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New plans for Canalside offer value to community, but also a need for caution

Planners at Canalside are looking ahead to the next phase of development on Buffalo’s resurgent waterfront and generally speaking – with a couple of hesitations – the plans look intriguing.

The good news is that leaders of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. continue to follow the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” template adopted after the plan to attract a Bass Pro store collapsed. Already in the offering is a children’s museum and possibly a historic carousel. Looking ahead, developers are considering the addition of shops and restaurants and perhaps later even homes and offices to the waterfront. The first two, depending on the details, could easily be a good fit. The latter two might also be, but they require closer examination.

Thus far, the Harbor Development Corp. has done yeoman work, using a light touch to create a space that draws hundreds of thousands of people year-round. From water bikes in the summer to ice skating on the state’s largest outdoor rink in winter, the planning has been spot-on. This year’s addition of a bicycle ferry connecting the Inner and Outer Harbors was a master stroke. The former Thursday at the Square concert series has become the even more popular Canalside Concert series. Whimsical public art installations, including the famous and hardly-dangerous-at-all Shark Girl, produce smiles and selfies. And that only scratches the surface of the rousing success that Canalside has become.

The addition of restaurants and low-key shops represents an obvious addition to the waterfront’s attractions, as does the children’s museum and the rare, hoped-for carousel, built in 1924 and in storage for the past 60 years. All hold the promise of adding to Canalside’s special magic.

Homes and offices have less to do with magic than they do with practicality and, to be sure, practicality can have its place. Those projects are not among the immediate plans, but if they get to the point that they are progressing, the test has to be that they add something appropriate and valuable to what has become a special public space. Call it practical magic.

There are some other concerns. Part of the attraction of Canalside is its expanse of urban green space, hard against the lake. Current plans could obliterate a lot of that green and also force the Thursday night concert series to move from a place that is almost ideal. Maybe the trade-off will be worth it, but the balance has to be carefully evaluated.

It is also worth wondering how planning might affect – or be affected by – the possible removal of the Skyway. The waterfront bridge is now 60 years old and is to the lake shore as a hammer is to a thumb. It will soon require the expenditure of millions of tax dollars, either to keep it functioning safely or to bring it down. Plans for Canalside need to keep the possibility of its removal somewhere in mind.

Still, the new plans look generally interesting and the Harbor Development Corp. has acquitted itself well at Canalside since the Bass Pro plan washed away. There is surely room for more, but we would add a caution to the observation of Board Member Sam Hoyt, who said of the area, “We believe it is some of the most valuable, developable property I would submit in all of upstate New York.”

There can be no doubt that he is right, but the same could once have been said of Manhattan’s Central Park. Developers would love to get their hands on that property, but its higher purpose is as a park. Some of the same sensibility needs to be at play as plans for Canalside move forward.