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Harbor project enters key phase

After six months of work, the Erie Canal Harbor reconstruction project is moving into a key stage, as crews prepare to reinstall the stone walls of the historic Commercial Slip and begin construction of the new Naval and Servicemen's Museum.

Throughout the fall and winter, cranes, bulldozers and other heavy equipment have been on the 12-acre site doing preparatory work -- installing steel sheet piling, excavating the site of the Commercial Slip and other tasks.

"It's really starting to take shape. It's exciting to go over there now because you get a real sense of what we're doing, and that is only going to become clearer over the next several months," said Thomas D. Blanchard Jr., director of the $46 million project.

The Empire State Development Corp. recently received bids for Phase III of the harborfront work, which will focus on the museum. Work on the nearly 10,000-square-foot, three-story building, which will be on the west side of the rewatered Commercial Slip, is slated to begin in April.

The contracts for the museum work, totaling $2.7 million, are expected to be approved by the state development panel in late March.

The museum structure, designed by Buffalo's Flynn Battaglia Architects, will feature two floors of exhibits, with a loft-like upstairs. The museum building also will house the naval park's administrative offices.

Its exterior is designed to reflect the Erie Canal's heyday, as well as the naval park's military might. The north and east facades will be clad in period-style clapboard with stone trim, while the south and west exteriors will be fashioned from glass and steel.

The new museum has been on the drawing board for several years as planners and preservationists ironed out the best way to re-create the western terminus of the Erie Canal while making major improvements to the city's harborfront.

"We've come a long way over the past six months," Blanchard said. "There have been maybe two days all winter that crews weren't able to be out there working. We're continuing to stay slightly ahead of schedule."

Construction of the museum building and reinstallation of the original stone walls of the Commercial Slip will be a milestone in the project.

The naval museum's building, an indoor/outdoor exhibit pavilion whose steel structure is now in place, also should be completed this year.

Other critical elements of the site, scheduled for completion in 2007, will be installation of cobblestone streets following the site's original street grids and a replica foot bridge that will span the rewatered boat slip.

The Erie Canal Harbor project is viewed as integral to broader plans to lure a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store to the adjacent Memorial Auditorium.

Last week, in unveiling an ambitious $1.4 billion plan to turn the Main Street corridor into a vibrant harbor-anchored place to live, work, shop and play, planners said $4 million will be spent to bring interpretive elements to the historic canal site.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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