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Delay in Buffalo’s historic canals project just ‘a bump in the road’

The $23 million state project to construct historic canals on the former Memorial Auditorium site is barely half-finished. And now it’s also on hold.

But that dormant construction site is hardly noticeable, as three other projects hum along nearby: HarborCenter and One Canalside, both private projects, and the state-funded East Canal, which separates the two.

Meanwhile, Erie Canal Harbor, in the five years since it opened, has established itself as one of downtown’s most popular attractions, whether it’s tens of thousands of people at concerts or families relaxing by the water.

That’s what makes the delays on the Aud block canals so frustrating for the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and others.

The canal project at the Aud site was only 52 percent complete, well behind schedule, when work stopped this week, said Tom Dee, president of the waterfront agency. The shape of the canals has been defined with concrete, but not much else appears to be completed on the largely dirt-covered block, with a few patches of grass.

Even so, while he’s unhappy with the delay, it is a “bump in the road,” Dee said, citing the progress all around Canalside and along the Buffalo River.

Four cranes – two of which will tower over the project – and other earth-moving equipment are laying the groundwork for HarborCenter, where two ice rinks, a Marriott hotel, a parking ramp and a mixture of retail and office space are being built across from First Niagara Center.

One block north, workers are transforming the former Donovan State Office Building into a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, headquarters for law firm Phillips Lytle, and more office and retail space, while the state agency builds the East Canal from Washington Street to Marine Drive.

And that’s just along the inner harbor. There also are the numerous projects – from parks and a planned parkway on Ohio Street, by the Buffalo River, to new parkland on the outer harbor – that are breathing new life and excitement into areas that were neglected for decades.

“It’s exciting to see so many hard hats, so many cranes and such hustle and bustle in terms of construction activity within a two-square block of downtown Buffalo,” said Sam Hoyt, a board member of the waterfront agency and regional president of its parent, Empire State Development Corp.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said his economic development staff took some companies from Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia on a tour a couple of weeks ago and specifically took them to Canalside “to see the major investment that’s happening here.”

And Brown and HarborCenter Development President John R. Koelmel both said they are working closely with the waterfront agency to ensure progress is coordinated.

“We are talking on a weekly basis about how Canalside is developed, how downtown Buffalo is developed,” the mayor said. “We think it’s going to tie together seamlessly.”

Hoyt said he’s hopeful that the work on the canals on the Aud block will resume before too much time elapses.

A state judge last week allowed the state agency to end the general contractor’s participation on the project by denying DiPizio Construction Co.’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have kept the company on the job. Both the agency and DiPizio – which was supposed to have completed work by last Thanksgiving – blamed each other in court for the project’s slow progress.

“We’re confident that once the legal matter is resolved, that project will be up and running again, and we will end up with a first-class project,” Hoyt said.

It’s critical to “bust through the canals delay,” Koelmel said, so when HarborCenter’s rinks and restaurant open “we’re not just that much more of an island.”

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