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Editorial: Waterfront has undergone a remarkable evolution

It’s already an astonishing story to Western New Yorkers of a certain vintage. As planners talk about the transformation coming to Canalside in the next three years, many people marvel that there even is a place called Canalside or that Buffalo’s long-neglected and mistreated waterfront has become the thriving place that it already is.

Nevertheless, more is on the way, and it all looks intriguing. The acreage that only few years ago was literally wasted land, and that is now enthusiastically attended – and sometimes besieged – by locals and visitors alike, will soon be home to a children’s museum, a historic carousel and other public spaces. A restaurant seems likely along Scott Street as does housing on part of a 2-acre parcel north of the canal, between Pearl and Main streets.

Welcome to the new Buffalo.

It’s a far cry from the long and ultimately fruitless effort to put a Bass Pro outdoor store on the waterfront. The idea, which the store owners never seemed to warm to, was to locate the big box store there and hope it would act like an anchor store in a traditional mall, drawing smaller shops seeking to benefit from, and amplify, the expected crowds.

It didn’t happen, and just as well. Adopting the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach, instead, has produced a place of genuine charm – a spot where people want to come for public art, relaxation, winter skating and big-name concerts, among other attractions. Now it’s about to ramp up, though still with the lighter-quicker-cheaper mantra prominently in mind.

For example, construction leading to installation of a vintage carousel is scheduled to begin next summer at a spot along the Buffalo River toward KeyBank Center. The rare 1924 menagerie carousel was custom designed in North Tonawanda, but has been in storage in Mansfield, Ohio, for more than 60 years.

Last fall, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a $1.2 million challenge grant to construct a home for the carousel. Plans now are to build the structure next year and to run the carousel on solar power. In addition, because the carousel’s expected location has been changed within Canalside, the enormously popular summer Thursday concert series will not be moved.

The carousel is expected to become the heart of Canalside, but it’s not the only high-profile project on the drawing board. After a false start, a children’s museum is already under construction north of Marine Drive and along the faux canal. The Explore & More Children’s Museum, now in a much smaller space in East Aurora, will open at Canalside in early 2019, if all goes as planned.

And more is in the works: The Pavilion will be a historically themed structure with programming space, restrooms and a covered observation deck overlooking the river. The four-story Union Block will offer space for public and private gatherings, an information booth, interpretive displays and seasonal programming. A project by Benderson Development, across Scott Street from HarborCenter, is on the drawing board for a 2019 start, and is expected to include apartments, office space and possibly a restaurant.

This all began, it is worth remembering, because of the determination of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, to wrest money from the New York Power Authority as part of the 2007 relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. That’s what has fueled the development of Canalside.

And Higgins remains committed. To members of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., he may be an unwanted burr under the saddle. While Higgins and the ECHDC sometimes express frustration with each other, they have accomplished much, and they deserve the thanks of the community for doing the necessary work of rescuing Buffalo’s pleasing waterfront from decades of decay.

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