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Keeping Canalside ship shape

Erie Canal Harbor has drawn raves and growing crowds over the past two summers and is expected to attract even more people and events in 2013.

But around the edges, some signs of wear and tear are beginning to show at the 4½-year-old site:

• Chipped, cracked and stained blocks of Medina sandstone.

• A boardwalk that’s warping.

• Rusting ironwork on the bowstring bridge.

“It’s wonderful that things are happening there, and it’s because of that that I don’t want to see things degrade. If it’s a historically significant site, then it needs to be cared for in a first-class way,” said Richard L. Taczkowski, a University at Buffalo-trained urban planner.

No one is suggesting Canalside is falling apart, but with three entities possessing overlapping stakes, who is responsible for keeping it in first-class shape?

The City of Buffalo, which owns the land, is ultimately responsible for the upkeep.

But oversight responsibilities are also shared – sometimes confusingly – with Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and Buffalo Place.

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., created in July 2005 to guide waterfront development, hires programmers and is involved with long-term planning. It’s a subsidiary of Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm that established Erie Canal Harbor and excavated and rewatered the historic Commercial Slip.

Buffalo Place, the nonprofit entity that boosts the downtown business district including Canalside, provides maintenance and operating support at the site’s events.

But neither Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. nor Buffalo Place is involved in capital improvements. That responsibility rests with the city.

The city’s Public Works Department provides some of that maintenance, such as replacing planks on the boardwalk or repairing water lines.

But Buffalo Place is responsible for the day-to-day cleanup.

The current arrangement has generally worked well, according to Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, but he feels one entity needs to be fully in charge to make sure “critically important details” aren’t overlooked.

He thinks it should be the state waterfront agency.

“Erie Canal Harbor Development has the singular focus on the waterfront, as well as a source of funding that can provide a quick and complete response, both immediate and long term, to the ongoing maintenance of Canalside,” Higgins said.

“We need a memorandum of understanding that says for the next five to 10 years, the agency will assume costs for maintenance and [capital improvements], with some contribution from the city,” Higgins said.

Steven J. Stepniak, the city’s public works commissioner, said the arrangement at Canalside has worked well despite being challenged by the site’s sudden rise in popularity.

“There is a lot of communication between all parties. Things are growing so fast, but we are adapting,” he said.

But gaps still exist among the three parties, according to Thomas P. Dee, the waterfront agency’s president.

“I think there are question marks in all our minds,” Dee said.

He added he was encouraged by recent talks with and actions taken by city and Buffalo Place officials on maintenance needs for next year.

Some waterfront users who are passionate about the site say they have concerns about Erie Canal Harbor’s appearance. Taczkowski, for instance, cited the damaged sandstone, half-lit interpretive signs at night and a buildup of gum on the ground – which Buffalo Place cleans at the end of the summer with a pressure washer.

“The sights and sounds of an experience mean so much to a visitor’s experience. The deterioration are things that detract from the pubic’s enjoyment,” Taczkowski said.

“Canalside is one of the most prominent and beautiful places showing signs of life and vigor adjacent to downtown Buffalo,” said Vigneshwar Kailasam, a UB graduate student in urban planning who frequently visits the site. “Although millions of public taxpayers’ dollars have been invested to develop Canalside, no real effort seems to be put towards its sustainable upkeep.”

Kailasam mentioned several concerns, including nonfunctional lighting fixtures over interpretive signs, allowing vehicles on the boardwalk for a car show and lack of clear parking regulations on the service road outside the naval museum.

Morgan Smith leads a maintenance crew for Buffalo Place that in the summer months cuts grass, picks up garbage after concerts, sets up tents and cleans the site, sometimes with a scrubber similar to a small street cleaner.

He said taking care of the area has been a learning experience for everyone involved.

The wood used on the wharf, which like the sandstone was installed by Empire State Development, may need to be replaced at some point, Smith said.

“It doesn’t seem reasonable that deterioration is happening after such a short period of time,” Smith said.

The damaged sandstone needing attention could have been a naturally occurring feature in the stone, or the result of not having been set properly, Smith said.

The scarred stone near the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park, which Buffalo Place does not clean, appears to be the result of oil and grease stains, he said.

The Liberty Hound restaurant, which opened Memorial Day Weekend in the naval museum, and delivery trucks and other vehicles that park on the commercial street appear to be sources of the grease and oil.

The sandstone is power-washed once or twice a week, according to Liberty Hound co-owner Jason Davidson, but he questioned whether the soft, porous material was durable enough for the busy site.

Stepniak was unaware of the condition of the sandstone, or that Buffalo Place’s cleanup responsibilities extended to only one side of the service road when mentioned by a reporter. But after looking into the issue, he said there was sandstone in stock that would be used to replace damaged slabs.

“We are still trying to figure out a way to [address] the stains on sandstone, because it stains very easily. We’ll have a sit-down with the restaurant and come up with a strategy,” Stepniak said.

Public works will also do a walk-through, he added, to see what else needs to be addressed in the spring.

Higgins said Canalside, “which is always being introduced and reintroduced to the pubic,” needs to be prepared for increased traffic next year after replica canals – with three times the ice-skating surface of Rockefeller Center – open at the former Memorial Auditorium site across the street from the Commercial Slip.

The congressman said the challenges were a reflection of how far the waterfront has come in a short period of time, which, he said, wasn’t such a bad thing.

“I think we’re a victim of our own success,” Higgins said.