If you were one of the lucky ones who attended yesterday’s opening of the new canals on the former Aud Block at Canalside, then you know what a fabulous and magnificent event this was here in the City of Buffalo. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and their event management partner, Global Spectrum, absolutely nailed it. Buffalonians gathered and celebrated and gawked at what has instantly become one of the unique and distinct urban placemaking sites in the country. We can look to the future with boundless optimism as we also look to the past and cherish our history as the terminus of the Erie Canal and the gateway to the west, and our place in sports as we commemorate the former Memorial Auditorium and the magical memories of that great place.
Mark the calendar – December 18, 2014, but in reality, this very event should have taken place two years ago, in December of 2012. So what happened?
In December of 2011, the board of the ECHDC signed a $21-million contract with Dipizio Construction to erect the replica canals which are what you see today. The money came from a pot of funds made available from a relicensing agreement with the New York Power Authority. Essentially, there are dollars in place to fund pretty much all the public infrastructure improvements to the Inner and Outer Harbors, which, in theory, will encourage private investment and economic development in those long ignored yet prime real estate pieces of our city.
So with a contractor in place, work should have immediately begun on what was an eight month project, right? Wrong. Enter Sheldon Silver. The iron fisted Speaker of the Assembly at that point held things up, saying HE wanted to review the agreement and bestow his blessings. So there sat the project, languishing on the Speaker’s desk. Meanwhile, we were in the midst of one of the mildest winters in a generation. The lake never froze that year. Valuable construction time was being lost.
What was needed then was a strong and powerful rebuke from our local Assembly and Senate delegation. Our senator and our assemblyman representing downtown should have been having meltdowns and throwing a few chairs over in Albany. But amidst all this was a special election for an open assembly seat in South Buffalo and West Seneca, and the Speaker was pouring huge dollars into that campaign on behalf of the Democratic candidate. Our local politicians certainly didn’t want to upset the Speaker or rock the boat, so everyone remained silent, until Silver finally relented and gave his green light to the project.
Work on the site finally began in May of 2012. With the calendar flipped on its head, the master contractor, Dipizio Construction, ran into the following fall’s cold weather. Concrete couldn’t be poured, timetables started slipping, and it grew into a major kerfuffle with the ECHDC, who started micromanaging everything from selection of the color of the sandstone walls to all sorts of change orders to the project. By June of 2013, with the project roughly halfway finished, the ECHDC ordered Dipizio off the job site. (Dipizio is suing the Empire State Development Corporation, parent of the ECHDC, for tens of millions. We taxpayers may be on the hook big time when all this shakes out through the courts).
Throughout the entire summer of 2013, the project site sat empty and barren, while the ECHDC sought a new master contractor to finish the job. Pike Contracting out of Rochester was awarded the job in September. The rest of 2013 was devoted to erecting blue tarp fencing and pretty logos of the state and NYPA and plastering the governors name all over those fences, but little actual work took place on the canals.
Of course, we all remember the winter of 2013-14… two blizzards, one of the coldest and most miserable winter cycles in recent memory, and real work on the canals finally resumed in the spring of 2014. And that got us to the finish line. Shazzam!… An eight month project gets done in three years, with two contractors, selfish politicians, and an over-bureaucratic ECHDC serving as the major foils.
So here we are, and Canalside is a major hit with the public. Throngs of visitors partake in events and the waterfront in the summer, and it looks now that this will be the new happening winter destination as well. Yet consider this – the ECHDC has yet to erect even one permanent structure anywhere in the Inner Harbor footprint. OK, OK, one structure… the snack shack on the Central Wharf, which, by the way, is a hugely successful summer enterprise. But otherwise, Canalside is a convergence of temporary amenities – they cart in portable toilets, food trucks, stages and sound systems, vending carts, card tables and canopies, and those famed adirondack chairs, for which Fred Kent and his Project for Public Spaces crowd extorted the taxpayers for a hefty six figure consulting fee. Then when the events season ends, everything is carted away.
That is hopefully about to change, as the ECHDC promises that work will soon begin on a set of buildings on the south side of the Aud block right alongside those new canals. Three new buildings are supposedly in the final design phase – the new Explore and More Museum, which will be on the northwest corner of Main and Scott Streets (sorry Tim Horton, but your statue might have to be moved), a new restaurant situated roughly on the spot where the canal corners and jogs southward, and not to be overlooked… a comfort station and information center on the north side of Scott St. The mere concept of permanent rest rooms, and obviating the need to constantly truck in and out port-a-potties, makes this a no brainer.
But will it happen? The ECHDC’s performance record is a sketchy one. Since taking charge of the buildout of Canalside, on more than one occasion they have rolled out announcements and unveilings, only to delay the timetable, scale down the original vision, cancel plans, or a combination of these. Here are the projects in the pipeline in the coming year. Will all of these come to fruition?
1) Designs are being finalized for three buildings on the Aud Block – the Explore and More museum, a restaurant with balconies and sweeping views of the canals, and an information center/comfort station. A late spring construction start has been targeted.
2) The ECHDC has indicated that its time to issue a request for proposals for the available land parcel on the East Canal block, which is the patch of grass across from the HarborCenter and fronting the new pocket park dubbed the East Canal. Hofbrauhaus USA has indicated their interest in locating in Buffalo and has indicated that their new themed restaurant will be near Canalside. Could this location be a more perfect match? This deal needs to get finalized, and work needs to begin.
3) A contract to light up the Connecting Terminal Elevator across the Buffalo River with a kinetic light show has been issued. ECHDC President Tom Dee has stated that a July 4, 2015 unveiling is planned. This is not a simple floodlighting of this iconic structure, but an elaborate sight and sound presentation. As of now we have yet to see any actual onsite work going on over at the elevator. When will construction begin?
This rendering shows what the East Canal will look like once the buildout of the adjacent parcel is completed. Imagine patio dining along that water feature and what a great place that could become.
There is, of course, a great deal more that needs to happen… In October Buffalo was delivered the crushing news that a new grant to continue the Cars Sharing Main Street project was rejected. Phase 4 is intended to reconstruct the 400 block of Main Street as well as the lower portion of Main Street at Canalside. Let’s face it – Main Street down there is a pockmarked mess. The Erie Canal Metrorail station, even with the downsizing and a fresh coat of paint, is an ugly eyesore. Senator Charles Schumer has promised to find the federal dollars needed to make this happen. This needs to get done.
Then there is the rest of Canalside – HarborCenter John Koelmel stated in a recent Artvoice interview that “every blade of grass down here is a development parcel.” Koelmel is right. Canalside was not intended to be another waterside park, but rather, a confluence of buildings recreating the era when the Erie Canal was in its heyday. Juxtapose the glacial pace of the ECHDC project hopper next to the private sector development of HarborCenter – an incredibly complex project went from approval to design to construction to opening in 20 months. Why not issue RFP’s for every development parcel in the Inner Harbor? And another thing.. with the Ice at Canalside becoming an instant hit with the public after just one day, are we really to accept that the muddy crater on the north side of the Aud Block is to remain that way for the foreseeable future???
The team running the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is to be commended for the progress to date. But the pace of development activity has to be picked up, and right now. They have an enormous source of funds to bring projects to fruition; they have a willing private sector partner in the Buffalo Sabres and HarborCenter. Koelmel and Development Officer Cliff Benson bring a wealth of experience to the table in getting things done, and the ECHDC needs to tap into this. And we’re not even taking into account the other stakeholders in the district who have already contributed and could be doing much, much more. The Buffalo News, Savarino Construction, The Seneca Nation, the NFTA, Ellicott Development, Uniland. Anybody being left out?
We’re finally getting the Waterfront We Deserve. But let’s not get too giddy just yet because much remains to be done. 2015 looks to be a watershed year for Canalside. And we need the ECHDC to step up their game. Right now.