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How Canalside, once a wasteland, became Buffalo's pride

Explore Buffalo’s Canalside tour assembles at the entrance of the Courtyard Marriott, launching from an alcove that – 10 years ago – was still the shell of the abandoned Donovan Block.

It winds past the construction crews on Main Street – “Lots going on here,” guide Ron Eaton calls over the hum – and around the Explore & More Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum, which opened at Canalside just last month.

Eaton’s group this muggy Wednesday, a dozen people in all, jostles to avoid the kids running up the boardwalk and the signs hawking boat tours and bike rentals. None of this, Eaton reminds them, was here even 15 years ago. Where Adirondack chairs and sidewalk cafés now sit were weedy parking lots and mounds of gravel.

But Buffalo’s waterfront, centered on Canalside, is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. That revival will come into particularly sharp focus this week as the waterfront welcomes an anticipated 100,000 people as part of its “Basil Port of Call: Buffalo” celebrations.

More than 1.5 million people already visit Canalside and its adjacent attractions each year, according to the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation. And that’s expected to grow not only with marquee events like Basil Port of Call, and smaller enterprises like Eaton’s, but through a slew of planned developments that will move Canalside even further from the dreary “Inner Harbor” of a decade ago.

“Canalside has been transformational for the city, for the waterfront and, frankly, for the psychology of people who lived here for years believing nothing would ever happen,” said Steve Ranalli, the president of ECHDC, which oversees the waterfront.

“It’s really amazing, especially if you have friends or relatives who used to live in Buffalo and haven’t been back in 10 or 15 years,” echoed Eaton. “I love giving tours here. It’s heartwarming, to be honest.”

“Heartwarming” is not, Eaton admits, a word he would have used for the Inner Harbor when he first moved to the neighborhood in 1988. Though he and his wife lived a short walk away, in a development behind the Marine Drive Apartments, they never ventured south of the Erie Basin Marina because they found it too “desolate,” Eaton said.

Once a thriving business district centered on the Erie Canal, the Inner Harbor – and the rest of Buffalo’s waterfront – suffered decades of industrial pollution and commercial disinvestment throughout the 20th century. By the 1950s, both the canal and the district’s historic buildings had largely disappeared. In their place sprawled a patchwork of parking lots, aging office towers and unmowed fields.

A visitor approaching Buffalo’s Inner Harbor in the ’90s, said Ranalli, would see little besides the crumbling Memorial Auditorium and the hulking silhouettes of the navy vessels that had blocked views of the river since the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park opened. Performing at the HSBC Arena in 2004, entertainer Bette Midler drew applause – and muted aggravation – with a pointed jab at the lack of progress. “I haven’t been here since 1978 – I love what you’ve done to the waterfront,” she said.

But change was coming – if gradually, acknowledged John Montague, a co-founder of the Buffalo Maritime Center.

“It’s been a long journey, and it’s taken a lot of patience,” Montague said.

The same year Midler made her infamous crack, the city and a slew of partner agencies released a court-ordered master plan for the waterfront’s redevelopment, following a successful lawsuit by local preservationists seeking to protect the ruins of the Erie Canal. Shortly after, Empire State Development inked a now-infamous agreement with Bass Pro Shops that would make the big-box outdoor store the “anchor tenant” of the planned Inner Harbor development.

Even as politicians and pundits debated the Bass Pro question, waterfront officials moved forward with a plan to reactivate the Inner Harbor in a series of small, phased stages: first the boardwalk and re-watered Erie Canal, in 2008; later the banners, the Adirondack chairs and the veritable buffet of summer programming.

By the time waterfront mainstay Liberty Hound opened in 2012, Bass Pro had officially withdrawn from the project – and Canalside was firmly on the upswing, said co-owner Jason Davidson.

“We thought it would be a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what could be Buffalo’s next chapter,” Davidson said.

“It was pretty much just the Spirit of Buffalo, the Liberty Hound and the kayaks. That was pretty much it,” he added. “But people came down in droves, they were excited.”

Since then, at least a dozen other businesses have relocated or expanded at the waterfront. Two years after Liberty Hound opened, in 2014, both One Canalside and Harborcenter wrapped up construction of their own, eventually bringing two hotels, five restaurants, a hockey complex and new office space to the Inner Harbor. Simultaneously, Canalside has become a hub for outdoor concerts, fitness classes and other events, drawing tens of thousands of people downtown each summer.

This weekend's tall ship event marks a new milestone, however. If organizers' predictions are correct, it may prove Canalside's largest crowd yet.

“It is not coincidental. It is cause and effect,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, referring to the private sector investment that followed public efforts on the waterfront.

“I think not enough attention is given to the deep and pervasive cynicism that ran through Buffalo for 50 years about waterfront development,” Higgins added. “People had been promised waterfront development and nothing happened.”

Strolling along the boardwalk on Wednesday, Eaton’s tour group is far from cynical. The crowd of families and couples hails mostly from Western New York, and they buzz and murmur whenever Eaton points out planned sites for future growth.

There’s the patch of grass on the east edge of the canal, for instance, where developer Nick Sinatra expects to break ground on two mixed-used buildings this fall.

A fenced lot across from The Buffalo News is the planned site of a five-story building by Benderson Development.

Plans are underway, too, for the crater of the North Aud Block. Judges will ponder the fate of the Skyway in September. And the boardwalk will soon get both a historic carousel and a long-awaited wood-frame building to house the construction of a packet boat replica.

“It’s very, very encouraging,” said Patty O’Brien, a Buffalo resident who took the tour with her two sisters. “To see what this has become, when it was previously nothing – I love it here.”

– News staff reporter Steve Watson contributed to this report.

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