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THE BRAWL IN THE CANAL DISTRICT

There was almost nothing the denizens of Buffalo's infamous Canal District liked better than a brawl. In that spirit, Mayor Anthony Masiello's proposal for a committee to smooth out the differences in historical opinions about Inner Harbor redevelopment hardly seems in the proper spirit.

The mayor, though, is on the right track. His plan would allow construction to start as scheduled for the $27 million Inner Harbor project, designed to spur some much-needed economic development. It would also ensure consideration of the archaeological remains of the old canal terminus, although not in ways preservation hard-liners prefer.

Masiello's idea of a blue-ribbon technical panel of archaeologists, state historic preservation officials and other experts, backed by a local task force charged with reviewing ways to highlight the district's history, is only a moderate expansion of an existing process.

But both panels could provide another layer of assurance that the past will be authentically celebrated instead of just exploited. In addition, they should take a careful proactive look at district-related resources -- such as the buried remnants of Canal Street and the Erie Canal itself -- that lie outside the immediate construction zone.

This week's City Hall hearings on plans to rebury remnants of an old Commercial Slip wall and dig a new canal-like basin nearby revealed splits, even among historians, about the significance of structures uncovered by last season's archaeological explorations. Among the more bizarre elements were attempts to describe a long-demolished rotgut-and-vice emporium, flatly described by one author as "a brothel," as a key historic black-owned business. That same house of ill-repute also was described as a stop on the Underground Railroad -- a claim lacking in documentation.

Such issues need further exploring, and the mayor's panels could do that. They could also weigh the relative importance of the authentic place of the old waterway against the likelihood, supported by state preservation office review but disputed by preservationists, that redigging it would destroy the surviving wall section.

And they can weigh the state-approved "do no harm" policy of reburying the old wall against coalition proposals to reuse the wall -- only the top few inches of which would be visible above water level -- by extending it and using new stones to replace any old ones destroyed by their sudden re-exposure to the elements.

At the heart of the current disputes is a difference in basic goals. Preservation Coalition leaders and some Erie Canal buffs want excavation of a historic city commercial district, which they hope will draw multitudes of tourists. City officials and the Empire State Development Corp., the state development agency overseeing the project and its funding, are trying to create a modern center that celebrates history within a wider array of public recreational uses and business development spilling over into adjoining zones.

The Inner Harbor project, pushed by earlier and more broadly based public demands, plans to preserve the building foundations many summer visitors mistook for the disputed slip wall, expose a section of original cobblestone streets, outline the original slip location in plaza pavement designs and incorporate signage and artifact displays throughout the district.

Quite simply, the Preservation Coalition so far has failed to make a case for expanding that vision and stopping a project that is a needed development catalyst in a city that has difficulty moving its key projects off the drawing boards and into reality.

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