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Buffalo's HARBORCenter... Full Speed Ahead!

Work begins on Canalside’s game changer

This is not the way things are supposed to happen. This is Buffalo, after all.

So how is it that only eight short months after first putting forth proposals to redevelop the long vacant Webster Block in front of the First Niagara Center, the Buffalo Sabres, as designated developer, managed to get the approvals and officially begin work on the $172 million HARBORCenter?

This will be a mixed-use facility which, when completed, will feature two full-size skating rinks, one with a capacity for 2,000 spectators, a 200-room hotel, a sports bar and restaurant, additional retail space fronting Main Street, and parking for almost 900 vehicles.

This past week the City of Buffalo officially transferred title to the key piece of property to the Sabres. Mayor Byron Brown personally attended a title transfer ceremony at the arena, with HARBORCenter CEO Cliff Benson signing the deed. The city received $2.2 million for the property, with the funds being simultaneously wire-transferred to the city’s coffers.

As the title was transferred, dozens of workers were already onsite across the street on the block. The portion of Main Street between Scott and Perry streets has been closed to traffic, fencing surrounds the property, heavy equipment was ready to go, and construction crews were busy laying trenches for utility relocation, the first step in excavating the property. “By April visitors down here will be seeing cranes in the air and a full array of construction underway. It will be something to see,” said Michael Gilbert, the Sabres’ vice president for public relations.

Observers of the glacial pace of development at Canalside and Buffalo’s Inner Harbor had to be rubbing their eyes in disbelief as it became apparent that this project was actually going to happen. No nuisance lawsuits. Just a few scattered blog and social network posts complaining about the cladding and fenestration. A last-minute alternative proposal put forth by a local preservation activist, depicting open air ice sheets atop the arena’s ramp and a set of townhouse style structures straddling Main Street, was almost universally derided and dismissed.

“We moved quickly and expeditiously. Our timetable is an aggressive one as we expect to open the facility on time by September 1, 2014, with the hotel portion of the building coming online a few months later,” said Benson. “We acted in a totally transparent manner. We presented over 40 design charettes for public comment, and had about 10 public presentations to solicit input. We took public input into consideration as part of the final design.”

Much of the criticism of the project has to do with the bridging of the structure over Perry Street. The pavilion of the arena will be connected to the HARBORCenter via a mammoth pedestrian concourse, and up top, a portion of one of the two hockey rinks will also straddle across the street right of way. Benson promised that the street level experience will still be a pedestrian friendly one. “The use of that area was essential to the project, as the footprint of the Webster Block is very tight and we needed every inch of that space. Additionally, the building will extend out somewhat onto Washington Street, eliminating all onstreet parking along that stretch of road. The entire building will be built right out to the street. Our architects are top specialists when it comes to this sort of thing. The city vibe aspect of HARBORCenter, including a positive urban pedestrian experience, will be apparent, even as it is going up.”

The Sabres anticipate more than 500,000 visitors annually to the facility, stating that their studies have shown that there is abundant demand for ice time in this region. “As we speak, right at this moment, there are probably 3,000 people at the Northtowns Center [the hockey facility in Amherst near UB],” said Gilbert. “We have signed on the Regals, and we are already receiving inquiries from other teams and tournament sponsors who want to book the facility. We expect that the building will be in constant use all year round, and that will generate traffic and excitement for this area of downtown on a regular basis.”

Additionally, it can be concluded that the addition of HARBORCenter as a direct appendage of the arena itself will make it easier for Buffalo to land the return of such events as the NCAA Frozen Four, the IIHF World Juniors, and the NHL ALL Star Game, which last took place here in Buffalo in 1978, when it was a far smaller event.

Benson revealed some of the details of the tenants who will make their home at HARBORCenter, while remaining tight-lipped about other aspects of the retail mix. He said that they are in negotiations with a nationally recognized hotel chain to claim the property’s flag, but declined to reveal who that might be, even after repeated questioning. “We’re not ready to announce that yet, but when you hear the name you will be pleased,” said Benson.

Benson also affirmed that the hotel is a definite go for the project, rather than being envisioned as a possible “phase two” of the structure, and will open just months after the main part of the facility. The 15-story hotel tower will anchor the north portion, along Scott Street and Main Street.

Also facing Scott Street will be an 11,000 square-foott sports bar and restaurant. “This will not be your ordinary sports bar with jerseys tacked onto the walls, although there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you,” said Benson. “We’re looking at doing something world-class.”

Both Benson and Gilbert stated that the design team and Sabres representatives have made four visits to Real Sports Bar and Grill up in Toronto, which is operated by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Located directly across the street from the newly rebuilt main entrance and façade of the Air Canada Centre, Real Sports Bar and Grill is a dynamic sports bistro featuring a 39-foot HD screen as its centerpiece, amid high-tech LED boards and sports memorabilia in abundance. ESPN voted it the best sports bar in North America. “We are looking at that as the design template. It will be another cool addition to Canalside for visitors to experience, and not just on hockey game nights,” said Benson.

The rest of the retail frontage along Main Street will add an additional 8,000 square feet of space. Benson admitted that not much thought has been devoted yet as to the retailers that will eventually occupy those shops. When asked about the rumor that a planned oversized Tim Horton’s coffee and bake shop was in the works, combined with a museum or dedicated memorabilia space to honor the late hockey legend, Benson neither confirmed or denied the report, but called it “an intriguing idea.”

Visitors to Canalside this summer can experience the rebirth of Buffalo’s Inner Harbor by simply standing at Main and Scott Streets and doing a quick 360. In almost every direction, the entire scene is one huge construction zone. The old Aud property is seeing the second year of work to put in place a replica canal following the path of the old Erie Canal. Three bowstring bridges, similar to the one in place over the Commercial Slip, will be installed this summer. That project is expected to be finished in time for the skating season next winter.

Across the street, the old Donovan Building, now renamed One Canalside, is starting to take shape, with local law firm Phillips Lytle to take the upper portion of the building, and a new Courtyard by Marriott Hotel the lower floors, with space for two restaurants on the main floor. North of One Canalside and abutting the Amtrak right of way, space has been excavated for what will be a two story parking structure to serve the building. And directly south, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has announced that work will begin soon on the “East Canal,” a large public space with water features and a parklike setting, which will serve One Canalside and a future development parcel directly south and abutting Scott Street.

Were the Sabres disappointed by the displeasure expressed by a tiny yet vocal group of activists? “One of the most amazing comments made to me at the Common Council hearing in February was, ‘That block has been a parking lot for 40 years. What’s the rush?’” said Gilbert. Benson added, “You’ll always have naysayers when it comes to a project of this magnitude. But I believe that once people see what we put up there, everyone will be happy. It will be tremendous.”

As for future development plans by the Sabres, Benson replied, “Terry Pegula is putting $172 million on the table for the success of the Inner Harbor. Now it’s time for the rest of the investment community to step up. Right across the street [on Main Street] are a number of development parcels waiting for ideas and capital and investment. We will be glad to welcome our new neighbors, and hope that HARBORCenter is the catalyst that made them commit to the Inner Harbor.”

HARBORCenter: 09.01.14. Game on.

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