With so many eye-catching elements built into the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino on Michigan Avenue between Perry and South Park, it might take a while to notice a significant absence.
Unlike the other Seneca properties, the Buffalo Creek Casino is neither fenced off nor set in a sea of large parking lots.
And unlike the monolithic multi-use Seneca Allegany and Seneca Niagara casinos, which each include a hotel and several restaurants, this Seneca casino is designed to complement, rather than compete with, other neighborhood attractions.
That means no fences.
“We wanted to blow all the fences out and make this property more open, so it would be more walkable and pedestrian-friendly,” said Nathan Peak, a senior associate with Hnedak Bobo Group of Memphis, the principal architect for the facility. “We wanted to situate the building on the site the best way, while looking at how we could create avenues and connections to neighboring entities, including First Niagara Center, and also open up future corridors for new businesses around the site.”
Those are both literal and figurative corridors. The most prominent is the Seneca Walkway, which will lead to the front door from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Perry Street. At the casino’s grand opening Aug. 27, Jennifer Caruso, the general manager, called the Seneca Walkway “an important connection with the inner harbor, for not only will the walkway lead patrons into our door, it will also, importantly, lead them away from our property and encourage them to explore other elements which are combining to make this section of downtown a vibrant, must-visit district.”
Although the court battle over whether the casino should exist at all continues, with a lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Better Buffalo currently on appeal in the Second Circuit, the casino already is a thriving presence in the Old First Ward. It has drawn hundreds of patrons daily since its soft opening a month ago, with few seats to be found on weekend evenings and patrons of every description, dressed in everything from T-shirts and sweatpants to minidresses or suits.
When the outside is finished, sometime around Thanksgiving, the only casino in the city of Buffalo will feature a variety of sometimes subtle design and decor elements permeated with symbolism. From the tall single feather rising from the roofline, evoking the lone eagle feather in the traditional Seneca hat, to the walkway that will lead to the front door, the casino’s design contains meaningful touches that reference both the Seneca Nation of Indians and the neighborhood in which the casino stands.
The original Seneca Buffalo Creek plans called for a larger facility with a hotel; an upscale restaurant and venues for live entertainment were also discussed during the years when the project was stalled by lawsuits. A ruling in May by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny permitted its construction, but unlike the classic casino model, this one does not try to fulfill all possible entertainment needs within its walls, and also brings in and promotes local products.
For example, “There are no plans for live entertainment at this location, as there already is a great array of live entertainment in the Cobblestone District, such as concerts along the waterfront and inside First Niagara Center,” said Tony Astran, publicity manager for the Seneca Gaming Corp.
Before any plans were drawn up, “We talked a lot about having this be the neighborhood entertainment center that people would come to and enjoy before or after an event,” said Dan Elias, a principal with Hnedak Bobo.
In Buffalo Savors Grill, a 102-seat cafeteria-style restaurant, casino staffers are using local products and recipes to make Duff’s Famous Wings, Charlie the Butcher’s beef on weck, Italian sandwiches from Ilio DiPaolo’s and pizza from Franco’s. The BC Cafe sells McCullagh coffee, Sweet Melody’s gelato and baked goods from Chrusciki Bakery.
The 67,000-square-foot building replaced both the steel skeleton that stood rusting for years after lawsuits halted its construction in 2008 and a temporary, 12,000-square-foot, usually cigarette-smoke-filled steel building that opened in July 2007 with 135 slot machines, which eventually grew to 457 slot machines.
The steel framework was removed last summer, but not discarded. “We were able to use the steel and the foundation, with very little waste,” said Peak, who estimated that 96 percent of the steel was used in the current building. Being covered with a rusty shell protected the steel from deterioration, said Elias.
Before designing anything, the architects studied what Peak called “the local fabric,” examining the neighborhood’s “materials, color palettes, patterns, textures, geometries, icons” and even signs in buildings ranging from century-old brick factories to First Niagara Center.
“In this district, which is heavily industrial, we began to look at ways in which we could begin turning the area into more of a pedestrian-scale environment and relate to the local architecture,” said Peak.
So, for example, “the blue metal panel ‘swoop’ at the top of the building is a symbolic reference to Buffalo Creek and is also relating to the top of the blue drum of the First Niagara Center,” said Peak.
One thing the designers chose not to duplicate is the area’s rigid street grid, with square buildings set along sidewalks. The Buffalo Creek Casino building is curved in front and set deeply into its lot, leaving space along Michigan Avenue and Perry Street for the walkway and a sizable plaza.
In addition to examining the site, the team from Hnedak Bobo educated themselves about Seneca culture, visiting the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca and consulting with director Jare Cardinal on everything from folklore and heritage to arts and crafts. The elements chosen for the Seneca Walkway, a 10-foot-wide promenade that will connect the front door to the nearest street corner, reflect those roots. Because the Seneca are known as the People of the Great Hill, the path, made of textured concrete and pavers, will cut through a hill. The walkway will be illuminated by eight tall curving lanterns made of metal and glass, each inscribed with the animal emblem of a Seneca clan. Finally, a mature white pine, the symbolic tree of peace, will be planted near the walkway.
The tree of peace is a living symbol of the unity of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
“With this walkway, we are reaching out to the public and teaching them a little bit of the nation’s history,” said Elias.
A second metal and fiberglass tree of peace was designed by the Seneca Cultural Committee and Hnedak Bobo. This impressionistic floor-to-ceiling illuminated funnel-shaped sculpture is made of decorative metals, slate, copper and plaster, set off by panels embossed with eagle wings and pine needles.
The carpet has a design of raindrops and ripples, referencing Buffalo Creek. Patterns of tiny round elements on many walls symbolize Seneca beadwork. The walls of the Stixx sports bar are covered with vertically sliced river rock to reference Buffalo Creek, and the carpet and some walls near the bar are patterned to resemble the woven nets of lacrosse sticks.
The richness and wide variety of colors, textures and materials may be a surprise to some. “The abundance of forms and movement in those forms keep you energized in that space, keep your eye wandering from point to point to draw you in,” said Elias.
The energy in the patterns “spins off from the center bar and gyrates out,” said Paul H. Bell, another principal with Hnedak Bobo Group. Bell particularly praised the floor mosaic at the entry to the high-stakes slot machine room, “a beautiful piece of work of water-jet-cut mosaic tiles.”
Patrons of other casinos may notice another difference here, the presence of glass that allows in natural light. Las Vegas casinos are famous for not only barring clocks but blocking any view of the outside, which is said to keep patrons from noticing the time. Here, “we used a lot of glass,” said Bell. “Normally, we don’t use a lot of glass in casinos, but we brought glass into the main entry, and also into the restrooms.”
Food and drinks
Unlike the other Seneca casinos, there is no high-end restaurant at Buffalo Creek. The Buffalo Savors Grill, where service is cafeteria-style, offers pizza, beef on weck, wings, salads and more prepared from the menus and under the supervision of Charlie the Butcher, Ilio DiPaolo’s and Franco’s. The fish fry and single order of wings are the most expensive items offered, each $11. The grill is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
BC Cafe, which has just a few tables, is more casual. The 24-hour spot has a menu of sandwiches, soups and salads. The Reuben panini and Cobb salad, at $8.50 each, are the most expensive items. Sweet Melody’s gelato is sold here, along with Chrusciki Bakery breads and pastries, as well as T-shirts.
Stixx Sports Bar, the logo of which includes both hockey and lacrosse sticks, is open from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon until 4 a.m. on Sundays. Beer, wine, martinis and a few hockey-themed cocktails are sold, along with a $575 bottle of Armand De Brignac Brut champagne.
Six 46-inch TVs are suspended in the center of the bar; the sides and back of the bar have four 55-inch screens that can operate as one giant TV and six 46-inch TVs. Four plush semicircular booths offer seating in front of those televisions,
At the bar, patrons can play games on 19 consoles.
About half of the games in the casino are either penny slots, said Astran, or multidenominational games that have a penny bet as an option. At those games, a penny is the minimum bet, but playing more “lines” results in a higher wager, up to a dollar or more.
A room off the main floor offers high-limit slots, where the bets start at a minimum of $1. The highest bet at a machine is a $10 two-coin slot, said Astran, who added, “We are monitoring feedback from guests in our High Limit Slots area and could make adjustments to add higher denomination games.”
Astran said that more than half of the slot machines from the temporary casino have been moved into the new one, and the name and types of games change often. “Slot machine presentations are a very fluid process, with games coming on and off the floor periodically,” he said.
A quarter of the room is designated as nonsmoking by signs, but smoking and nonsmoking areas are not separate.
The gaming floor also has 40 video poker slot machines, where patrons’ skill in picking cards on a video screen can affect the outcome.
There are 18 game tables, at which wagers are made using chips, which are purchased from the dealer at the table but must be cashed in at the cashier. There is a minimum bet at each table, which can be changed in response to volume, Astran said. Games that can be offered include blackjack, craps, blackjack switch, Let it ride, 3-card poker, roulette, Mississippi stud, Texas hold ’em bonus and Spanish 21, although not all games are being played at all times.
Between five and nine servers circulate through the crowd, offering beverages to players, Astran said.
The state regulates the percentage of bets that must be returned to the customer at state-operated gaming facilities. The slot machines at local non-Indian gaming facilities, which are referred to as video lottery terminals, must have a 90 percent return rate, said a state spokesman.
State percentages do not apply to Indian casinos. But, Astran said, “Slot payback percentages at all Seneca Casino location are generally more liberal than competing markets in the Northeast U.S. … Seneca Casinos are highly regulated and our results are audited by the State of New York. If everyone posted their actual returns, players would see that Seneca Casinos lead the region in returning money to players.”