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Canalside is making progress, but much work still remains

It has been almost six months since I wrote: “Congratulations to the Pegulas, along with their superb team of contractors, who completed the spectacular HarborCenter in record time and within budget. Further kudos to the magical ice skating/cycling initiative, which fills out a year-round Canalside activity slate.”

With the Outer Harbor Bike Ferry recently opened, now is again a good time to repeat the plea to focus on improving the foot of Main Street. Of course, let’s not forget the Pearl Street gateway at the north end – the primary Canalside vehicular access for city folks. Most would agree that this important gateway looks even worse than the foot of Main Street and perhaps is more important because the Pearl Street corridor creates an important (positive or negative) first impression for visitors.

But one initiative at a time. For the Lower Main Street waterfront, momentum continues to be greatly handicapped from reaching its full potential, since an inaccessible and underused Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority surface parking lot in deplorable condition occupies the foot of Main Street.

A few of us have stood upon this spot near the water’s edge. As we gaze northward up Main Street, one can hardly even see the street or Canalside or HarborCenter through an ugly maze of fencing and haphazardly arranged detritus and “back of house” support storage. This potentially special place at the mouth of the Buffalo River offers potentially panoramic views to Lake Erie, the historic DL&W Terminal and Times Beach. The location is the original “front door” to our historic waterfront!

The guiding principles for all Outer and Inner Harbor revitalization are:

• Create great places that people will return to again and again.

• Make these places accessible.

• Provide good connections to other waterfront features, pathways and destinations.

Understandably, the NFTA is going through difficult financial times and cannot shoulder the sole financial burden to fund these improvements. Here is an incremental three-step initiative that won’t “break the bank” and can sow the seeds for future private investment.

Step 1: Make temporary improvements. Green up the whole area, camouflage the 15 to 20 parking spaces and replace prison-style fencing with more friendly control. This short-term strategy applies to the Pearl Street gateway, too. Incorporate some thoughtful landscaping. Most important, create an attractive connection under/around the most southerly Skyway abutment to connect with the Canalside boardwalk. That link would, of course, continue as always imagined eastward along the DL&W riverfront facade. Logically, the Bike Ferry dock should be located here.

Step 2: Create direct access to the water’s edge so people can physically engage the water. Buffalo is the only U.S. city I know of that does not let people down to the water’s edge to dangle their feet in the water. Envisioned would be a stepped amphitheater “carved out” to let the river “invade” the land. It’s easy to do, and not that expensive. Include a convenient drive-up/drop-off for Bike Ferry users.

Step 3: Create a real Main Street riverfront destination. We still envision a vibrant, functioning multilevel gateway accessible and usable from land or water. To achieve this goal, extend the existing DL&W train barn second level up over Main Street – i.e., conform to its historic configuration from almost 100 years ago. Then design a protective grand roof canopy over a gateway portal, which would incorporate well-thought-out elevators, escalators and stairways to connect Main Street with the DL&W second level.

Historians know that the existing train barn is only one part, actually the “back end,” of what was once a great early 20th century Buffalo version of New York City’s Grand Central Station. DL&W’s “front door” once consisted of a passenger arrival and waiting space – a “great hall.” This whole complex originally extended all the way to the foot of Main Street.

The historic terminus of Main Street was once a bustling, exciting and unique multimodal world-class center of commerce. We – privately led, but with public support – have the opportunity to take steps now to rejuvenate this place by capturing the momentum of Buffalo’s current renaissance. We’ve got good. Let’s get to great!

Charles Gordon is principal of Charles Gordon Architecture in Amherst, which has an advisory role in reshaping Buffalo’s Inner Harbor.