They Didn’t Build It. And Nobody Came.
By Elizabeth Licata
Researched by Carri Gregorski
In home renovation circles, it’s called “finish phobia.” Many a fabulous project is hatched in the mind of an ambitious weekend warrior, only to remain in the “potential” categorya door that is quickly closed before visitors can see. “Oh, we’re still working on that room. It’s going to be great, though!”
The Buffalo waterfront.
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis
And everybody understands. After all, we all have one of those rooms in our own homes. But what happens when an entity with a higher profilea city, county, state, corporation, or other big-scale developerpromises some fantastic project, and gets an entire community excited about it? If the project never happens, or takes twenty years to happen, or is changed beyond recognition, then much more is at stake. Every year in Western New York, big promises about possible development initiatives are made. This is the stuff, after all, of most political campaigns. And every year, another project inevitably falls silently by the wayside. We don’t always hear, or care, about the ones that don’t happen, but we do hear the hoopla when they’re promised to us. Right now, the region is buzzing about a number of “Big Box” solutions to our economic woes, as well as some costly ideas for enhancing the city’s profile to tourists. At least one or two casinos look like they’re headed our way. There’s lots of big talk about downtown housing development and new office spaces. Near the airport, a $43 million flight training center and a separate 150-room hotel are now being discussed, with the Erie County IDA, West Group developers, and Aviation Training International as major players. Finally, at presstime, there was still some discussion, strange as it sounds, about a 200-foot high golden arch on the waterfront.
It will be interesting to watch these potential additions to our skyline and economic base and see if they ever come to fruition. At least onethe archseems highly unlikely, though it’s been given plenty of attention in local press.
Recently, Buffalo Spree was curious about other projects that turned out to be all talk and little or no action. There are surely many more than we found, but they are good examples of the types of development projects we need: large-scale transformations, small to medium scale restorations, and infrastructure improvements.
There is a new one of these every year. It could be that we enjoy the potential of our beautiful lakefront location far more than we’d enjoy anything useful we actually did with it. Spree found two recent plans that, after much public attention, slowly died on the vine.
In 1989, the Buffalo News reported a $73 million Waterfront Pavilion, to be developed by a group known, appropriately, as Pavilion Partners. It would have two twelve-story buildings, shops, a hotel, restaurants, and parkland, and, as the first paragraph of the article stated, “Pavilion Partners....is so sure the project is destined for approval that it is shopping for an advertising agency to promote the development.” (Buffalo News, 2/3/89) Financing was expected from Marine Midland Bank (now HSBC) and a vaguely designated “Midwestern Bank.” The potential designer had helped design Baltimore’s Harborplace. Completion of the Pavilion, to be located opposite the Erie Basin Marina, near what was then Crawdaddy’s, was scheduled for 1990.
In April, the News reported that the plan would cost $100 million, not $73 million, and that some common council members were worried that the project would “compete” with our downtown business district. Nonetheless, the News editorialized that “Buffalo has now rediscovered its waterfront,” and that the new complex “could add the finishing touch.”
In August, a neighborhood group sent a petition to then-mayor Griffin and other officials protesting the development. As it would border the Marina, the residents thought the Pavilion did not include enough public access and parkland, among other problems. In October, an environmental review was requested by the group. But in December, the Common Council rejected the idea of forming a citizen’s review committee. Also in December, the project’s developers promised a “World Trade Center” in the complex (now priced at $113 million).
Throughout early 1990, the debate over whether there would be an environmental impact study raged. Marine Drive residents filed a lawsuit, which was rejected in State Supreme Court, and, in August, 1990, so was their appeal. In November, 1991, the project was reported as “still alive,” despite an unsuccessful search for investors. And that was that for the Waterfront Pavilion. In later Buffalo News’ post mortems, the failure to find financing, rather than the citizens’ rejected bids to stop the project, was blamed.
Another, less commerce-oriented idea for our waterfront has been to host a major tourist attraction there, connecting with Niagara Falls-related tourism. In 1989, then-congressman Henry Nowak proposed a “National Inland Environment and Fisheries Institute” that would include a fresh or saltwater aquarium as well as a fish hatchery, and glass observatory of Lake Erie. The News found this proposal “intriguing,” though one columnist suggested the addition of sharks and a nude beach. (Buffalo News, 11/3/89, 11/13/89)
This project received a lot of discussion, endorsements, and enhancement suggestions by many local entities, including Buffalo State College, the now-defunct Horizons Waterfront Commission, L.A. consultants Economic Research Associates, and others. And in 1991, Nowak announced he had $4 million in start-up money from the federal government.
In 1992, five waterfront design plans were announced, each including the “Nowak” project as well as an Imax theater, planetarium, and “technology center.” (Buffalo News, 6/28/92)
It was thought that the attraction, with a price tag of $68 million, would draw at least one million visitors a year and would open in 1998, with construction starting in 1994. By this time, the Horizons Waterfront Commission was firmly in charge of the plans.
In 1993, the planners began to look at the soon-to-be-vacated Memorial Auditorium, and then announced that they were focusing on a sweeping $800 million (as much as it cost to build the U.B. North Campus) overhaul of the waterfront, of which the aquarium would be an element. The old Aud would become the Buffalo Harbor Center, at a pricetag of $75 million. But in 1994, the City announced that it would scale back the Horizon plans and look at other reuses for the Aud. To this day, the Aud is empty. Since 1994, at least four major reuses have been proposed, including a children’s museum, a filmmaking center, a transportation hub, and, of course, a casino. As for Horizons, founded in 1988 to plan and develop the Erie County waterfront, it met its demise in 1995, a victim to scaled down state budgets.
Not all interesting development falls into the multi-multi-million dollar range. In June, 1989, it was estimated that it would take about $4 million to restore the Canadiana, a seventy-nine year old steamship that was once the glory of Crystal Beach. With a capacity for 3,500 people, the 210-foot-long ship could be used for dockside conferences and dining, as well as recreational cruises with big bands. Buffalo’s lack of such excursion vessels (the Canadiana is twice as long as any cruise boat currently operating in the area) was cited as untapped recreational market potential. As of 1989, the boat was partially submerged near Port Colborne, and stripped of most of its superstructure. The Buffalo News coverage included many nostalgic remembrances of the Canadiana during its Crystal Beach heyday.
However, plans for its restoration were barely limping along in 1991, as the boat remained in its submerged condition. It needed to be returned to the U.S. in order to generate possible federal grants. No money was available to do this, though public support of the project remained high. (Buffalo News, 5/24/92)
In 1993, it was reported that restoration of the vessel would begin in the winter, although the $300,000 needed for hull repairs was still a goal, not a reality. It was estimated that economic impacts from the completed restoration could total $7 million. The nostalgia continued. (Buffalo News, 12/17/93, 4/9/94)
In 1994, a $400,000 grant was received to begin rebuilding the hull. (Buffalo News, 12/14/94) Both news editorial page writers and columnists, however, said the money would be wasted and that the Canadiana’s day was past. (Buffalo News, 12/15/94, 12/16/94)
Then, the money became stalled as the Common Council debated whether or not to back the restoration and accept the grant. Finally, in 1996, the Council voted to claim the funds, set aside for three years. Later in the year, however, the state killed the grant, claiming the Canadiana did not qualify for historic register status. And that was the end of the Canadiana restoration.
There are a number of restoration projects going on in Buffalo with bigger stakes than the Canadiana. Some of them, like the Darwin Martin House, look very healthy. Some, like the Central Terminal, and now the stalled Richardson complex, look a bit shaky. It will be interesting to watch their progress.
Highways are probably among the unsexiest of development projects. Yet, they can change a community forever. Obvious examples of how highway projects have radically altered Buffalo’s physical and sociopolitical landscape are the 198 and 33 Expressways’ incursions into Delaware Park, and the 190 Thruway’s impact on our relationship to the Niagara River.
In 1983, fifteen years of tortuous planning and negotiations were initiated to create a “Southtowns Connector” that would take Route 5 from the skyway to a new route along the Buffalo River and then southwards, considerably inland from its current location. This plan would remove Route 5 from the waterfront, thus opening up thousands of acres for development. Closely tied to the Horizon waterfront projects, it would cost (as of 1989) $125 million. This project was compared by Henry Nowak to “what the Kensington Expressway had done for Cheektowaga-Amherst.” (Buffalo News, 10/9/89) Perhaps more relevant is the fact that this plan would do the opposite of what the Niagara Thruway did, in cutting us off from the Niagara River. It would create room for a park on the water’s edge as well as commercial and residential building.
Many, many obstacles stood in the way of the Connector, including the need for state support and funding, as well as various toxic dump sites in the Connector’s path. By late 1990, the pricetag had been revised up to $1 billion, more than eight times the original figure. Still, a study commissioned for the project was largely favorable, particularly if the Connector could link to Route 219. (Buffalo News, 9/20/90, 12/5/90)
In 1991, State money looked increasingly harder to get and a new obstacle emerged. Although supporters had cited the plan as improving access to Buffalo’s southern suburbs, it turned out that many residents of the First Ward and Valley communities objected to how the Connector would disrupt their neighborhoods. They were joined by Friends of the Buffalo River. (Buffalo News, 5/5/91) Residents of Lackawanna and Hamburg also questioned whether the route would bring more noise and truck fumes to their communities. And the demise of a national nickel-a-gallon gas tax jeopardized federal funding.
As with the waterfront aquarium, former Congressman Nowak was a leader in pushing for the Connector, but the State was slow to respond to calls for funding. The usual Albany wrangles and feuds made any quick action virtually impossible. (Buffalo News 7/3/92) Federal highway money proved equally elusive, as the Clinton administration threatened to rescind $7.85 billion of national highway funding in 1993. Also in that year, a $10 million environmental impact study was ordered to review the Connector plans. In 1994, the federal money was restored, through mass transit spending cuts in 1995 again threatened Western New York projects. Throughout the late 90s, the Connector was mentioned in increasingly fewer News stories as a possible project, but with no firm funding commitmentone 1998 article citing it as “years from becoming a reality.” (Buffalo News, 3/16/98)
Finally in 2000, after another study, and dwindling public interest, a steering committee pulled the plug on the project. A modest plan to connect the Niagara Thruway and Tifft Street and improve Ohio Street was proposed instead. Even so, this plan carries an $80 million price tag, and, as of presstime, was still in the study phase.
There are lessons to be learned from following the start, progress, and eventual failure of the projects mentioned in this article. A major one seems to be that better communication and consensus earlier on is essential. And it’s certainly true that governmental red tape and bickering are fatal death warrants to many of our community’s hope and dreams.
Fortunately, we continue to dream, and, occasionally, something comes of it.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.
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