World Juniors can Serve as a Catalyst for Downtown

The countdown to the 2018 World Junior Championships in on. We’re just about two years away, on the nose, from the start of the tournament which will culminate in early January 2018.

That’s two full years before the eyes of (most of) the hockey world are directed on Buffalo. Two years to plan and two years to prepare the city.

Based on Buffalo’s previous run as a host in 2011 and subsequent USA Hockey and IIHF events hosted in Buffalo, it’s clear that the Sabres organization has their ducks in a row when it comes to hosting international events. I have little doubt that the efforts made by the Sabres will eclipse the work that made the 2011 tournament a success.

While every ticket at the 2011 event wasn’t sold – in fact there were many Team USA games with open sections of seats – I don’t think it’s a stretch to expect a better turnout for 2018. That’s without taking the planned outdoor game into account. Western New York’s hockey culture continues to grow and if the participants are sold the right way I’d expect to see fans turn out well. One of the many goals that needs to be met by the 2018 WJC

The biggest area of opportunity, in my opinion, is how the players, media and fans who are converging on Buffalo will feel about the city. Two of the more infamous moments of the 2011 tournament were the criticisms leveled by European journalists and Emerson Etem of Team USA. Etem’s comments on the city brought boos from the home crowd whenever he touched the puck in following games. Having home fans boo one of Team USA’s own was terrific.

Obviously the city and region have grown quite a bit in the past five years. The improvements will certainly reflect well upon new and return visitors. However, there’s so much positive energy downtown that the World Junior tournament could serve as the catalyst to wrap up some of the most promising projects in the city.

You’ll find a laundry list of active projects if you compare the lead up to 2011 to 2018. Look no further than the arena district where Canalside, Cobblestone and the river front have seen drastic amounts of investment and attention. There’s a cottage industry on slogans to describe Buffalo’s rebirth, let alone actual projects. So, the momentum is there. You can’t deny that. But there’s a long way to the finish line and I think this tournament can help us get closer.

Canalside is a consistent favorite topic of mine for many reasons. First and foremost, it’s probably the one area of the city that excites me the most about the future. Look no further than the scores of people down there every day. Canalside has the ability to become a world-class attraction. It’s also the one entertainment area of downtown in need of the most attention when it comes to development. The glacial pace of development at Canalside has been hampered by a host of issues, both internal and external, but it’s high time that trend was remedied.

Look no further than the Explore-and-More children’s museum which was originally slated to open in 2016. Now shovels will be in the ground in 2016. Maybe. For the status quo at Canalside to remain by the time the tournament arrives would be beyond foolhardy.

A few grassy lots and a gaping hole are hardly key ingredients for forming a strong entertainment/arena district. Temporary bathrooms and fold-up tents are no way to display what should be the crown jewel of the city. When the puck drops on the 2018 WJC there should be activity on the historically aligned streets and bustling activity along the towpaths and bridges that will overlook ice skaters on the canals.

We shouldn’t be walking across prime development lots to take a picture on a giant Adirondack chair, we should be talking about how great the new dueling piano bar is. Hofbrauhaus should just be one option available as a compliment Pizza Plant and 716. The North Aud block should be vibrant and full of activity.

There is no better motivating factor to spur the lack of overall development at Canalside than the WJC. We’ve been over promised and under-delivered for far too long to accept a similar set up to what is there today when the world comes to visit in December of 2018.

Of course, Canalside isn’t the only piece of development that needs to hit high gear. From One Seneca Tower to Trico, there are major projects downtown which are a long way off from being completed. For example, Main Street will not have traffic fully restored to it by 2018. The AM&As project needs to get off the ground although it’s been hard to nail down how for real that project really is.

There are some serious bright spots as well, of course. For as much attention as Canalside still needs, that will certainly be a focal point of activity. The Ellicott-Genesee corridor offers an awesome collection of restaurants which will most certainly continue to grow. Mainstays like Allen, Elmwood and even Chippewa offer a host of great options for residents and visitors alike no matter which you prefer to patronize.

Projects on the horizon like Ellicott Development’s planned hotel on Pearl, the planned expansion of the Buffalo Creek Casino and the continued development along Main St. are all excellent signs. The river front is growing at an impressive pace and I would love to see additional residential projects pop up. Ideally other areas of focus continue to follow suit.

For example, the DL&W Terminal continues to sit vacant despite offering the bones to fill a number of uses. Whether as a public market or otherwise, it could be a key addition to the greater Canalside/Cobblestone District.

The Cobblestone District is another which could use some serious development. Of course, hoping the parking lots in Cobblestone are developed is somewhat counter-intuitive to the completion of Canalside given their proximity. The reality is probably that one or the other will fill with buildings and attractions as the market likely isn’t strong enough to see both areas developed in a similar fashion.

That being said, the opportunity to develop the Cobblestone District into a dense, live/play area of the city is there. The gaping lots along both sides of Perry (looking at you too HSBC) are desperate for buildings and if a Canalside-like development with various buildings dotting each parcel is out of the question, why not look in a different, but similar direction?

This is admittedly a pipedream, but if the lots in the Cobblestone District can’t be developed to mimic the diverse density of the Mississippi-Illinois block, I’d love to see residential in its place. Any project would need to reflect the historic, working-class history of the neighborhood, but imagine apartment buildings not unlike these two examples built to mimic an old warehouse filling those gaping lots.

A pipe dream, I know. But Cobblestone has been a direct beneficiary of the continued activity at Canalside and the addition of Harborcenter. This is no longer a part of the city that you drive into and out of before and after Sabres games. Now it’s a place to be and the World Juniors will only add to that.

Landing the World Juniors is incredibly exciting. As a Buffalo development junkie I’m truly looking forward to seeing what gets green lit and completed in the lead up to this tournament. We’re a much different city than we were in 2011 and I expect to feel the same way when I compare downtown today to downtown before the opening puck drop.

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