel was held this morning and a few of the tweets that Buffalo Business First had stood out. A quote from Maureen Hurley was what stood out most, she said that Canalside needs retail in order to give the people a reason to continue coming back.

Certainly even the staunchest obstructionists realize that buildings need to go up and commercial businesses need to take hold in the area if there is any hope of further progress. Well, maybe not the staunchest, but I’ll say most are likely well aware of this.

There is no reason to plop Abercrombie, Banana Republic and a Jamba Juice – well, maybe keep the Jamba Juice – down in this area. At least not yet. But that is the future of that neighborhood, no matter how you cut it.

Thriving urban districts, like Canalside, all have a significant commercial element that serves to draw and keep people in the area. Look at Quincy Market or the Baltimore Waterfront. Significant commercial development serves to define the area. Hell, Liberty Hound is little more than a tiny room but it has already proven that people are more than happy to come to Canalside to eat, drink and hang out. (For the record, there is a difference between a real restaurant and the #ECShack.)

The next step is to provide at least one spec building that will show developers that there is reason to build. Start with showers and proper restroom facilities for boaters and visitors. In fact, make the restroom facility big enough to handle those who come down for the weekly concerts. Then those outhouses can be removed from the area permanently. Unless, of course, they add to the historical integrity.

While building out that singular building to house the restroom facilities, build out the front for retail space and let the Spirit of Buffalo and BFLO Harbor Kayak take up some of the space. No need to make it a massive retail offering for each, just large enough for them to run their operation. Giving each their own space would not only allow them to come away from using tents on the wharf and it could even allow them to expand a bit. Maybe Harbor Kayak takes advantage of the extra space to start renting bikes and scooters to Canalside patrons.

The idea is to provide tangible evidence that it is okay to construct something larger than a snack shack and more permanent than a temporary stage. This building could fall in line with the canal-era design standards and serve as a model for what would be expected to follow.

Keeping historical integrity is a great mission for Canalside. But that shouldn’t serve as a hurdle for the continued development of the neighborhood.

 

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