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Session to let public air views on Canal Side plans

The public will soon get its first chance to speak out on the proposed $325 million Canal Side project.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has scheduled a Feb. 25 session to start public dialogue on the sweeping waterfront master plan that includes a Bass Pro Outdoor World store, plus nearly one million square feet of hotel, restaurant, residential, office and public space.

"We're excited about getting the general public involved," said Jordan A. Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which is overseeing Canal Side. "This is not our project, it's the community's project."

The public meeting, slated for 7 p.m. in Waterfront School, 95 Fourth St. in downtown Buffalo, is the first key step in the project's required environmental review, a process expected to take at least eight months.

The session will address broad aspects of the 20-acre, multiphase Canal Side plan and will function more as a planning exercise than as a traditional public hearing, according to attorney Adam S. Walters, the harbor agency's legal counsel for the environmental review.

"This is not the time and place for stating retailer preferences or style of architecture," Walters said. "Sometimes people leave scoping sessions frustrated because they don't get answers to specific questions or can't voice specific complaints. Right now we're looking at the bigger picture."

He suggested attendees do their homework by reviewing the master plan and draft documents before heading to the session.

"What we're looking for from the public at this juncture are suggestions on what to consider within the environmental impact study. This is about laying the groundwork," Walters said.

Ultimately, the study will weigh considerations ranging from impact on the Buffalo River and downtown traffic patterns, to the waterfront's historical significance and archaeology.

The master plan and draft scoping report can both be viewed via the Internet at www.eriecanalharbor.com. Print versions of the materials are also available for review in the Central Library in downtown Buffalo and in the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum on Nottingham Terrace.

Interested parties who cannot attend the Feb. 25 session have until March 13 to submit written comments.

The 30-page scoping document outlines more than a decade of Buffalo's inner harbor planning efforts, chronicling previous missteps that resulted in a federal court battle over unearthing the original Commercial Slip. Levy said that hiccup, which threw Erie Canal Harbor redevelopment years off track, offers a cautionary tale for Canal Side.

"We want to do everything right and keep this project moving forward," he said. "The goal is to complete the environmental review in October and open Phase One on Memorial Day 2011."

The initial phase of Canal Side will focus on redevelopment of the blocks where Memorial Auditorium and Donovan State Office Building now stand.

Demolition of the Aud is under way to make room for a Bass Pro store, Great Lakes museum, commercial space and a public green with a network of canals. The Donovan Building will be converted to a mix of commercial and residential space. A 1,000-vehicle parking ramp will go up adjacent to the Marine Drive Apartments complex.

Future phases of the proposed project, which stretches from the foot of Main Street, north to the Niagara Thruway, with Pearl and Washington streets serving as west and east boundaries, include a hotel along the Buffalo River, shops and a public market tucked under the Skyway and a string of mixed-use buildings along Main Street's Webster Block, in front of HSBC Arena.
Full public hearings on a near-final plan will likely take place in late June, with final touches added through the summer and early fall.

"We'll end up with a document that's about nine inches thick by the time we're done," Walters said. "The trick is to consider everything and have lots of alternatives."

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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