Canalside: Statler or BNIA?

21 Oct

How many times can a design be “unveiled?” I count four for Canalside, at least, counting last night.

I’m sure it was a fascinating public discussion last night. But the question on everyone’s minds, that Levy and Dee and Quinn can’t answer, is whether Canalside will be the Statler, or the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Don't you just want to slap that smile off his face?

Don't you just want to slap that smile off his face?

When it comes to positive development in our fair city, collective memories are goldfish short. The list of high price successful development projects may not be as long as some places, but it does exist. Case in point is the wildly successful and completely unappreciated Buffalo Niagara International Airport. If Canalside works as well as the BNIA, we will be doing well.

Constructed in 1997 at an original cost of $187M (total cost has been over $450M over the last 12 years, with a $90M add-on in 1999, and over $50M in upgrades in the last year), the BNIA took too long to build (6 years from plans to construction) and made plenty of people angry. But it has also been wildly successful and fulfilled or exceeded nearly every promise made before its construction. Many new airlines have been attracted to Buffalo, dropping average airfares from one of the highest in the nation to one of the lowest. It took nine years (2006) for passenger counts to hit 5 million, a milestone officials didn’t think they’d reach until 2020. People wondered where the passengers would come from, but with a third now from Canada, and drawing from Rochester and beyond, BNIA has become the hub it was supposed to be (how often do you drive to Rochester to fly out there for cheaper rates?). Even in this economy, passenger counts have stayed high, compared to the rest of the country. And personally, coming from someone who seems to live in airports, compared to the rest of the country we have a sleek, modern, comfortable terminal, with above average food and relatively quick baggage claim (now that the new conveyor system is in place).

The other end of the spectrum, of course, is the Statler Towers (or Peace Bridge, or Buffalo Creek Casino, or other options – take your pick). Over-promised and under-delivered, the centerpiece of the downtown core continues to rot. I don’t need to recount the litany of FAIL here, including bounced checks from the weekend.

So, which model will Canalside be? No matter how hard it tries, it will not be all things to all people. The history will not be historical enough. The architecture will not be hip enough. The restaurants will not be trendy enough. The stores will not be trendy enough. The bars will not be rowdy enough. The walkability will not be easy enough. The parking will not be close enough.

But, if two or three years from now, I have somewhere to buy a new kayak by testing it on the Buffalo River, a new restaurant (sorry Pearl Street Brewery) to go to before Sabres games, and outdoor skating on canals a la Ottawa, it will be a success in my book.

But who is the real big winner? Canadian shoppers. One regular critique I hear is that we are adding hundreds of thousands of square footage of new retail, with no new shoppers willing to venture downtown (a la the airport passengers). I contend that if Canadian shoppers are willing to stream into WNY for the dumpy Walden Galleria and the dumpier Niagara Outlets (the second most visited tourist attraction in Niagara County, behind the Falls), then they will be willing to drive a shorter distance to underground parking at a primo shopping center. Cha-ching, as the ever-complaining Donn Esmonde would say.

7 Responses to “Canalside: Statler or BNIA?”

  1. lefty October 21, 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    First off Brian, you are quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs.

    As far as canal side goes, there is a lot of positives and negatives.
    The positives include:
    The Bass Pro structure. Not Bass Pro but the structure itself. The shell is pretty cool and I could see multiple reuses. As someone who lives in San Diego, craft brewing is HUGE here and I am lucky enough to have Stone Brewing in my backyard. While Breweries like Stone have reached a national level in terms of distribution, I am pretty sure they are only in San Diego. I think a VERY LARGE working Brewery could do very well in this location. I am sure other items could be placed there if you think about it.
    Another plus is what they plan to do with the “canal” that is landlocked. The idea of filling it in during the winter and creating a skating rink is awesome.

    The negatives are the surrounding structures. It looks like a mall in the burbs. It is almost like they are trying to build too much and cutting corners on materials and design.

    One more thing, I really like the idea of the parking deck near the Marine Drive Apartments. I think once this is built, that complex, which can be sold, should be sold. However, the layout of the structure does not follow any type of reasonable street grid that could be created.

    In the short term, 10-15 years, I think Marine Drive should be sold and converted to market rate apartments. I hear they are pretty spacious and could be gutted on the inside. Long term, 15-20 years, these structures could be torn down after the purchase and renovation price is recovered and new towers could be built. Of course this is if the market demands it.

  2. Alan Bedenko October 21, 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    Personally, I don’t hunt, fish, or camp so I don’t really care whether Bass Pro comes or not, and I think the bloom is off the “Bass Pro as retail stimulant” rose. Auburn isn’t doing as well as it once was. (My preference would be an LL Bean, which is more diversified of an outdoors retailer, and could well serve the Canadian clientele – but I digress).

    Looking at the flythrough and renderings of the latest iteration of Canal Side I think it’s exactly what it should be – an outdoors lifestyle center destination that pays homage to the area’s heritage as a canal terminus. I expressly reject the idea that Canal Side should be some sort of outdoors museum and nothing more, which is what I think the Tielman crowd really and truly want.

    As far as the premise – whether it will be a Statler fail or a BNIA win, I’m thinking it will be an initial BNIA win, but the problem becomes the long term. People will go just to see it. The issue becomes repeat business. If it looks as pretty as it does in the renderings, it’s got a good shot, but ultimately it needs to compete with the Galleria. The right tenants, the right atmosphere, the right programming of events, and a mix of not just retail, but also office, hotel, and residential will help to build a foundation upon which Canal Side remains viable in the long term.

    I’m also a big fan of making parts of downtown a sales-tax-free (or reduced sales tax) zone – like a reverse Empire Zone where the benefit goes to the consumer and trickles up.

    As for the parking deck – it is of absolutely critical importance that this project have parking within easy walking distance. Not just for lazy suburbanites, but for out-of-towners. The idea of a deck next to Marine Drive makes perfect sense, and although the residents are complaining, it’s my understanding that they’d have access to overnight spots in that ramp as a sort of trade-off. If they’re happy with the aesthetics of Marine Drive, then they’re bound to be happy with the aesthetics of the proposed parking ramp.

    Lastly, Lefty brings up the point that Marine Drive should be sold and converted into market rate apartments. Frankly, it’s an eyesore that should be ripped down. It was built as low-income housing back when the waterfront was a festering boil people wanted to avoid like the plague (it’s no accident that the 190 separated downtown from the waterfront – it was quite deliberate). The buildings are objectively ugly and frankly unnecessary. If there’s one thing Buffalo doesn’t really have a lack of, it’s affordable housing. Build something new that enhances the waterfront, and let displaced Marine Drivers get first crack at it. I recall Boston being filled with loads of beautiful apartments that had HUD-backed loans, and had a requirement that a certain portion of the units be set aside for low income housing, while the balance could be market rate.

    Either way, I love the new design, I think it’s a win, but there needs to be a comprehensive plan for the long term with that.

  3. lefty October 21, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    Great points BP. LL Bean is another great option for the anchor structure.

    The one thing that I just realized by looking at the renderings is the concern over boat slips. Lake Erie has a short but VERY active boater community. There is pretty much nowhere that offers temporary boat slips for people to get out and grab a bite to eat. I know this is still an “active” shipping channel but I think 200 temp docs would do very well during the summer.

    As for Marine Drive, while it would be nice to demo, I am not sure the market would justify the cost right now. From what I have been told, the apartments are BIG and the layouts are nice. The exterior is shit but as a short term solution, stuff could be done to make it a little bit better.

    I am not positive on the structure, but I am assuming that the brick exterior is not load bearing. If this is the case, the exterior could be “cleaned up” with larger windows/floor to ceiling windows cut in and possible faux stone added to it. Even without this exterior improvement, a developer could come in and “flip” the units with a minimal amount of money.

    Once that money is recovered, and if the market will allow for it, new structures could be built. Hell, where else in Buffalo could you score a 3-4 bedroom apartment with those kinds of views?

    • Alan Bedenko October 21, 2009 at 2:14 pm #

      I thought there were supposed to be docks for that purpose set up next to Tielman Park, (which is what I’ve just named the patch of grass located where the Central Wharf Building once stood, which was where Bass Pro was talking about setting up prior to the Aud location being brought up again in 2008).

  4. Greg October 21, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    Yea I definitely think they need to accommodate to boaters by giving dock space along iwth public showers and bathrooms. It would also be nice if there could be a beach created there, which I heard was one of the suggestions made at the meeting at the Knox.

    Overall, this canal side will be irrelevant unless they get bar with a brewery, an already known wing place like Duffs (like the one in OP), and other Buffalo stuff. Unfortunately, all things Buffalo coming to mind at the moment is food and drink…

    I’ve heard ideas like an aquarium and children’s museum which sound awesome. I’ve driven by the one in Ithaca numerous times and have read stuff about it and it looks like a lot of fun for the kids. An aquarium would be awesome too, but that would mean good-bye to the Niagara aquarium.

    So ideally by 2020 (as to join the significant year of another Buffalo entity), Canal side will have been built, Buffalo Creek Casino will be done, Bass Pro, Children’s museum, aquarium, hotel?, and a new nightlife down there correct? lol I think we’re all drinking the kool-aid to a certain degree.

  5. Brian Castner October 21, 2009 at 9:05 pm #

    @ Lefty – thanks for the good word. With a name like lefty, you and I sure do agree often on various topics . . .

    I think the Marine Drive Apt folks made a HUGE tactical error. I have always been amazed that while the Naval & Serviceman’s park was being moved, and hundreds of millions invested in this site, that those eyesores have never come up. I know poor people deserve good housing too. But not in ugly towers on prime real estate. I would love to see them sold and reskinned or knocked down – even Paladino’s towers are infinitely better. And I think they would have sat and stayed, but now the residensts are complaining that someone wants to build them covered parking. The mouse woke up the elephant. They are now on the radar screen . . . and not only will the parking garage be built, but this may start the “Demo Marine Drive” ball rolling.

  6. lefty October 22, 2009 at 11:38 am #


    Lefty = Left Coast and Left WNY.

    This Marine Drive situation is rather interesting. It appears that for once, almost everyone agrees on the issue. On message boards and blogs alike, most people agree that this area should be on the free market.

    Robert Biniszkiewicz at Pyramid Brokerage said that the going rate for apartments could be as high as $50,000 per unit. Marine Drive has 600+ units. Even if you lower that to $35,000 per unit, that is $21M. At $50,000 per unit, that is $30M or 10% of the cost of the Canal Side project. Of course, this is before looking at the potential tax revenue of this complex.

    One potential compromise, even though I do not think there should be one, is to follow what Charlotte, NC did in their First Ward. Years ago when First Union and Nations Bank started to invest in the Uptown area of Charlotte, they asked the city to clear the public housing. The biggest grouping of public housing was in the First Ward which was a block or two from the new multi million dollar office towers.

    The solution was to allow a developer to come in and build a complex of market rate townhomes and apartments. In exchange for this, the developer agreed to make a % of these units avil for lower income for a period of years. Once that time expired, the developer could put 100% of the complex at market rate. This allowed for a transition over a period of 10 years but an imediate removal of the blight.

    Another program that has been pretty successful is the one in San Diego. The Center City Development Corp was given powers to clear blight and allow for new construction around Petco Park. Developers were given an option of either making a % of their building low income or contributing a % of the development cost to a general fund. Most developers chose to put money into the fund for obvious reason.

    Today, even with the poor real estate market for DT condos in San Diego, the construction cranes are in full swing. There is one 10 story complex complete and a handful of others that are under construction. All of these buildings actually look nice on the outside and fit in with the brand new construction. Where they cut corners is in the interior, which is acceptable.

    In both of these cases, you had local government protect massive development projects (Charlotte was private and San Diego was public) buy removing blighted public housing and working WITH developers.

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