The days of Canalside concerts are over.
A new era of live music on the waterfront will emerge from the Outer Harbor, following an 8-1 vote Tuesday in the Common Council approving a pavilion that will also be used for special events.
"This is going to be a small-scale but world-class facility that, I think, will showcase Buffalo and our location on Lake Erie in a way that we have not been able to do so far," said Steven Ranalli, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
The canopied stage will front the former Terminal B building, which will be reduced to its metal frame to create an open-air structure with Lake Erie in the background. Groundbreaking is expected this fall, and it could open in summer 2023.
Concerts have been held sporadically for more than two decades in an area farther north on the Outer Harbor, but the pavilion will be the first permanent stage. It will have electrical and water service, but theatrical lighting and sound will need to be supplied by traveling acts.
Ranalli expects about five concerts a summer with crowds of 5,000 to 8,000 people. The site will also host cultural festivals, charity walks and other events.
The pavilion has been referred to as an amphitheater, but it will lack the bells and whistles typically associated with one. An amphitheater "generally conveys a much larger facility than we're building," Ranalli said.
"People may think of Darien Lake or Artpark, which to me are giant stages with permanent seating down on the floor and canopies over the crowd," Ranalli said. "I don't want anyone to misunderstand: That is not what we're building."
The waterfront agency, with public input, decided years ago to keep large-scale events on a 10-acre site at the developed southern end of the Outer Harbor, where the vacant Terminal A and Terminal B buildings are located beside a 1,000-space parking lot.
"We do think placing them at Terminal B will have less impact on the most people," Ranalli said. "There will still be miles of trails and literally hundreds of other acres of waterfront that remain open during large-scale events at the Outer Harbor."
The 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor is one of several organizations opposed to concerts and other large events on the Outer Harbor.
"We thought having concerts at the Inner Harbor, where all the really busy activity was occurring, was a good idea," said Joanne Kahn, a founding board member. "We were hoping the Outer Harbor would be able to remain more pastoral."
Some cottonwood trees and invasive species will be removed to create the site.
Kahn said the group is concerned about trash, trampled habitats and disturbed wildlife.
"We envisioned some activity around the terminals, but we never envisioned concerts for 8,000 people and their cars," Kahn said. "It's really disappointing, and it's not what the public really asked for in all of the planning meetings."
Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve are concerned about the impact of events on the migratory birds and waterfowl that visit the site at the northern end of the Outer Harbor.
Another group, Our Outer Harbor Coalition, also opposes development and large-scale events there and has called for the land to be turned into a state park.
Concern over access
Plans call for the area in front of the pavilion to be a pervious asphalt surface for events needing setups on a level surface. A dark green patch just behind it, shaped like a baseball diamond, will be made of artificial turf for anticipated heavy use from larger crowds.
A slightly sloped lawn, landscaped around the edges, is where most people will sit on the ground or on blankets.
Two shipping container-like structures – one housing mechanicals, the other for restrooms and an office that will double as a green room for performers – will be near the stage. Public restrooms will be added behind the lawn, by the bike park.
Ranalli said there could be concerts at the Outer Harbor later this summer, possibly as drive-in events, but nothing is planned at the present time.
The lack of public access to the Outer Harbor for people without cars remains an issue, Ranalli said. He hopes over time to increase the frequency of the bike ferry, which travels between Canalside and the Outer Harbor, and to possibly add a shuttle.
It's a challenge Ranalli is still grappling with.
"The reality is it will affect some events," he said.
The Canalside concerts, he said, revealed the "overwhelming majority" of people came by car, either their own or using a drop-off service.
There are approximately 1,000 parking spaces by Terminal A, where potholes were recently filled in and stripes painted. Another 1,000 spaces are located at the site of the former Pier restaurant, and 750 parking spaces are along Fuhrmann Boulevard.
Long-term plans call for restoring the Pier site to a natural meadow, which would take away those spaces.
Concerts on the move
The decision to end concerts at Canalside shouldn't come as a surprise.
The Common Council in 2015 passed a unanimous, nonbinding resolution, citing the desire of nearby Marine Drive residents to relocate the concerts.
Complaints of excessive drinking and rowdiness also fueled the idea of moving the concerts to another site.
Concerts began at Canalside 10 years ago to help bring activity to the site. Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.'s long-term plan calls for creating a mixed-use residential neighborhood, now underway, along with family-friendly attractions like the children's museum and carousel.
At the same time, the agency built walking and bike paths, as well as a bike park and the Wilkeson Pointe destination on the Outer Harbor.
On the drawing board are trails and a comfort station in an area filled with cottonwood trees just north of the Bell Slip, along with improved parking. A multiyear project was recently approved to restore fish habitat at Slip No. 3.
The concert series at Canalside was a continuation of summer music programming that had its start on July 2, 1987, with Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps performing in a parking lot at Chippewa and Main streets, where Fountain Plaza is now.
Lafayette Square became the home base the following year for Thursdays at the Square. Local acts often opened for national headliners in a compressed space shared by thousands, with Metro Rail cars moving along the tracks behind the stage.
Leon Russell, Pat Benatar, the Lowest of the Low, George Clinton and Jakob Dylan were among the acts that performed there.
The concert series moved to Canalside in the latter part of summer 2011. In 2017, Canalside Live! introduced an admission fee and VIP ticketing. In 2019, in what turned out to be the last year of the series, programming ceased being weekly or primarily on Thursdays.
Among the performers to play there were Alice Cooper, Nas, Elvis Costello, Vanilla Ice, Salt-N-Pepa and Public Enemy.
The concert season was canceled in 2020 due to Covid-19.
Past performers at the Outer Harbor include Jefferson Starship, Vanilla Fudge, the Black Keys, Tragically Hip and Vampire Weekend.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.