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Expanding the plans at RiverBend

We’ve all seen it before: A road gets repaved, only to see it torn up a little while later for other infrastructure work. And as we drive over the patched road, we wonder why it couldn’t have all been done together.

Local utility and business executives don’t want the same sort of thing to happen with the RiverBend project in South Buffalo.

They know that SolarCity is planning to build one of the biggest solar panel factories in the world there.

They also know that state officials are hoping the plant will turn into a magnet for the sprawling facility’s suppliers and other clean energy businesses.

And they want to be ready for that.

That’s why officials from National Grid and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership are working with the University at Buffalo Regional Institute to survey roughly 200 businesses and landowners around the RiverBend site to find out if the utilities and the roads around their property are adequate – and more importantly – whether they will be able to accommodate whatever development happens there in the years to come.

It’s a different way of thinking when it comes to planning the type of power and natural gas lines, along with the right type of water and sewer pipes and roads that will be needed in an area that’s largely vacant now, but could become a hot spot for business in just a few years.

The easy way to go about it would be to take the old-fashioned approach and react to development as it happens. Build the infrastructure for the SolarCity plant and then add on to it as new businesses pop up around it.

But that patchwork approach has some major drawbacks: It’s potentially more expensive and it leaves the surrounding area in a less-than-shovel-ready state for other businesses that may be drawn to the region.

“We’ve got to think about this a little differently now, so that we create a sustainable system,” said Dennis Elsenbeck, National Grid’s regional director in Buffalo.

“The cost of doing this in the planning stages is miniscule compared with doing everything as an add-on later,” he said. “Are we designing our infrastructure with smart growth firmly aligned in the planning process?”

National Grid took the same approach, on a smaller scale, with the Ohio Street streetscape project. There, the utility installed conduits that could accommodate future growth, even though no one today knows what that might be.

The vision for RiverBend is broader, seeking the input of nearby consumers, planners and government officials to develop a broader-based plan.

If it works, the idea is to use a similar approach at other development hot spots, Elsenbeck said.

“We’re seeing development pressures that we haven’t seen before,” said Daniel J. Leonard, the Partnership’s regional development director. “We’ve got to get smarter, or there are going to be big mistakes.”

Never before has National Grid taken such extensive steps to reach out to consumers in a targeted area, which stretches from the Outer Harbor, through South Buffalo and down to the former Bethlehem Steel complex, Elsenbeck said.

“Once you have a plan, you can make adjustments as time goes on,” he said. “If I don’t do it that way, I’m always behind the eight-ball.”

The Partnership sent out the surveys last week. Once the results come in, they will be analyzed by the regional institute to identify potential hot spots for future development and the type of infrastructure that would be needed if those plans come to pass.

The participants will be invited to at least one forum that the regional institute will hold to discuss its findings and get further input before preparing a final report that is expected to be completed sometime in November.

While National Grid is the utility spearheading the initiative, the plan is to share the findings with National Fuel Gas Co., as well as local water, sewer and transportation agencies, Elsenbeck said.

“If you’ve got to cut open a street, why do it twice,” said Stephen F. Brady, a National Grid spokesman.