Pipe Dream: Taking the opportunity to upgrade First Niagara Center’s exterior

The fanfare surrounding HARBORCENTER isn’t going to die down soon. Nor should it. This is a phenomenal project that will inject all sorts of money and life into downtown Buffalo. It has the added flair of pissing off Tim Tielman and leaving him pouting in his open air bus, clutching to his construction paper and crayon “alternative”.

Just take a minute to look at that thing and tell me it’s not the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever seen. I can’t tell what’s more hysterical, the fishing huts along Main or the rink on a portion of the DL&W Terminal that isn’t currently a platform suitable for a rink.

Make this a statement, not an afterthought.

Anyway, HARBORCENTER is going to be a boon for downtown, the waterfront, Canalside and the arena district as a whole. It has raised some concern over the First Niagara signage on the arena being obstructed and it has also obstructed a vast majority of First Niagara Center’s atrium. The former point probably isn’t all that important. Nor will it be all that difficult to address. The latter, however, should be addressed in some form or function.

I’ve mentioned before that it would be beneficial to re-skin the atrium as a way to improve the visual connection between HARBORCENTER and the arena. The drop off in height and the drastic difference in architecture makes the adjoining buildings look odd, especially from Main Street. So the idea of a visual upgrade makes sense to me.

However, in between portions of our most recent podcast, Eric (of 3rd Man In) and I got to talking about a few aspects of the arena and how the Sabres may be able to improve on the exterior of the building.

We both remarked that First Niagara Center was built a few years too early (like so many other big projects in Buffalo) and the arenas that came just a few short years after it are far more visually pleasing. Places like Nationwide Arena (2000), Air Canada Centre (1999) and Bridgestone Arena (1996) are great examples of this. Bridgestone even opened the same year as First Niagara Center.

The point that got me thinking came when Eric and I acknowledged that at nearly 20 years old, First Niagara Center is creeping up on the need for some upgrades. Eric mentioned the idea of making the wall facing the Alumni Plaza more of a visual feature while also incorporating that open feature to those on the 100, 200 and 300 level concourses inside. I love this idea.

With HARBORCENTER occupying nearly the entire front façade of the arena, the opportunity to make the Alumni Plaza the new “front door” is right there for the taking. Major changes would need to be made to the exterior, the floor plates and even the atrium itself, but it would be worth it in more ways than one.

Changes to the Atrium

While the biggest change in this plan would see the exterior of First Niagara Center undergo major changes, a great deal of work would likely be required to the atrium as well, particularly the portion nearest the wall I’d like to see changed.

The actual structure of the atrium wouldn’t need to change. The wall that sits nearest the box office would need to be bumped out and creating a more dynamic look would be the key. The overall goal is to create a more dynamic front door feel with the Alumni Plaza, physically changing the area nearest the box office would be somewhat excessive.

In addition to making the exterior connect with the other changes, the skybridge connecting the arena garage to the atrium would require a facelift. Giving it a more inspired look than the bland rectangle that’s out there now would be the ultimate goal. Whether or not it would need to be structurally altered is hard to say, but I’m sure it’s preferable to avoid that.

One other thought I had was finding a new way to soften the area between the arena and the parking garage. Right now there is green space that serves as a buffer but it looks dated an unkempt. I’m not sure what a better alternative would be – perhaps a mural or something incorporating the grain elevators) but I’d like to see an improvement made to that portion of the plaza as well.

On the other side of the atrium, the Sabres would have the opportunity to find a better use for the empty patio that sits at the corner of Main and Perry. The whole Main Street side of the arena looks odd with HARBORCENTER adjoined and a wise choice would be to complete the street wall between the two buildings as opposed to the odd stepped look that is there now.

The patio above the Sabres store is rarely used and the crows nest next to it (part of the arena’s original nautical theme) looks out of place now. Enclosing that patio and adding that square footage to the atrium would add a great deal of space to the second floor of the atrium. It could serve as an extension to the Lexus Club but it would make more sense to me as a bar backing up to great views of the waterfront serving everyone heading to their seats.

This would also create a complete streetwall between the two buildings that could incorporate the archways that define both structures. Adding false height to this particular portion would also soften the transition from HARBORCENTER to the atrium and back to the arena.

This plan would not only increase usable space inside the arena but it would also create a vastly improved exterior look to both sides of the atrium, thus improving the visual identity of the building itself.

Arena Exterior

My inspiration for this idea was finding a way to reestablish the front door look and feel of First Niagara Center. Since this would be a do-over (of sorts) taking the opportunity to create a dynamic, glass façade (think Avant) along the wall facing Perry Street and the Alumni Plaza is the signature of my plan.

As I stated above, this portion would flow seamlessly with the alterations to the atrium that faces the Alumni Plaza.

This plan wouldn’t require the entire arena to get a glass makeover, just a portion of it. Exactly how far the façade would need to extend would be a difficult determination to make. But it would probably make the most sense to start right where the atrium begins now and extend around the corner near the security entrance. It could easily be shortened if it made more fiscal and visual sense.

The two obstacles that come to mind with this portion of the plan are the Pour Man’s Aud Club and the stairwell(s) that sit smack in the middle of this part of the arena. While the idea of simply opening up the wall of the arena, extending the floor plate and closing it up with glass is easy to come up with on paper. But with certain support services standing in the way, this could potentially be more window dressing than actual windows.

However, even with those obstacles, the ability to open up a portion of that wall certainly exists. The goal would be to create an extension of the concourse on each level to incorporate the newly opened wall much like the glass façade in Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center. If it was done right, the staircase(s) in the portion that would actually be opened up could be given a more “signature” feel as a way to incorporate a larger section of the wall without sacrificing any important logistical portions of the building.

If it was done correctly, the staircases and extended concourses would add more functional space on each level of the arena while combining with the visual improvements to the exterior. Meanwhile, the exterior improvements would create a new front door that opens up to the Alumni Plaza.

That means more fans would be entering and exiting past the French Connection statue (and any other statues that will go in there). Meanwhile there would be a more logical location to relocate the First Niagara signage.

I believe Michael Scott would refer to that as a win-win-win.

First Niagara Center will be 20 years old before you know it and some upgrades will probably be necessary. Terry Pegula poured money into the locker facilities. The concession and merchandise areas are not in need of many glaring upgrades or renovations, so this is really just window dressing. But it also helps to address a problem (loose definition) that was created by the construction of HARBORCENTER.

Let’s take the opportunity to bring the exterior of Buffalo’s world class arena up to par with the interior and it’s new adjoining brother.

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