The Potential of Canalside

The Canalside Project has easily drawn the most opinions/suggestions of any of the other developments currently going on in the City of Buffalo.  Regardless of how you feel about the progress, it is an exciting aspect of downtown which has some serious potential.  However, with the economy in the trash can, as well as the usual bureaucratic hurdles that all public works face, the development seems to be moving at a fairly slow pace.  I wanted to take some time to talk about how I feel about the progress made so far, as well as a few ideas I have for the area.

It’s easy for people to just come out and criticize the project in general, but when you step back and look at it, there really has been some great progress made with this valuable stretch of waterfront at the foot of downtown Buffalo.  Before jumping into criticism and ideas, it’s only fair I recognize the good that has already been done:

Initial Cleanup:  If you haven’t been down to the area in the last five years or so, then you’ve missed out on brand new roads, sidewalks, and flower arrangements.  After over a decade of planning, the renovations finally opened in 2008.  Of course the space around most of this is empty, but getting the initial infrastructure going was a big step.  You can actually go down there and walk around now.

Commercial Slip/Naval Museum:  One of the early developments in the project was the reestablishment of the commercial slip, which is a water way connecting the outer harbor to the inner harbor.  Back in the day, this was a way to transport commercial goods, but today it has mostly been recreated for aesthetic value.  A metal waterway extends over the water, with a waterfall underneath.  Something small…but it does look cool.  There is also the Whipple Truss foot bridge, which connects the boardwalk to the cobblestone road across the way.  Next to the bridge is the brick building that houses the Naval Museum.  Of course the two ships and submarine that have long been a staple of the waterfront still sit down that way (now a focal point in a sense), but the museum itself is a separate structure.  It is notable to mention that this is the only new building that has been built so far.  Sometime next year, the owners of Cole’s/Blue Monk will open a 15 table restaurant inside – the first eatery in Canalside.

Concert Series:  Thursday at the Square has been one of the most successful ventures in recent Buffalo history, and the team behind Canalside was smart enough to tap into this.  Now the second half of the TATS schedule has moved down to the Harbor, and there are additional concerts with bigger acts on Friday and Saturdays for a measly $10.00 fee which this year included the Tragically Hip and O.A.R.  I only expect this concert series to get bigger as time goes on and more progress is made in the surrounding area.

Labatt Blue Pond Hockey:  Coming up on its fourth (I think) year in Buffalo, the Pond Hockey tournament is a weekend long event in February when ice rinks are set up on the lake itself, as onlookers can enjoy cold beverages and entertainment from the shore behind Templeton Landing.  The weather hasn’t cooperated very well for this the past couple years, so this will be the one weekend I hope for frigid temperatures all year.

Queen City Water Ferry:  This ferry runs from the outer harbor to the inner harbor.  While I think this is a great idea, it is almost completely useless as it stands.  Besides a boring tour, what reason would you need to travel from the outer harbor to the inner harbor?  In the future I’d love to see the ferry run to locations further North, like the base of West Ferry Street, or even Tonawanda.  If it’s going to run, at least let it have a useful purpose.

So all the things listed above have definitely provided a nice foundation for Canalside in the first three years if its existence.  The problem is, the festivals are temporary, and as much as I like the historical stuff, most people would rather stay home and stare at the wall.  There needs to be permanent fixtures in the area that will draw people in 365 days a year, not just when an event is going on.  I realize it’s easy for me to sit behind a computer and brainstorm ideas.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Canalside is headed in the right direction.  Consider this more of a wish list of what I’d like to see the area shape into over the next decade:

Overall Vision – If you stand along the Central Wharf (the main boardwalk), and look across the water, you’ll see a practically empty island with a nice landscape, plenty of open space, and a lighthouse on the tip.  Is it a nature preserve?  No, this prime stretch if land is occupied by the Coast Guard.  Seriously.  For years the plan has been to have this land donated back to the city, but now is the time.  Do we really need a couple of dudes sitting in an office over there doing nothing?  They can at least move down the water a bit and give up that land.

With that in mind, build two bridges (one at each end of the boardwalk) stretching over to the island, in theory creating a big loop you can walk around.  My ultimate vision then has restaurants and shops lining both shores, facing in on the water.  It would look kind of like Universal City Walk in Orlando.  Okay maybe that’s dreaming big, but who cares.

Restaurants – When I’ve discussed Canalside with other people, they always tell me that a single restaurant wouldn’t be enough to lure people down to the area.  Obviously the owners of Cole’s/Blue Monk disagree with them, since they’re opening one next year.  However, that’s only going to be a 15 table restaurant, and my guess is, a bit more exclusive.  But think about the area – concerts, the arena, hockey games – and look at what Pearl Street Grill has done.  That place is mobbed EVERY DAY, even when there isn’t a game.  It’s just a big space that you can hang out in, and maybe grab some food if you want.  I can only think of one place that could single handedly jumpstart the entire area just by opening their doors…

Dinosaur BBQ:  The legendary BBQ joint now has locations all across the state (Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, even Harlem) but has curiously left Buffalo out of their plans.  It’s been rumored for years they’ve been scouting locations here (including the waterfront), but there’s been no concrete word either way.  With this city starving for a decent BBQ joint, Dinosaur BBQ would make a killing.  Just imagine the place on game nights too.  Wow.

A Brewery:  You can never have too many…and Pearl Street could use some competition.  We don’t have a notable local brewery that has buzz around the country, or even the northeast (Sorry, Flying Bison) – so why not import one from down the water?  Great Lakes Brewing Co is gaining a lot of acclaim lately, and why not set up a satellite location that would be right ON the Great Lakes?

A Wing Joint:  If you’re expecting Canalside to draw tourists, what are those tourists going to want to eat when they come to Buffalo?  Yup, wings.  Duffs has got the hang of the multiple locations, so maybe they consider another one, especially since they don’t have a city location?  Anchor Bar has become so complacent and unexciting recently, but if they wanted to get back on the map, they’d jump all over this too.  Just please, someone do it before Buffalo Wild Wings does.

Stores and Shops – I never understood the fascination with the whole Bass Pro thing.  Would people really travel to go to a fishing store?  Plus, I thought it made us seem sort of redneck-ish.  Same with the Ikea rumors.  Sure, it’s an awesome store, but I don’t understand how it fits into the area.  Instead of one “big fish”, what about a bunch of smaller enterprises that could make up a row of stores you could walk down?

New Era:  When I first heard new era was opening a flagship store down by Chippewa, I was ecstatic.  Then I went there and realized it was about the same size as the Lids in the Galleria Mall.  A bit embarrassing for the biggest hat company in the world’s own home store.  So get a do over and put a new store down by the water.  I know they can’t sell Bills stuff, but put a Bills/Sabres store next door.  It would help both of them.

The North Face:  You see these jackets everywhere, and it’s freezing cold here, so why not put an outlet in?

Shopping’s not really my thing, so I’m kind of at a loss here, but there’s plenty of other stores you can throw in here.  Even if there was sort of a mini mall on the coast guard island…15-20 shops that can be accessed from inside and outside.

Entertainment – This is the one aspect that Canalside has focused the most attention on, mainly because on outside entrepreneurs have felt comfortable enough building their own businesses yet.  Between the Naval Park, concerts, and various festivals, there are already a few reasons to go down there.  But there could be more:

Amphitheater:  So the concert series has been successful.  Why not build a permanent outdoor amphitheater to lure even bigger acts during the summer?  I hate driving out to Darien Lake, and it always feels like the acts are only there because we don’t have something better locally.  I have to imagine an outdoor venue, on the water, at the foot of downtown, would be very appealing to major acts that don’t feel like trying to sell out the FN Center.  You might think it would take up too much room, but have you seen the waterfront lately?  Even if it was a bit further south, there’s PLENTY of open room.

Weather Museum:  This idea was first floated around a few years back, and I really liked it.  You need a big attraction that will bring people in from out of town.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a huge get for Cleveland, and other cities have big time zoos or science museums that people will travel for.  What better place to have the first Weather Museum than the snow capital of the USA (at least in everyone’s mind)?  Picture a bunch of hands on, science museum type exhibits, with tributes to the Blizzard of 77, the October Storm, and other major storms in history.  And of course you’d have to have a fake snow room to play in, as well as hurricane and tornado simulators.  I really think this is a great idea that could really work here.

Ice Rink/Sabres Integration:  The pond hockey thing is a huge success – why not put a permanent ice rink down there?  If not on the water, put it where the Aud used to be.  And why is the Winter Classic Rink in East Aurora?  Move it down to the waterfront.  Imagine them doing the outside tv shots during a national Sabres broadcast, and they show kids skating on the same rink that the first Winter Classic was on.  Why isn’t this happening already?  Also, there are 41 Sabres games (plus playoffs, god willing) that will be played a stone’s throw from Canalside.  A beer tent will even be set up outside this year.  All those people need a place to eat and hang out before/after games.

There have been many ideas that have went by the wayside in Buffalo’s history, but I believe in the Canalside Project.  Even though I’m not sure this restaurant going in next year is what the area needs, someone needs to be first.  I’m confident that others will soon follow, and in the next 5-10 years we’re in store to see some great improvements and exciting changes down that way.  For now, get down there and walk around a bit before the real cold weather sets in!  It’s fun to look around and imagine the potential it has.


2 comments on “The Potential of Canalside

  1. Skip says:

    Good article and some interesting points…. When are you running for office?

  2. Ted genova says:

    As a tourist form Toronto, who frequents Buffalo twice a year ( and sorry not for the wings or the Bills ) I think you need to strike a balance between the commercial and the public resource at canalside. It would be shame if it became a tacky tourist trap like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Fransisco or Quincy Market in Boston. Harbourfont in Toronto is a much better model where urban development ( condos and office buildings mostly), pay for over 5,000 events and programming yearly that are free to the public. This is when a waterfront becomes a truly great place.

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