Buffalo’s Return to 19th-Century Vitality

Since 2008, president Thomas P. Dee has helped Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. bring the Queen City’s waterfront back to life through a series of projects recognizing and adding to the town’s rich heritage as the largest inland port in the United States

In 1850, Buffalo, New York, was a vibrant waterfront metropolis bustling with commercial activity. At the epicenter was the Erie Canal Harbor and the surrounding canal district neighborhood, home to residents and visitors buzzing through hotels, saloons, factories, stores, and other businesses. Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. (ECHDC) president Thomas P. Dee describes the canal as “the Internet of its time, carrying people and goods and significant information.” But, following a boom in the railroad and automobile industries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, transportation along the canal slowed, and economic growth came to a standstill.

Over time, though sited on one of the Great Lakes, which make up 84 percent of North America’s fresh water, Buffalo became burdened by the label of “snow capital of the world,” and it was typecast as an aging rustbelt town. By 2004, its waterfront was flanked by abandoned buildings and vacant city blocks. “I live one mile from the water, and although I’m a runner and a cyclist, I never went to that area,” Dee says. “It wasn’t worth it to fight through the debris and garbage, and there wasn’t public access.”

ECHDC was founded as a state agency in 2005 with one specific mission: to redevelop Buffalo’s struggling waterfront. Dee took the helm in 2009, and though the site was, at that point, still overridden with blight, he saw great potential and opportunities for growth in its natural beauty and historical significance.

Come wintertime, the newly reopened canals along Buffalo, NY’s waterfront should freeze enough to allow ice skating under bridges and past downtown buildings.
Come wintertime, the newly reopened canals along Buffalo, NY’s waterfront should freeze enough to allow ice skating under bridges and past downtown buildings.

ECHDC’s team of seven hosted community forums and forged a strong vision to guide its redevelopment efforts. It established commitments to develop diverse uses for the waterfront, preserve the culture and story of Buffalo, and create a design for four seasons that would increase public access, and it eventually transformed the site into a lively, active district. “People stop me on the street to say they never thought they’d see this type of vibrancy in their lifetime and they now feel like tourists in their own town,” Dee says.

To date, the $300 million revitalization of Buffalo’s waterfront has drawn more than one million people to more than 1,000 events in the area. Locals and tourists alike enjoy walks along the water, and there are activities available for people of all ages. Currently, for example, tourists can enjoy shopping, skating, and indoor attractions at the newly built Harbor Center, and this coming winter, area ice skaters will be able to glide along newly built canals.

Buffalo is shirking its former image as a cold, aging rustbelt city and replacing it with great education and innovative technology—or, as Dee likes to say, “eds and meds.” The city now boasts the Buffalo Medical Campus, which will create 5,000 new jobs over the next five years, and many of its other acclaimed universities and institutions of higher learning sit near the waterfront. “We have the tools to create jobs, advance manufacturing, and support a city on the rise,” Dee says. “We’re ready to embrace our roots and become a world-class destination with world-class customer service.”

Buffalo’s waterfront has something for everybody, from tourists looking for a new adventure to residents seeking relaxation after work. As a city embracing its history and identity, Buffalo is proving its readiness to put forward a vision of renewed prosperity.   

Canalside

20140722_Canalside_aerial_021
(Photo: Joe Cascio)

Once the western terminus of the Erie Canal, the Erie Canal Harbor today is a rich site of development and activity. Spanning more than 23 acres of Buffalo’s inner harbor, Canalside features historically reconstructed canals, naval and military artifacts, cobblestone streets, green parks along the water’s edge, and myriad public, commercial, and residential buildings. The harbor itself can accommodate up to 100 vessels, and it has kayakers, a sailing school, and historical boat tours.

The area has hosted more than one million visitors attending more than 1,000 events, and anchoring its northeast end is One Canalside—once known as the 160,000-square-foot Donovan State Office Building before it was renovated for $30 million. It now houses a Marriott hotel, a law firm, and a café bistro.

Canalside Waterfront Project in Buffalo
(Photo: Darren McGee)

Commercial Slip

Once a historic juncture between the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, Buffalo’s Commercial Slip was buried by New York highway projects in the 1950s but later dug up in recognition of Buffalo’s history as the largest inland port in the United States. ECHDC’s first major project was the slip’s redevelopment, and the site opened to the public in 2008 with an award-winning wooden-planked bowstring bridge.

Outer Harbor  

Preferred_PlanFollowing the tremendous success of the Canalside development, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his vision to transform the largely vacant Outer Harbor to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. in 2013. The 400 acres of waterfront are currently being developed for mixed use, with plans to develop a boat marina, walking and bike paths, and a new amphitheater. Visitors will enjoy strolling through an urban park with shade trees and sitting alongside a stream and pond. The Outer Harbor is also home to Buffalo Harbor State Park, the first state park in the city of Buffalo, which will include native vegetation and trees.

Ohio Street Corridor

After sitting idle for decades, 12.5 acres of waterfront space—today known as the Ohio Street Corridor—was revitalized in 2014. The $12 million project transformed Ohio Street into a modern downtown tourist destination linking Buffalo’s inner and outer harbors. Visitors can walk, bike, and run alongside a 1.5-mile tree-lined parkway next to the Buffalo River and Erie Canal harbors, enjoying the city’s natural beauty along the way. The pristinely landscaped path is a major artery and offers the community access to all three of Buffalo’s thriving waterfronts.

Harbor Center

4.HARBORcenterOccupying 1.7 acres formerly known as the Webster Block, the 20-story hockey-themed mixed-use Harbor Center sits on ground that was once just a massive, vacant parking lot. Its grand opening was in November 2014, and it features two NHL-size hockey rinks, restaurants and cafes, a hotel, a parking garage, retail space, and convenient access to Buffalo’s waterfront via light-rail. The $172 million development, paid for by the Buffalo Sabres, is the most expensive privately funded single building in Buffalo’s history.