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First of three bridges installed at old Aud site at Canalside

The resurrected former Donovan building and the rising HarborCenter have overshadowed the historically aligned canals being built where Memorial Auditorium once stood.

But the canals at Canalside on Monday reclaimed their co-starring role, as two cranes lifted the first of what will be three bridges into position while workers east of the bridge installed blocks of granite. It was also a reminder of what’s to come.

“We’ve been dwarfed by two big buildings, and once the bridges go up, we won’t be anymore – we’ll be part of a landscape,” said Tom Dee, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Construction of the canals, stalled for a time, are now expected to be finished in the fall, allowing ice skating this winter in an area three times the size of Rockefeller Plaza. That should happen around the same time shops, hockey rinks and a parking ramp open at HarborCentre.

Four buildings containing restaurants, stores, a children’s museum and bathrooms are expected to open on the aud’s south block in Fall 2016.

More restaurants, shops and apartments are also under consideration just south of the new Courtyard by Marriott from Benderson Development, which developed the former Donovan building that now houses the hotel and Phillips Lytle law firm.

“What’s happening there now is symbolic and substantial. Anyone who has been down to Canalside sees the great progress occurring there, but this represents a substantial move forward for the Aud block,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, the leading force in Western New York’s Congressional delegation for waterfront development.

The Whipple truss bridge – similar to the one at the nearby Commercial Slip – was installed at Lake Street.

Two larger bridges are expected to be put in place over the canals during the next six weeks.

Plans for the South Aud buildings are in the design phase, with bids expected to go out by the end of the year. Explore & More Children’s Museum and a mixed-use building will each occupy 40,000 square feet, followed by a building earmarked for restaurants and bars that totals 15,000 square feet, and a 5,000-square-foot comfort station.

Private developers have expressed interest in getting involved, Dee said. “What we know is, we’re designing it and moving forward,” he said.

Two buildings and a parking ramp planned for the north block are now on hold, Dee said, while they wait to see how the various developments emerge.

Restaurateurs and retailers have expressed interest, Dee said, but they’re waiting for the buildings to go up before making a commitment. He said he has directed them to HarborCenter and to Benderson Development, whose timetables are ahead of the canal site, because it will only add to the synergy of the whole area, he said.

Parking also remains to be sorted out, he said.

Discussions are being held with parking operators under the nearby Thruway and surface lots to see if spaces could be reserved for Canalside shoppers, Dee said. The agency is also waiting to determine what effect the new HarborCentre ramp makes in an area where a mix of ramps and surface lots have created a considerable amount of parking already.

“We have to have a big, big plan for parking. Questions about it come from restaurateurs and retailers. Every time they come to talk about a building, they say where do my customers park?” Dee said.

On the other hand, he noted, 19,000 fans who go to Sabres games at First Niagara Center are able to find parking.

On Monday, workers in hard hats were putting in granite facing around the canals, which will also go around the bridge abutments. In the near future, work to insulate the canals, put in piping for the refrigeration system and add concrete on top is expected to start.

For now, all systems seem to be a go, something Higgins rejoiced over while looking toward the site from the Commercial Wharf.

“When you look at what’s happening at Canalside, and Ohio Street, and what we’re poised to do with the outer harbor, we are within two years of looking at a brand new Buffalo. It starts at the water’s edge, but it’s injecting new vitality throughout downtown Buffalo.”

email: msommer@buffnews.comn