Constructing Canalside: Public funding attracting private investments for the waterfront’s rebirth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Whether it’s full of ice skaters in the winter or paddle boats and concert-goers during the warmer summer months, Canalside is a bustling place these days.

It’s easy to forget, just a decade ago, it was more or less a hole in the ground.

“I saw vacant land. I saw tumbleweeds rolling through,” said Robert Gioia, the chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, a state benefit corporation overseeing Buffalo’s waterfront.

The eyesore that the waterfront had become was all the more painful because of the area’s central role in Buffalo’s identity. Nearly 200 years ago, it was celebrated as the starting point of the Erie Canal. In the last century, it hosted the Old Memorial Auditorium, home not only to the Sabres, but also to the Buffalo Braves NBA team, among others.

Those other teams – like the Aud – are gone.

The vacant lot that was left was a constant reminder of all Buffalo had lost. “It depressed people,” Gioia said.

It all changed in 2005, when the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation was formed. That marked the beginning of the rebirth of Canalside.

Early plans to make it a space for a large Bass Pro Shops attraction were eventually abandoned. Instead, the decision was made to return the area to its roots.

“We’ve been able to put cobblestone streets back in where they belong, some of these historic bridges, obviously the canal system, which is great in the summer and even better this time of winter that it’s an ice rink,” pointed out Steve Ranalli, president of the ECHDC.

Over the years, the ECHDC has totally transformed Buffalo’s inner harbor, from the boardwalk at the Central Wharf that started the project to the addition of the four-story building that Explore and More will be leasing for at least the next 40 years.

Now, we’re seeing construction forge ahead on other projects, too.

After years of discussions, a historic carousel is slated to open at Canalside late this summer.

Work on the new longshed building is well underway. It should open in a few months. The first tenant, the Buffalo Maritime Center, will use the space to build a replica of the first packetboat to float down the Erie Canal from Buffalo to New York City. “People can watch, people can participate,” Ranalli pointed out.

Work is also set to begin shortly on the new Heritage Point project in the South Aud block. Sinatra and Company will be breaking ground for two new mixed-use buildings there this year.

And, the ECHDC is planning to get bids later this year to begin transforming the North Aud block. The public has been invited to weigh in on proposals to bring five new buildings to that site, with a mix of housing, restaurants, and shops.

“The whole idea has been to build a neighborhood at Canalside. That’s been the whole long term goal,” Ranalli said. “We’ve invested public money first, we’ve sort of set the template for what’s to come after, we’ve created the momentum, and now the private side is looking to invest.”

The public investment to date has been over $100 million dollars through the ECHDC.

But, Ranalli says there’s been a good return on investment already, attracting upwards of $350 million in private development to the immediate area.

“Harborcenter is a big piece of that with the Pegulas coming in and taking up basically a quarter of Canalside with that project alone,” Ranalli said. “But early on, our partners Benderson came in and renovated the old Donovan Building.”

“You know that building sat vacant for years and years. It was just an eyesore at the foot of Main Street,” he added.

It looked like the Seneca One tower was facing a similar fate at one point, but now, it, too, is seeing private re-development happen.

The millions of visitors to the Canalside attractions will be a key base of consumers for the restaurants and shops that that are included in the massive Seneca One project, which is one of several big development projects happening in Buffalo right now.

“We’re a model of how to get it done,” Gioia said. “Really working with the public and having a process that, quite frankly, has been very rewarding, and you see the result of that work.”

Gioia says the growth we’re seeing is possible because the highest levels of state government believed in the Canalside dream.

“We needed that emotional boost and support from somebody like the governor to challenge us, if you will, as a community. ‘You can do this and I’m with you to do it ,'” Gioia said.

Moving forward, the state support is only a small part of the picture, as more and more private development moves in to take the helm.

“It’s Canalside 2.0,” Ranalli said. “It’s the next wave really of what we’re going to see down here. It’s going to turn itself into a mixed use neighborhood.”

Of course, there are still some major projects to tackle on the waterfront.

The ECHDC plans to put about $15 million worth of projects out to bid on the Outer Harbor this year, adding to the $25 million it has already spent there.

The future of the Skyway, whether as a park or something else, remains a big question mark.

But the men who have helped lead the renaissance of Buffalo’s waterfront say there is no question the future of the area is bright.

“We came down here when the Skyway was in place and we got all this done,” Ranallis said. “Whether it stays, whether it goes, I’m confident of success at Canalside either way.”

“You will continue to see progress down here,” Gioia added. “Maybe a little messy with some construction fences, but that’s all progress.”

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