What is taking so long? That is what many people are asking about the build out of Canalside (including here and here). The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s (ECHDC) master plan for the Canalside project was completed in 2008. It was later revised after Bass Pro Shops pulled out of the project. The 2010 master plan, which removed Bass Pro and provided for the construction of the canal features following the original alignment of the Erie Canal, the Hamburg Canal, and the Commercial Slip, was affirmed on December 16, 2010.
The Canalside project area covers approximately 20 acres of inner harbor property including the former Aud site. The master plan proposes nearly 725,000 square feet of mixed-use space for entertainment, hotel, office, retail, residential, restaurant, and other uses with a build out anticipated in twenty years. Twenty years!
Opening of the historically aligned canals last week was significant and by all measures a hit. Combined with HARBORCENTER, people now have a reason to head to the foot of Main Street besides to park a car cheaply or attend an event at First Niagara Center. Restaurant owners are paying attention. Pizza Plant has signed a lease to open in One Canalside, Liberty Hound has decided to open on weekends, and Jason Davidson is opening the Roux Soup Bar and Café on the top floor of The Buffalo News in coming weeks.
ECHDC recently took the first steps to get three buildings constructed on the South Aud Block site at Main Street and Marine Drive. Proposals from developers are due January 9 for a large building to house the Explore & More Children’s Museum, a Canalside Information Center, and a third building with restaurant/retail spaces along the towpath and ground floors and office/residential on the upper levels. They are not expected to open until 2016. Benderson Development is planning a five-story retail/office/apartment building at Main and Scott streets (Parcel D-2 below) that may be anchored by Hofbrauhaus. That building is likely to open in 2016 as well.
There are nine additional sites pegged for private sector development. I’ve heard from two local developers that have tried to acquire one or more parcels for mixed-use development that would conform to the adopted Canalside Design Guidelines in recent years. Both were rebuffed.
Tom Dee acknowledges developers are calling. From Business First last week:
With the opening of the skating surface, coupled with the other recent developments, Tom Dee, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. president, said he anticipates the remaining vacant parcels within the Canalside area may soon catch the eye of developers. Calls are coming into his office on a more frequent basis.
Yet no additional RFPs have hit the streets.
There are other troubling signs at ECHDC. Last week the ECHDC Board approved a significant contract amendment with Global Spectrum, the Philadelphia-based firm that beat out Buffalo Place to manage and maintain the Canalside properties and public events for a three year period. Their fee for the last year went from $1.7 million to $2.5 million. The ECHDC Board was not pleased but went along. From Buffalo Business First:
“I was taken aback,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, an ECHDC director.
Poloncarz noted his county parks department, which maintains and operates more than 10,000 acres of parks and has slightly more than 83 employees, has annual $2.49 million budget.
Funding for the Global Spectrum contract is taken from New York Power Authority settlement dollars. That’s money not being spent on getting something built at Canalside.
And while developer interest around Canalside is strong, the ECHDC appears to be in no hurry to finish the project and put itself out of business. The remainder of the Aud Block was pegged for a market place and underground parking but that is on hold according to The Buffalo News:
The northern end of the site, which occupies about two of the Aud site’s five acres, where the base of the Aud stood, is on the back burner – and likely to remain there until the other developments are done or well on their way.
Include the controversy over ECHDC’s proposed master plan for the Outer Harbor and one starts to see a pattern of dysfunction, tone deafness, and over-spending.
Canalside is moving at a glacial pace. It’s time to strike while the iron’s hot and get this land into capable developers’ hands.