Time for the next step after the debut of Ice at Canalside

It was almost five years in the making, but the historically aligned canals at Canalside were finally opened last night marking another milestone in Buffalo’s waterfront development.

As was to be expected, the crowd at Canalside was massive and the numbers patronizing the new skating venue will likely continue to swell over the next few weeks. All told, this was a huge victory for Canalside, the Erie Canal Harbor Corporation and Buffalo as a whole. While one night doesn’t make for guaranteed long-term success, I hope that the ECHDC are spurred to get the next piece of development done well ahead of schedule.Canalside

The three parcels that sit on the South Aud Block are shovel ready with plans for Explore & More to take up the largest of the three parcels with a restaurant and information center to occupy the other two, respectively. An RFP was issued for designs last year and now ECHDC is seeking a developer for the site. They even have pretty pictures which may or may not have no bearing on what the chosen developer builds.

Proposals from developers are due by January 9 and the ECHDC RFP notes that first round interviews will be held on or around January 22. So as of now, we’re well over a month away from identifying the developer for this site. The good news is that Explore & More has always been operating on a 2016 transition to the Canalside site, something noted in the ECHDC RFP documents. Putting two and two together tells me that once a developer is chosen, it shouldn’t be long before we see concrete being poured and structural steel rising; so long as ECHDC learned their lesson with the canals.

The canals and bridges have surpassed any expectations I could possibly have had. They look terrific and will ultimately serve as a signature image for downtown Buffalo. While I can’t applaud the fight put up by certain historical obstructionists preservationists for the historical alignment – as they simply added weeks and months to the project – I can say that the finished product is phenomenal.

Ultimately, the canals and Aud site serve as microcosm of the Canalside development as a whole. The finished product goes beyond expectation but required years of red tape, obstruction and delays. Of the larger hurdles that needed to be cleared, the selection of DiPizio Construction is perhaps the most glaring, as they were ultimately removed from the site and replaced with a company better suited for the job. Required dollars being tied up in Albany didn’t help, nor did the waiting game played with Bass Pro and then the local protection racket. Note the timeline below:

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Now we stand at a very important point. The lighter, quicker, cheaper days are going to be coming to an end in the near future. The sheer number of people coming down in the summer or winter have jammed the site and the lack of significant attractions is causing numerous choke points. In speaking to staff members who work at the attractions around Canalside now, they were looking forward to the canals opening to help ease the crush being placed on the district as it stands now. I haven’t been alone in clamoring for more things to do in and around Canalside and a pair of quotes from today’s Buffalo News story illustrates that.

The first noting that there was a 30-minute wait for skates and another 15-minute delay just to get on the ice tells everything you need to know about the size of the crowd. Granted, there won’t be a 15-minute line every day, just like 716 wasn’t always going to have a wait time that was hours long. Still, the demand is clearly there and this is going to be an attraction that draws massive crowds. The second quote noted that the activity at Canalside, combined with the arena contributed to a lineup outside 716 last night.

This is exactly how it’s supposed to work. Attractions like skating on the canals, kayaks, sitting in Adirondack chairs and the like will pull people to Canalside. In turn, those people will look to grab a bite to eat or maybe even somewhere to shop (depending where they’re coming from), Canalside needs to address that demographic. Liberty Hound has taken steps to provide that service and Pizza Plant (when open) along with 716 will do the same. But there are four large parcels that are shovel ready which shouldn’t sit empty with grass much longer.

The aforementioned South Aud Block parcels and the South Block parcel that sits between One Canalside and HarborCenter need to hit the fast track. We’re past the days when adding board games can appease those wishing to stay at Canalside longer than a few minutes. Commercial development is the next logical step and the timeline needs to be accelerated.

Buffalo will be hosting the 2015 and 2016 NHL Combine, the 2016 NHL Draft, the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and I’m willing to bet we’re a heavy favorite to host the 2018 World Junior Championships. Those are all major sporting events that don’t even take into account the recent surge in residential developments being announced downtown or additional events around Western New York that will continue to draw visitors from outside Western New York.

Canalside will be a stopping point for these visitors, particularly those heading to the arena, and I can’t imagine the patronage that bars and restaurants would receive if their up and running ahead of those events.

I’m confident that Canalside will be a world-class attraction. I just hope the leadership can get this work done to further showcase this terrific district.

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