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An Aquarium? Horizons Waterfront Again…and Again

University District Councilmember Bonnie Russell thinks we ought to consider building some sort of aquarium on the Aud site as anchor attraction on Buffalo’s Inner Harbor.

This is not a new idea: Conversion of the Aud to an aquarium was at the center of the Horizons Waterfront Commission’s plan for the Inner Harbor, a plan the fundamental elements of which we cannot seem to shed. (The most stubborn of these elements seems to be the designation of Benderson as lead developer not only of the parcels alongside the historic canal terminus but also of surrounding blocks targeted for development, including the Aud site.) In 1996, the cost of an aquarium was estimated at $77 million. That was a conversion of an existing building, however; building new, 14 years later, may well yield an entirely different cost. Back then, a study determined that the ration of private investment leveraged by the public investment in the aquarium-anchored Horizons Waterfront plan was dismal—$1.78 in private funds for every dollar of public money, compared to a 14-to-1 average ratio in produced by comparable urban projects nationally.

The study was conducted by Development Downtown, Inc., a City of Buffalo planning agency, now defunct.

At the time it was also noted that aquariums in place like Niagara Falls and Camden, New Jersey, were struggling to attract tourists from outside their respective regions. The report concluded that an aquarium’s visitors would likely draw most of its visitors from inside the region.

The Horizons Waterfront Commission began pondering Buffalo’s downtown waterfront in the late 1980s, but the idea of an aquarium as an anchor first surfaced in 1992, and was championed by Congressman Henry Nowak. (There’s always an outside consultant hawking projects like this, too: In this case, it was an outfit called Cambridge Seven Associates.) Other ideas—and these should both sound familiar—included an iMax theater and a weather museum.

By 1994, the aquarium had fallen out of favor because of its price. In 1994, Mayor Tony Masiello said an aquarium was too expensive, given the city’s other needs. Masiello argued that the Horizons plan depended too heavily on tourist attractions that might not be successful, and focused too little on uses that would consistently attract local residents. The conflict in priorities between the Masiello administration and Horizons, a state agency, led Governor George Pataki to disband Horizons.

But the basic concept has remained the same, through the succeeding state organizations that have been appointed to manage redevelopment of the area surrounding the area where the Erie Canal met the lake: some sort of expensive anchor development on the site of the Aud, paid for with state money, built by a developer that would also control development of the Webster Block and the site of the Donovan building, as well as the Canal District sites. First the Empire State Development Corporation and now its locally staffed subsidiary, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, have abided by these fundamentals. They’ve been at the core of officialdom’s vision for waterfront development for almost 25 years.

ECHDC, to its credit, has made progress on the infrastructure elements of the master plan that public opinion (and lawsuits) forced on officialdom to in 2004. Is it possible that the reason we’ve made only that little bit of progress in the Inner Harbor over the past 25 years is that officialdom’s vision is fundamentally flawed?

Here’s a good opportunity to talk about it: This Saturday, at 2pm at City Honors High School, entrepreneur and historian Mark Goldman is hosting an event called Aspirations and Inspirations: Imagining the Buffalo Waterfront. Featured speakers include Fred Kent, the founder and director of Project for Public Spaces, and Tony Goldman, a New York City based developer who recently won a National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

A number of local artists will take part in the conversation, as well. Aspirations and Inspirations is the second in a series of public forums intended to solicit community input on the development of the Inner Harbor in the wake of Bass Pro withdrawing from the proposed Canal Side development plan championed by ECHDC.

  • SoundsFishy2Me

    Economic Wizards! Anyone call anyone at the Niagara Falls Aquarium? What exactly is a “Buffalo-Niagara” anyway? So, shift jobs and structures to fit in with Buff.’s plans and forget to even call the nearest facility for an opinion? BuffaloErieCo. really does have the best interest of all WNY’s at heart…sure and NOT with these sorts of Brain-trust showings. “It’ll be bigger, better, etc..” Yeah, yeah, yeah…regionalism and all that claptraddle.

    Why not build another Aud. and entice another hockey team? Jeesh.

  • Matthew Ricchiazzi

    Why can’t we just build A REAL FUCKING NEIGHBORHOOD ALREADY! There is a natural evolution to urban spaces that will happen if the government just gets out of the way. Build a compelling streetscape, and then auction off lots. That’s it. No more. Nothing else. No subsidies, no tax breaks, no begging firms to locate here. Just parcel it off and then the developers who actually want to be here will build what the market demands. Those developments will not be permanent; they will evolve into something progressively grander.

    It’s really pretty simple. I don’t know why this City is so backwards. It’s really disheartening to see such unaware and inept people running the show.

    But right now, the government is preventing any development from happening, because of the existence of the Inner Harbor Development Corp, who wants to impose its will (and shove public money) towards aloof concepts of success.

  • julie

    You’ve gotta be kidding. An aquarium? Oooooooo, let’s rush to the aquarium!

    When are these morons going to get out of 1950?

    Aquariums cannot support themselves. Period.

    We already have enough welfare recipients here. Let’s not add an aquarium.


  • Cathy Breen

    If you are thinking 1950’s acquarium then you probably haven’t been to an acquarium that was constructed in the last decade. Georgia has a child friendly eco-minded complex that was built in 2005. A ticket can be purchased individually or as part of a cityplex package. Buffalo needs to market its assets and offer its own package deals.

  • Sounds2Fishy2Me

    So, close one of WNY’s longest running educational and tourist facilities (near where tourists already are BTW) up at Niagara Falls and open one sometime in the future on the Buffalo waterfront?

    BTW, CURRENTLY (present tense) ther’s NO “asset to market” in any form of an AQUARIUM, “packaged” or not.

    Market one that doesn’t even exist yet but close the other that does exist and lose the included jobs up in Niagara County? That doesn’t seem to make sense for WNY does it? It is pretty certain that the Niagara aquarium already has sharks, shrimp and “Great Lakes specimens.”

    What they do need to get their hands on and put in a big tank for exhibit to school kids and tourists alike are a few more of the comical Bonnie Russell-Brown clown fishes.

    I hope that they build a Chicken Wing Museum and Naval Park up at Niagara Falls (psst, don’t forget that they had canals, ships AND chickens before Buffalo ever did)! The Niagara Falls Ice sounds like a good NHL name too.

    Oh, wait. “Regionalism” only exists to market BUFFALO. I forgot, that’s right. Use the “Buffalo-Niagara” label but only use it for a self-serving parochial value. Jeesh.