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Next steps eyed for Canalside

The historically aligned Erie Canal, Central Wharf and Queen City Bike Ferry are drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Canalside.

Plans for a children’s museum and carousel could mean even more.

Now, the planners guiding the waterfront say the time has come to give them more reasons to stay longer all year round.

So developers will be sought next year to bring retail shops, more restaurants and potentially homes and offices to the waterfront.

Think of it as the next big step at Canalside.

“We think it makes sense to explore this,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said.

The Brown administration would first explore development on up to four acres of city-owned green space just west of HarborCenter, between Main Street and Marine Drive and Prime Street, the cobblestone road that roughly divides the waterfront space in half. The administration plans an incremental approach with one or several developers.

Then, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. expects to follow later in the year with its own request for proposals from developers. The state agency would seek complementary, year-round activity for the two-acre parcel north of the canal, on the former Aud block.

“We plan on meeting with as many developers in advance of issuing an RFP (request for proposals) to get a sense of what they feel the potential is, soliciting ideas for what makes sense,” said Sam Hoyt, a member of the waterfront agency’s board.

“We believe it is some of the most valuable, developable property I would submit in all of upstate New York,” Hoyt said.

Developing the river side of Canalside will require a trade-off: a loss of open space, and moving the popular Thursday concert series to a new location.

The mayor said the concert series could possibly move to the festival grounds on the Outer Harbor, but plentiful green space from Broderick Park to LaSalle Park would also be considered.

Moving the concerts would also satisfy concerns over noise, traffic and drunken behavior that has fueled complaints from residents of the nearby Marine Drive Apartments, the mayor said.

The proposed development would leave the green space between Prime Street and the Buffalo River untouched.

Wider appeal

Planners expect Lloyd, Hanover, Perry and Prime streets – the cobblestone streets put in several years ago to replicate what was once historically there – to become streets full of activity.

The Skyway, maintained by the state Department of Transportation, looms above the non-Aud block property offered for development. But Brendan R. Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, said he doesn’t expect the concrete behemoth to be a serious impediment.

Mehaffy said the shops, restaurants and attractions could further transform Canalside with a greater mix of things to do.

“Canalside is nowhere near its potential,” Mehaffy said.

“It would be year-round and around the clock, instead of being primarily one concert series and a lot of smaller activities,” he said. “This will be a true attraction not only locally and regionally, but we think also nationally and potentially even internationally.”

Mehaffy called the newly opened shops at HarborCenter like Fowler’s Chocolates and Clayton’s Toys a harbinger of things to come.

“The retail at HarborCenter is to complement the retail that will be happening on the other side of the street,” Mehaffy said.

The mayor said the city has received “numerous expressions of interest” to develop the remaining Canalside land.

“We think what could happen would greatly increase the popularity of Canalside, and provide additional amenities for people of all ages and all backgrounds,” he said.

That would likely be a combination of local businesses and national chains.

“We certainly see in that mix local business involvement and investment,” Brown said. “We’d like to see local small businesses having an opportunity to be represented there, but we would not rule out national businesses either.”

‘Something to do’

A waterfront forum – initiated by the mayor after plans to bring Bass Pro Shops to the waterfront collapsed in August 2010 – produced over 700 responses that proved instructive, Mehaffy said.

“What people wanted wasn’t green space, they wanted something to do,” Mehaffy said. “They wanted activity. They wanted vibrancy. So that’s what this overall development is attempting to speak to.”

The public will have a chance to weigh in as things progress, he said.

“We’re not going to just throw up a building and say, ‘Hey, we developed it.’ We’re going to continue to build consensus with and talk about this space with preservationists, environmentalists, the development community,” Mehaffy said. “The 2004 plan was part of a rigorous public process, and we’re following through on that.”

Also on Canalside’s drawing board are the NFTA’s plan for the DL&W Station, the city’s CarShare on Main Street plan and a new Amtrak station.

‘Timing is right’

The north Aud block – the area that extends past the canal, and looks like an open pit – is expected to draw interest from developers. So, too, is a small parcel previously planned to be a mixed-used development with the children’s museum, on the Aud block close to Marine Drive. Now, plans call for the museum to relocate a short distance to another spot in a stand-alone building.

“Among the things included in our thought process will be the possibility of an intermodal train facility,” Hoyt said. “We want to hear from developers how they think that can be integrated into a development that will be profitable.”

Robert Gioia, Erie Canal Harbor Development’s chairman, said a full-fledged discussion between Erie Canal Harbor Development and Empire State Development, its parent organization, still remains to take place on what should go there.

“I think the timing is right to give it some serious consideration,” Gioia said. “The excitement around Canalside gives us every reason now to do this.”