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The Ice at Canalside: Why did this take so long to complete?


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).

canal0363Throughout 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.

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.

(716) Food and Sport… What you need to know

HarborCenter's glitzy new  bistro will be opening its doors to the public on Friday

HarborCenter’s glitzy new bistro will be opening its doors to the public on Friday

It’s been a whirlwind week over at HarborCenter, the $172-million privately funded hockey center over at Canalside.

The new destination Tim Hortons Cafe opened for business with lines out the door, a statue of Horton was unveiled across the street. Then the HarborCenter rinks opened last weekend with packed houses for Canisius College and debuts for both the ECC Kats and the Buffalo Junior Sabres. the first of many HarborCenter tournaments packed downtown hotels last weekend, with more to come. Construction on the building continues with the hotel tower being buttoned up for the cold weather ahead, and a huge construction punch list of finishes and enhancements still to be set in place.

So tomorrow, Friday, the next component of HarborCenter opens its doors at 3:00PM, and this one promises to be another event with a “wow” factor. (716) Food and Sport, a 13,000 square foot, 365 seat sports themed restaurant will begin serving the general public for the very first time. According, to HarborCenter president John Koelmel, there won’t be any big ribbon cutting or ballon launching hoopla, just an opening of the doors and a staff ready to wait and welcome and serve.

Koelmel met with the media this morning as crews were still putting finishing touches on the restaurant’s entrance. Drink menus and cloth napkins adorned each of the tables. The restaurant has already welcomed diners throughout the week at private events for sponsors and staff connected with the project through a series of training events. Said Koelmel, “It’s been phenomenal. We’ve served over 1000 people, from friends and family to other vendors and supporters that have been willing to come in and help us test drive. The feedback has been fabulous. First and foremost the facility itself it’s an enjoyable place to be. It’s comfortable. It’s fun. It’s relaxing. It’s high energy. To the food and drink the response has been fantastic. We’re looking to tweak a few things to make what’s very good that much better. It’s coming together very nicely.

Koelmel admitted that owner Terry Pegula has yet to set foot in the now opened HarborCenter, but plans to get his first peek tonight at a private grand opening event. “We’re looking forward to his first walk through this fabulous showcase.

As for particulars for the public, here is some helpful information if you’re planning to visit (716) Food and Sport:

– The doors will open for business on Friday at 3PM and be open until 2AM. Then regular hours of business will be 7 days a week from 11AM until 2AM.

-The restaurant will not be open to the public this Sunday as they will be hosting a private event. So if you were thinking of debuting at the place for your first Sunday of Bills football and the NFL Sunday Ticket, you will have to wait a week.

-Ample parking is available in the HarborCenter parking ramp and will initially be complimentary for 716 patrons, as HarborCenter management tweaks the entire parking situation for its fans using the amenities in the building, as well as on nights when the Sabres play at home in the adjacent First Niagara Center.

-For the first few weeks, seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis and no reservations will be accepted. As the staff becomes acclimated to customer flow and get situated, patrons will be able to make reservations by phone or online.

-The 716 Food and Sport free mobile app is available for download and contains a table reservation component, as well as a wealth of information on the food and drink menu.

-Although there are two entrances, the main one at the corner of Washington and Scott and the second connecting to level 2 of the HarborCenter ramp, initially only the street entrance will be open for public access, again, while management and staff acclimates to the customer flow.

-Work is continuing on the Main Street lobby to the HarborCenter, which is open but a bit hard to find as it is situated behind a stack of jersey barriers lining the Main Street Metrorail tracks. These will remain in place while work on the hotel tower continues.

-No date yet on the opening of a skybridge which will connect the third level of the HarborCenter ramp to the First Niagara Center pavilion.

-As was previously announced, there are no plans for outdoor patio seating on the entry plaza near the main entrance.

-And yes, 716 Food and Sport logoed merchandise and apparel will be sold and available near the main entrance of the restaurant.

HarborCenter update – racing to completion

Things are really chugging along at HarborCenter, as about 200 men and women, working on two shifts and six days a week, race along to get HarborCenter open in time for hockey season. With the weather finally breaking into full spring mode, construction work is really bustling at the foot of Main Street, and today HarborCenter officials Cliff Benson and John Koelmel, along with construction supervisor Ryan Poropat from Mortenson Construction, took members of the media on a hardhat tour to update the progress on the facility.

hc0846aHere are some rapid fire updates, and things you might want to know:

-The overall construction progress is now at 60-65% of the entire project. They are on target for a late September opening.

-Work is now progressing on the floor of both rinks, as well as the seating bowl of the feature rink. Work is progressing offsite abut two blocks away on assembling the trusses that will form the roof the main rink. Work has also begun on the exterior brick facade along Washington Street.

-The south crane (nearest to the First Niagara Center) is scheduled to be disassembled and removed on June 19. The north crane will be in place for several more months, as work continues on the hotel tower.

-There will be an enclosed pedestrian skybridge connecting the second level of the parking ramp to the main level of First Niagara Center, which is the second floor of the arena’s pavilion. Patrons will be able to park in the ramp, walk across to the arena, and have their tickets scanned without having to go outside.

-While there will be no escalators to ferry visitors to the 6th floor rinks, there will be 12 elevators for public use, as well as stairs and ramps.

-Perry Street, which has been closed to vehicular traffic between Main Street and Washington Street since construction began, will not be reopened until the center officially opens in fall. At this time, Both Washington Street and Main Street surrounding the structure are completely closed off as well, as masonry work on the facade goes into full installation mode.

Of additional interest is the retail space which will front along Main Street. It has already been announced that the 716 sports bistro will be set up at the Washington and Scott street corner, with the new “destination” Tim Hortons going on Main and Scott. HarborCenter will also be leasing about approximately 4500 square feet of space along the street. “Enough for two stores” says HarborCenter President John Koelmel. Development Officer Cliff Benson reported, “We’ve had huge interest in the space, probably we’d be able to lease 45,000 square feet if we had it. We are just now going to work on what we want to put in there. The many inquiries speaks to the excitement and the demand here in the district. We want to make sure we have the right type of tenants, that will fit into the theme of the building, and businesses that are sure to be successful.” Koelmel added that there will be further announcements soon, and that they expect to have the retail space fully leased and occupied by years end.

HarborCenter is slated to open in October, 2014, with the 200 room Marriott Hotel then set to open in May of 2015.

The space for the 716 Sports Bistro is beginning to take shape

The space for the 716 Sports Bistro is beginning to take shape

Here is the skybridge connecting the HarborCenter ramp to the First Niagara Center pavilion

Here is the skybridge connecting the HarborCenter ramp to the First Niagara Center pavilion

The seating bowl of Rink 1, the feature rink which will have a capacity of 1800 seats

The seating bowl of Rink 1, the feature rink which will have a capacity of 1800 seats

And across the street, work is stirring on the historically aligned canals on the Aud Block

And across the street, work is stirring on the historically aligned canals on the Aud Block

Masonry work has begun on the Washington Street side of the building

Masonry work has begun on the Washington Street side of the building

Buffalo’s HarborCenter…Rising before our very eyes

Cliff Benson from HarborCenter leads the tour this afternoon at the project site

Cliff Benson from HarborCenter leads the tour this afternoon at the project site

It’s probably one of the most exciting construction projects to ever hit downtown Buffalo. HarborCenter, the multipurpose twin hockey rink, hotel, parking structure, and adjoining restaurant and other retail space, is rising quickly at the foot of Main Street adjacent to the First Niagara Center. Today representatives of the Buffalo Sabres and Mortensen Construction, the general contractor on the project, took members of the media on a “hard hat tour” to update the construction progress on the facility.

“We’re right on schedule, not ahead of schedule, but things are progressing nicely and we’re on track for a September 2014 opening for the entire facility except for the hotel, which will open nine months later,” said John Koelmel, who along with Cliff Benson and Sabres PR members showed off the building and updated the progress to date.

Mortensen Construction is finishing work on the new Pegula Arena in State College, Pennsylvania, the new home of the Penn State Division 1 ice hockey program, and Benson admits that this project is far more more challenging. “There are so many different components, so many moving parts here.The complexity of this compared to Penn State is far higher. Although we are moving along on the same aggressive timeline. The attitude on the job site is fantastic. They learned a lot of stuff from the Penn State experience and are bringing it to this project,” said Benson.

Indeed, some of the nuances learned from peer projects have been incorporated at HarborCenter. On the Washington Street side is the footer for a specially outsized freight elevator. Why so big? “We need this size to be able to transport a Zamboni machine up to the sixth floor to where the hockey rinks will be situated,” explained Ryan Poropat, Superintendent of the project for Mortensen. Poropat, who has worked on many large scale sports construction projects, including the Olympic Stadium in London, was quick to point out some of the nuances of the construction, including a special footer in the northwest corner of the structure near Main and Scott Streets, which serve as the base for the elevator towers which will serve the hotel.


Looking north from the third floor deck of HarborCenter, One Canalside is rapidly nearing completion on the other side of Scott Street

Looking north from the third floor deck of HarborCenter, One Canalside is rapidly nearing completion on the other side of Scott Street

A new rendering of the building is on display high up in the pavilion at First Niagara Center, and will greet fans coming to the Sabres home opener this Friday against the Ottawa Senators. One area of the building for which substantive drawings have not been revealed are streetscape renderings of the Main Street side, and the sports themed restaurant planned for the northeast corner on Washington and Scott Streets.

Koelmel stated that plans are still being refined for the restaurant, which HarborCenter will own and operate, as opposed to leasing out the space to outside parties. He promised that more information on this component of the facility will be unveiled “in the next 30 to 45 days, tops.” Harbor Center officials had previously revealed that they had made several excursions to Toronto’s Real Sports Restaurant, an upscale sports bistro operated by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and are looking to create a similar atmosphere and buzz here.

As for the tenant mix anticipated for the street level of the facility, Koelmel replied, “We’re fairly well advanced with our thinking and our dialogue relative to the (restaurant) tenant at Main and Scott. We’ve just started our process for tenants at this end of the building which is at Main and Perry, we’ve had numerous inquiries from protective tenants as to who wants to partner with us and that dialogue and discussion is just now advancing.” Benson added, “We’ve been working with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation on all these things. We want this to be as user friendly as possible in terms of the pedestrian experience. We have to deal with traffic flow, how people get in and out of these facilities, it’s a little different than Chippewa Street when you have 15-20,000 people moving in and out at one time. But certainly, friendly to the environment down here, absolutely what we want to do here. We want to create a hospitality area here that connects with everything else that is going on across the street, wheat’s going on down here. That is the ultimate goal.

“We’re more than just sensitive to this issue of street friendly design,” added Koelmel. We’re fully engaged with the Canal Harbor people, with Benderson Development, Sam Savarino and others. Our focus is on the district, not just on the project. Fast forward to fall of 2014. Both canal projects will be done. The area around us continues to develop. Sam (Savarino) just opened up a new facility on Illinois Street the other night. The new casino is now open. The NFTA station renovation? That is not coincidental. We’re fully engaged with our district partners to make this experience as user friendly as it can be. We want people to come and come again and come again.”

Other items of interest on the project:

-The crane closest to the arena will be dismantled by next summer, while the second tall crane near Scott Street will continue functioning until next fall, continuing the buildout of the hotel structure which will reach 18 stories.

-Perry Street will be reopened to traffic once HarborCenter opens next September. A skywalk about 25 feet wide will connect the third level of the structure with the second floor of the First Niagara Center pavilion.

-Between 100-110 construction workers are on site at the HarborCenter on any given days.

– The Sabres are in the early stages of thinking where the main marquee for the First Niagara Center will be situated. Once the HarborCenter structure is fully in place, the marquee high top the arena will be largely obstructed from view.

– There will be hockeycentric store for equipment sales and repairs up on the rink level.

“This is moving along as fast as any construction project in the country,” said Benson. “It’s already started at a tremendous pace. We’re somewhat dependent on winter weather but we’re on schedule and ready to go.”