An Aquarium? Horizons Waterfront Again…and Again
by Geoff Kelly - posted 11:24 am, November 1, 2010
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.