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Canalside envisioned as a place to work, play – and live

Buffalo's waterfront was once a bustling neighborhood packed with residences and commercial businesses.

Now, a proposed plan seeks to reinvigorate the Canal District by creating a vibrant neighborhood with three-, four- and five-story buildings that would be built where Memorial Auditorium once stood and along the Commercial Slip.

The plan envisions 33 buildings in all — up to 26 on the former Aud site, three on a nearby parking lot owned by Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority along Commercial Street, and four on the Commercial Slip on the other side of Marine Drive. There would be 240 to 270 apartments and 80 to 110 commercial spaces, none with footprints larger than 1,200 square feet.

"This is an attempt to create a real living, breathing, self-sustaining neighborhood," said Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture. "Imagine how popular those apartments would be. People would want to live there in a heartbeat."

Tielman has drawn praise for designing Larkin Square. He will unveil his plan at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Central Library auditorium. Also to be discussed are the group's previously announced proposals to create a nearby train and bus station and enhance the Outer Harbor.

Tielman's neighborhood plan would need backing from private entities or state and city governments to get built. A 2004 master plan, which involved considerable public participation, called for substantial residential and commercial development in the Canal District, later branded as Canalside. The City of Buffalo, which owns the property south of Marine Drive, and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.,  which owns the parcels to the north, are both planning to gauge developer interest by issuing requests for proposals in the first half of 2017.

"We will push for our proposals and philosophy to influence and inform the public planning process," Tielman said.

[The Buffalo You Should Know: Before there was Canalside ... ]

Sam Hoyt, an Erie Canal Harbor board member, said he hasn't seen the Campaign for Greater Buffalo's plan, but he listed a mix of housing, restaurants, retail and entertainment, along with an emphasis on the site's history, as "top priorities" for the waterfront agency.

"It sounds consistent with what our vision is and what our master plan calls for," Hoyt said. "We have to populate Canalside with year-round residences to make it a year-round destination, and the way you do that is by creating a neighborhood that consists of lots of residential units."

"Tim is a bright visionary, and we absolutely welcome his input," Hoyt said.

This would be a view at the Commercial Slip, the historic terminus of the Erie Canal. On right are buildings that could be built to emulate historic structures formerly on the site. (Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture)

Mayor Byron Brown, who serves on the Erie Canal Harbor board as a non-voting member, also saw much in the plan to like.

"My vision has always included additional development," the mayor said. "By adding more retail, commercial and residential offerings, we will create more  jobs for our residents. Canalside will continue its transformation into a place that attracts people from throughout our region and throughout the country.

"Mr. Tielman's vision and input complements my vision for Canalside."

Tielman calls the project Nexus, which means a connection or series of connections. It's how he envisions the public, residents and businesses interacting in a spatial design that he said fosters productive human behavior. It's also how he imagines someday integrating the site with the part of downtown on the other side of the Niagara Thruway.

"This section of downtown Buffalo was built by the nexus of transportation — canal, lake, train and people on foot, all coming together," Tielman said. "The notion of nexus is fundamental urbanism, and it was that type of interaction that yielded the human habitat once there."

Tielman agrees with the city and the waterfront agency that it's time for Canalside to begin transitioning to an area where people live, work and play.

"We're very good at bringing people down to the site for a series of events and spectacles, but they think that's what it's meant to be for all time," Tielman said. "What we're saying is we can rebuild a sustainable neighborhood where Buffalo started, and it can restart from this site following a philosophy based on historic preservation and what works urbanistically."

The last large-scale development proposed for the former Aud block was a Bass Pro Shops store, a controversial decision Tielman helped lead the charge against. This development, he said, has nothing in common with that one.

"That was a fully baked plan in which form follows finance in the middle of a historic district," Tielman said. "This is none of that. We're going for a more granular approach, one that worked in Buffalo before with small building sites that anyone can come in and build. It's a landscape of opportunity and enjoyment, not one of corporate exploitation."

Development of the plan began with dissatisfaction over a request for proposals in 2014 for a mixed-use building, including commercial and museum space, that Tielman thought seemed more at home in suburbia than at a historic site.

Tielman reimagines the children's museum as a brick building from a century ago. To add authenticity, the museum would advertise on the walls, something frequently done during the Canal District's heyday. "Enlightenment and Amazement for all," the advertisement would read in large white letters on one side of the building. "A Veritable House of Wonders" would be on another side. "For your Edification and Enjoyment" would also be on another side.

The plan calls for building on the water first along the canal by the Commercial Slip, on the historic foundations and to the historic dimensions once there. Three buildings would be on the eastern side of the water, with restaurants on the ground floor and residences living on top.

On the western side would be a museum celebrating the site's historic importance as the western terminus of the Erie Canal. The museum would also tell the story of the immigrants who built the canal and the underground railroad, as well as explain the role of the railroads. It would be named for the bar Dug's Dive once located there and would be built on the foundation that still exists.

Commercial Square would be shaped by apartments and commercial space along historic street right-of-ways, one of a series of public spaces around which Campaign for Greater Buffalo's Nexus Project is organized. The octagonal building emulates a building that once stood at intersection of Pearl and Commercial streets. (Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture)

The plan also calls for an open-air pavilion on the site of the former Union Steamboat Company at the foot of Lloyd Street, where theatrical performances, marketplaces and smaller concerts could be held.

Most of the buildings would be built on the former Aud site, which opened in 1940. That includes seven buildings around the historically aligned canal that opened in 2014 and is used for ice skating in the winter.

Traditional materials such as brick, stone and reinforced concrete would be used, but the plan also shows modern-looking buildings. The buildings would have commercial spaces on the first level and residences above.

"We put the materials together in ways that are not only historically resonant, but humanely resonant," Tielman said.

He said smaller buildings, and smaller spaces within them, make it possible to have lower rents that can attract smaller retailers.

The plan seeks to create "interesting, enclosed spaces connected by interesting paths," Tielman said.

There would be no cars in view, although Tielman said 12,000 parking spaces are nearby, and the space could also have underground parking, which the waterfront agency calls for in its long-term plans.

"There are elements that attract people to a space, and it goes to things like scale, materials and what's actually there," said Tielman, who has a business card that reads: "Take space, attract people, stir."

His organization sent out a recent mailing under the title "We Preserve Wonderment."

"You want to create environments that create sparks by their own, and aren't dependent on special, subsidized events."

Bill Tuyn, who co-chaired the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Buffalo in 2014 and is president of the New York State Builders' Association, hasn't seen the plan, but he said he appreciated the philosophy.

"These are the kind of principles we would want to see downtown," Tuyn said. "To create a neighborhood where people can literally work, live and play is what's necessary to create a vibrant neighborhood."

Robert Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning, said he looked forward to seeing the plan.

"Every time Tim takes something to a point of proposal, it's worth looking at," Shibley said. "He's got a creative mind and does really good historical work, and that mix is really important to listen to."

But Shibley said such a plan would raise questions, from collaboration to who would actually develop such a proposal. He also wondered whether an economic feasibility study would be needed to determine its practicality, and if what was being called for was the best use of the properties.

Tielman said he chose the development sites away from the Skyway because he thought they would have the most appeal. He said the development on the Inner Harbor is justified only if the Outer Harbor remains open space, insisting the two sides of the Buffalo River must be seen as complementary parts of a single whole.

"We have 2.5 miles of the Outer Harbor — the grand park and open space is there. You cannot separate them," Tielman said. "It's also why we have urged a maximum of five minutes to wait for the ferry.

"At the end of the day, we do need economic development, and all of the master plans have shown this as development space," he said. "The neighborhood will be a strong centering component for revitalizing the city."

This would be a view from Main Street looking west. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes new construction featuring ground- and water-level commercial space with two- to three-story apartments. (Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture)

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