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Buffalo must not sacrifice its rich inheritance

Big cities make big mistakes; great cities make few of them. That's why they're great -- and stay that way.

The Bass Pro development plan is a grave error, based apparently on a conviction that sales tax revenue and the prestige of a national sporting goods store will more than compensate for the loss of the treasures of the historic waterfront. Visions of public enjoyment of a transformed Central Wharf have been painted in rosy swatches. Intentions of homage to the city's significant historic past have been warmly recited.

The problem is that the Bass Pro building and parking ramp will deaden the area, rather than enliven it. Retail stores close typically at 9 p.m. Their storefronts and sides, particularly with big-box entities -- where ground level street-edge floor areas are too valuable for the company to lease out to restaurants and such that cater to street pedestrian traffic -- turn lifeless and discourage pedestrian circulation and interest.

Parking structures, visible from and adjacent to the street, are even more detrimental. Not only are people disinterested in reaching restaurants, entertainment venues and other evening offerings overshadowed by such realities, investors shy away from opening public-dependent businesses in their vicinities. Evening entertainment -- which begins to live and breathe at 9 -- has little chance at thriving.

Streetside pedestrian activity is not of real value to a sporting goods store, where customers' cars and trucks, essential in the carrying away of purchases, govern store planning.

One question that might have been asked: Could Buffalo achieve a comparable total sales tax revenue for the Canal District's 12 acres by implementing the 2000 Erie Canal Heritage Waterfront Plan? Without running the numbers for this alternative, there is no way of knowing whether the Bass Pro plan is the best for Buffalo -- in economic terms alone.

Contrary to Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra's statement on March 30 that the Bass Pro program "is very similar to the design standards that Roy Mann articulated in his (2000) plan," the new design echoes the past only in a pale cosmetic sense. No one passing a big-box store with facade gestures to the 19th century will understand that the structure is a legacy of Buffalo's storied past. The vastly more important potential of historic replication or simulation, with contemporary, economically profitable uses housed in buildings externally expressive of the structures of the old Canal District, will have been wiped off the chalkboard.

The foundations of those lost buildings have recently been exposed with the tantalizing promise of replication -- or simulation, a promise that now seems about to be buried yet once again.

The old Canal District's assets -- Commercial Slip and its Bowstring Bridge, the traces of Prime Slip, Central Wharf, Prime Street, Hanover Street, and the Lackawanna's railroad bed are not simply an aggregation of artifacts of interest to local preservationists. They are an American legacy, the focal point of mid- and late-19th century national growth, when the Erie Canal tied into the Great Lakes and 2 million hardy pioneers took the first leg of a journey that moved through prairie schooners to the saga of the nation's entire western development. This is an adventure, if told in a Canal District that wears a convincing historic mantle -- not false veneer, that will draw historic sightseers, tourists, weekenders, leisure-timers, diners and shoppers from considerably farther than a simple two-hour driving radius.

In our 2000 studies, we recognized the potential of a revitalized Erie Canal heritage waterfront to draw robust numbers of visitors from Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City and beyond. Support for downtown Buffalo's dining, entertainment, retail and hospitality sectors would be substantial.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was signed into law after urban renewal bulldozed vast posterities in America's cities in the post-war years -- Buffalo among many others. Boston, rather than tear down its three decrepit Quincy Market buildings in the '60s, elected to restore their exteriors and bring new retail and restaurant life to their interiors.

The project's chief proponent was, interestingly, a private developer, the first of a new wave of investors who grasped the great potential of historic areas to restore public confidence in older downtowns while meeting entrepreneurial aspirations. He was James Rouse and the Quincy Market conversion, named Faneuil Hall Marketplace, has taken its place in history as one of the most successful enterprises in the annals of American urban redevelopment.

Buffalo cannot restore the buildings of the old Canal District, razed to the ground in 1918. Replication and simulation of the district's structures at its peak are possible, however, and compatible both with historic site preservation and dramatic economic transformation. For Buffalo to sacrifice its inheritance -- this legacy with a promising future based on a prodigious past -- would be an unfathomable and costly mistake.

Roy B. Mann is senior principal of the Rivers Studio, author of Buffalo's 2000 Erie Canal Heritage Waterfront Feasibility Study and Plan.

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