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Officials kick off canal project; Leaders hope a $23 million endeavor on the site of the old Aud will help transform the Buffalo waterfront into a year-round destination

A year from now, the gaping pit where the old Memorial Auditorium once stood will have been transformed into a system of shimmering canals and pedestrian-friendly bridges that developers hope will turn Buffalo's waterfront into a world-class, year-round destination.
The $23 million project has been under way for a couple of weeks, but was celebrated Saturday afternoon at a ceremonial groundbreaking with officials from the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and elected officials.
"Today in the footprint of the mighty Aud, where we cheered for Buffalo's success for 70 years, we celebrate the realization of our dreams for the 21st century and the beginning of real progress for Western New York's waterfront," said Thomas Dee, president of the harbor development corporation.
The canals will start at Washington Street and empty out at the foot of the pylons supporting the Skyway, going along Marine Drive and mirroring the historic path of the old Erie Canal. The water won't connect to the Commercial Slip.
Officials were especially excited about the prospect of turning the canals into a giant outdoor skating rink during the winter.
"It's going to be three-and-a-half times the size of Rockefeller Center,"s said Rep. Brian Higgins, a longtime supporter of Buffalo waterfront development. "That will draw people to the waterfront in December, January, February and March."
Construction is expected to be completed in the spring of 2013.
The harbor development corporation hopes eventually to attract a mix of development, from boutiques and restaurants with patio seating to offices and possibly even lofts and apartments around the canal system. A children's museum would be located in this area. Underground parking may also be built under the commercial area.
In the meantime, the development officials are looking at ways of replicating the success of the "faster, lighter, cheaper" approach at Canalside that brought thousands of visitors to the waterfront last summer with simple amenities such as Adirondack chairs, a sand beach and water taxis.
On the south side of the canals, developers are hoping to add similar amenities, and perhaps warming stations for ice skaters and a place for food trucks to sell cocoa in the winter and other treats in the summer.
The canal system is just one of five waterfront projects currently under way, officials reported at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Other projects include:
*The $30 million renovation of the old Donovan State Office Building into a hotel, which will overlook the canal.
*The Liberty Hound bistro, set to open to the public on Memorial Day at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park.
*Floating docks that will provide more access to boaters.
*Greening of areas around Canalside by the Buffalo Sabres and the City of Buffalo.
"I think we're off to a magnificent start," said Empire State Development Regional President Sam Hoyt.
Over the next year and a half, the region is "positioned to see incredible progress," Higgins said.
"People in Western New York have waited for this kind of progress for over 75 years," the Buffalo Democrat continued. "They've had their expectations raised, and they've been let down. This is real. This is tangible. Get ready, Buffalo and Western New York."
email: mbecker@buffnews.com