Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact

Next story: Corporate Capture at Canal Side

The Waterfront: Where We've Been, Where We're Going

An interview with Larry Quinn, vice chairman of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation

After Bass Pro announced last Friday that they were not coming to Buffalo, Artvoice contacted Larry Quinn, one of the prime architects of the waterfront development plan, for his reaction to the news. Quinn had been out of town for more than a week and was reached Sunday night during his seven-hour drive home from Boston.

AV: Have you followed the news the past couple of days?

Quinn: I didn’t read much about it in the Buffalo News other than the thing by Mark Sommer and Esmonde’s column. I read Bruce Fisher’s piece in Artvoice.

AV: There seems to be a difference of opinion between Jordy Levy and Brian Higgins. Jordy insists that we have to have an anchor store and Brian doesn’t agree.

Quinn: Anything that we attempt on the waterfront will need foot traffic to survive and prosper, and not just in warm summer months. We all know from the experience of Shooters and Crawdaddys that without year-round pedestrian traffic these projects have difficulty remaining viable. There may be ways to attract people consistently to businesses that are not “anchors” but we have to be careful that we work on something real that can attract private investment and avoid pipe dreams. The beauty of Bass Pro was that on average they attract two million visitors a year, they are directly related to water activity and draw from outside the region. Bruce Fisher may be the smartest man in the world but he failed to mention [in last week’s AV story] that Bass Pro attracted over 100 million people to their stores last year. On the whole, I favor Jordy’s approach.

One of things we’ve tried to do all along with this plan as we were developing it is constantly market-test it with people that might build, Bass Pro being the most prominent, but others, too.

AV: How did you market-test it? Were local people’s opinions sought or just those of national chains?

Julie O’Neill

Executive director, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper

We want to make sure that any new development projects protect public access to the waterfront and are as water-friendly as possible. We favor local control over the waterfront. And we feel that public waterfront land needs to be protected in the public trust.”

Quinn: Both. I’ll give you one example of many. Last year we hired retail market developer and food consultant Steve Carlin to meet with local restaurateurs, food purveyors, and truck farmers, everybody in the local food industry, to understand the local markets and define the opportunities for local foodies. We engaged consultants to prepare plans for culturals and nonprofits with an eye toward finding ways to leverage local private investment. Benderson helped on the national tenants. They are extremely qualified to do so.

AV: What happens to the $35 million for Bass Pro, and the $14 million the county committed, and the $41 million for parking ramps, and so on? What happens to all that money now?

Quinn: I hope it will still be available for an anchor or other attraction to get people to the site. As for the county, they have committed their $7 million and came up with another $7 million when the city failed to provide their share. It’s ironic that the city hasn’t put a penny into this project and they’re the ones who benefit the most and also complain the most.

AV: What is that $14 million committed for?

Quinn: It’s for infrastructure. Some of it we used to take down the Aud, and a lot for roadwork and utilities—for instance there’s a waterline that’s going to be relocated. I don’t have the exact dollars right now of what’s allocated for what, but there’s a fair amount of infrastructure that’s being paid for.

AV: Is there a contract with Benderson, and if so what is it for?

Quinn: Benderson has a pre-development agreement to develop the Webster and Donovan blocks and some of the smaller parcels in the historic canal section of the project. It will be converted to an actual agreement once other public requirements are satisfied. Benderson can’t sign a definitive lease until we’re done with the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] process. Right now we still are in the EIS process; we still don’t have the land transferred from the city; we’ve got a few lawsuits to deal with; we don’t have the Power Authority money bonded yet. All of these things have to happen. That’s why this whole thing with Bass Pro was a little ridiculous, because if they’d signed a lease there was nothing they could have done; they couldn’t have started the project. There are a number of things that have to take place first. I think they can happen very quickly now, but they’re not done yet.

AV: What happens to all the architectural plans, the parking ramps plans and so forth?

Tucker Curtin

Owner of the Steer, Lake Effect Diner, and Dug’s Dive

The money they were going to give to Bass Pro could be used as a revolving loan fund, where instead of giving all this subsidy to one big project that doesn’t fit the incredible historical significance of the site, you could give million dollar matching loans to a number of smaller projects. You have an idea and bring a million dollars in capital, and you get a million dollar loan to help you realize that idea.

But it’s the site’s historical significance that’s most important. Nothing supersedes that, and everything we do has to do service to that. We can create something extraordinary there if we don’t lose sight of that history. I think it can be done quickly too. I think if we pull together we can be ready for construction season in the spring. It won’t be easy, it will take blood and sweat, but good things always do.

Quinn: There’s a rule of thumb that you have to have five parking spaces for every thousand square feet of developed space. So the parking remains consistent with the project whether Bass Pro is there or not, because there will be something that will replace Bass Pro on the same scale. As for the architecture, that will not change. The public spaces of the canal, market, gardens, and commons, which make up most of the public investment, will proceed.

AV: Supposedly Benderson is making a pitch to 10 other potential tenants.

Quinn: That’s right. Off the top of my head, there’s Cabela’s, which is similar to Bass Pro, maybe IKEA, or some other people generator. Although it will be very difficult to replace Bass Pro, we’ll go forward with or without Bass Pro.

So as of now the north end of the Aud site is available and Benderson may find a retail anchor for it shortly. They’re also going to explore the possibility of something other than a retail anchor, as well.

AV: What about the concept a collection of smaller projects like Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, which gets 20 million visitors a year, or River Walk in San Antonio, which gets more than five million visitors?

Quinn: We’ve have planned 16 or so sites for small business—shops, restaurants, various merchants, what have you—that are all designed to take advantage of the people generated by the anchor. Quite frankly, Bass Pro would have created the best opportunity for small business operators in years. They would have been, and still will be, all local, and locally owned. We planned this well be for the Community Benefit Agreement people got into the act. And it’s a fact largely ignored because it doesn’t fit into their urban warfare mythology. Faneuil, by the way, is now almost all national chain stores.

AV: Would a small entrepreneur joining the project have to occupy a building designed and built by Benderson or would they be able to have their own architect?

Quinn: They would have their own architect for interiors just like any store on Hertel or Elmwood.

AV: The media, and frankly ECHDC too, have publicly focused on Bass Pro. What else is down there?

Quinn: The media, with the exception of Rich Newberg at Channel 4, has been Bass Pro fixated without ever recognizing that it is a much larger environment that will be constructed.

Early in the going, I remember Johnny Morris [Bass Pro CEO] saying very clearly, “Our store won’t revitalize your waterfront, but if you have a dynamic plan for your waterfront we’d like to be a part of it.” From that point on it turned into a waterfront plan. We have canals, a marketplace, hotels, residences, and perhaps some the most exciting public access spaces in the Northeast. And we have funding for all of it thanks to Brian Higgins and Governor Paterson.

We have an opportunity with HSBC to build a major new facility with great paying jobs with a future. These are round-the-clock jobs and not living wage jobs, which is a fancy way of saying a little bit more than minimum wage, but real jobs with a prospect for growth in the new age of banking.

Cynthia Van Ness

Librarian, webmaster, author

I see no reason to disregard the 2004 Master Plan. Restore the original street grid, install appropriate infrastructure (sewers to wifi and everything in between), establish design guidelines that stipulate the heights, proportions, fenestration, and materials of canal-era buildings, zone for mixed-use, parcel out the lots, and let an organic neighborhood emerge.

Oh, and fire the ECHDC board and dismiss Benderson.

AV: You held a press conference on Tuesday about the necessity of the city transferring the land to EHDC so that the HSBC deal could go through. Why doesn’t HSBC buy or lease the land from the city instead of from ECHDC?

Quinn: Because they are buying into the whole project. They don’t want to just purchase a plot of land and find themselves stranded there. We want tenants and they’re willing to do that. We’ll develop the property as part of the overall project and they’ll lease it.

AV: Going back to the subject of an anchor store, in the recent business climate it seems like large national brands are closing more stores than opening them. And Buffalo doesn’t have a stellar history when you look at AM&As, BonTon, Ames, Sample, Cavages, Brand Names. There’s a long list of failed large retailers here.

Quinn: You have no retail downtown, and that’s the point I’m going to make. Let’s roll the clock back to when Geico was coming to town and say you wanted them to be downtown instead of in the suburbs. I would submit to you that Geico being in the suburbs has had little visual impact and has had no impact on the downtown.

So why did Geico go out there? Because there’s no environment in the city that would be remotely attractive to a 24 hour employer. After five o’clock at night you can’t even buy an apple downtown. If you’re going to attract a major employer, or new age employers who have computer programmers and software people, data processing and systems people, which are 24-hour operations, it has to exist in a living, breathing city. Which means that it has to have busy restaurants, it has to have hotels, sports, it has to have that environment that it’s alive. That’s what a city is. Quite honestly, we kid ourselves, because other than some bars on Chippewa Street, we don’t have that. The waterfront is our great opportunity. As I said earlier, we’ve got some major companies who are willing to locate, wanting to locate there because they are buying into the whole concept of this plan.

AV: Do you think any major retailer, if you find one who goes in there with public money incentives, will satisfy the Scot Fishers and the Tim Tielmans of Buffalo? Or are you going to end up in court?

Quinn: Anything that we do won’t satisfy them because they’re never satisfied about anything.

As an aside, I’m curious to know if Scott Fisher and Mark Goldman win their lawsuit, does it mean that Scott Fisher has to give back the $3 million he got for Asbury Church? His position seems unbelievably hypocritical to me.

AV: Why are you so dismissive of opposition from people like Tielman and Mark Goldman? Certainly Tielman’s vociferousness was instrumental in keeping the historic elements of the project, which is a great asset to it.

Quinn: Tim Tielman is a smart guy who could really help make the project great. Unfortunately he lives to disturb and disrupt. For some reason he cannot collaborate. Even the Preservation Coalition had to separate from him.

Louis Grachos

Executive director, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

I still think, four years later after first pursuing the idea, that converting the former DL&W terminal into a cultural building for one or more museums is a great idea. I think the Albright-Knox would still be interested exploring the possibility.

It could be a multi-museum program, and the forthcoming 2010 version of Beyond/In Western New York exhibition is a shining example of how 12 visual arts organizations can work together and create a major project. It is interesting to think how our collaborative could have made good use of a building like the DL&W. Just look at the great success in North Adams, Massachusetts with MASS MoCA, or DIA Beacon in Beacon, New York, the Temporary Contemporary in LA, Tramway in Glasgow, Scotland, etc.

I am not sure the resources set aside for Bass Pro could be rolled into the DL&W, but adding a nice mix of retail/entertainment and cultural experiences is an exciting idea for both tourists and Western New Yorkers.

AV: There was very little support left for the Bass Pro project. It seems that after nine years people were just tired of it.

Quinn: You’re right; I think they were tired of it. But I think it’s also like the old story of someone asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?” If it’s said enough times people think you beat your wife.

Donn Esmonde in particular has been bashing Bass Pro for three years. He has a column in a major newspaper and after three years of steady bashing no one should be shocked if it loses favor among the public. You could do that with just about anything if you put out a steady stream of bashing it. But I agree with you that people are also just fatigued with the whole thing. It’s sad because very few people will ever know what we lost.

AV: Was there a single factor that caused Bass Pro to pull out was it death by a thousand wounds?

Quinn: Bitten to death by ducks is more apt. Quite frankly, I think what the Buffalo News has done and how they’ve covered this project has really hurt the city. Why would anyone ever want to do something in this city know they have to run through that gantlet?

AV: Is if fair to say the Buffalo News was relentlessly trashing the project or would it more accurate to say they were typically schizophrenic? The editorial board was more or less supportive while columnists were negative and business writers were skeptical.

Quinn: I believe it’s the old two-step. Management at the Buffalo News has been opposing development of the crossroads area for 50 years, dating back to when Mrs. Butler owned the paper. I believe [Buffalo News publisher] Stan Lipsey wants nothing to happen that will interfere with his trucks, and that the editorials are a sop to the community so that he can play tennis in peace.

AV: Do you believe other factors in addition to the sour environment created by the media may have caused Bass Pro to withdraw—like the lawsuits and the delays, the economy, or Bass Pro making the Buffalo market soft by opening new stores in close proximity?

Quinn: No, I don’t. They were coming but for the continued attacks by people like Donn Esmonde and Sam Hoyt.

AV: Are prospective replacements going to study why Bass Pro pulled out of the project?

Quinn: Yeah, I think they will. That’s why it’s important for us to build the other parts of the project quickly and change the environment. If the private groups that I believe are going to come into the project commit that will help; and Benderson has some major elements that they are poised to announce; and if the Council transfers the land, which is amazing that that hasn’t been done. Here we are paying the city $7.5 million for land that’s worth $4 million, we tore down the city-owned Aud for them; we’ve funded the entire project. The city hasn’t put a single penny in and [the Common Council is] behaving like “If you don’t do what I want I’ll kill myself.” They need to transfer the land. If all these things happen, and I think they can happen in a month, then I think we can be successful and attract a new private investor to the Bass Pro site.

The other thing, too, is that maybe we look at another form of attraction other than a retail anchor, maybe we build an aquarium or a sports center—build something with the public dollars that is such an attraction that it will make the other elements work.

AV: Are those public dollars going to be offered as incentives to a new prospective anchor?

Quinn: I don’t know, that remains to be seen. We are putting a lot of public elements down there. There’s going to be a canal system; there will be gondola boats in the water; a public market place; there will be a floating stage for performances; there’s going to be light shows. There are going to be places for the Albright-Knox to display their sculpture collection, and more.

Unfortunately, you’ve never read about any of these things because nobody ever wanted to write about it. Instead, they always focused on the Bass Pro store or were always covering or reacting to political opposition faces like Tim Tielman and others.

Scot Fisher

President, Righteous Babe Records

The issue is larger than Bass Pro. I keep thinking, “Anchor tenant, anchor tenant—I’ve heard this term before.” This is a term you use when you’re talking about a mall. Bring in an anchor tenant and then you can bring in smaller stores. They’re just talking about building a mall in the Inner Harbor.

Malls don’t work in urban areas. They just don’t. Do we really want to gamble with this once-in-a-lifetime payout from the Power Authority? I think it’s a bad idea. Let’s have access to the water. But what good does a beach do us if you can’t go in the water because it’s too polluted? So let’s clean up the water, too.

Let’s take a million dollars, two million dollars, and do an international search for the Frederick Law Olmsted of the 21st century and design the preeminent urban park so that the people who live in the City of Buffalo can have access to their waterfront. Let’s have a beach and boat launches, let’s design a beautiful park in the Outer Harbor. And in the Inner Harbor, let’s finish the historic street pattern that was agreed upon almost seven years ago and let’s sell those parcels. If that’s not valuable land, let’s leave it a park. And if it some point some business wants to buy a piece of that land from the City of Buffalo and put up a building, then let’s let them do that. If they don’t want to do it, then let’s have it be available for the concerts we’ve been doing for a couple of years.

Great greenspace has value that translate to adjacent real estate. There’s a real economic impact to having parkland. So let’s make it green and clean, and sell off those parcels.

AV: Media coverage of opposition is reasonably based in part on the accusation that ECHDC is a closed group of powerbrokers who don’t listen to and are not interested in public input into the project.

Quinn: Look, the project started out with the idea of putting Bass Pro in the Aud. Since then, I don’t know how many meetings we’ve had with people but they’ve been going on for a period of five years. We got a lot feedback about the Aud and building the store. Then we proposed putting the store on the water and there was a lot feedback then, so we moved it away from the river. There were presentations made to us by people involved in the Erie Canal and we addressed that and started building the canal system. The project from its beginning has changed so much in a five-year period that I’m just shocked at a statement that we don’t listen to anyone else.

Over a five-year period we’ve had meeting after meeting, reaching out to group after group. We made presentations to boaters, to people in social clubs, to the Women for Downtown; in the EIS process alone there were five public hearings. Public hearings aside, there have been constant meetings with groups. We just had a meeting with culturals this summer. We’ve had meetings to insure there would be public art in the project. We’ve had meetings with different nonprofit organizations.

Are we powerbrokers? ECHDC serves to create an intersection between government and the private sector and we’ve invested thousands of hours of our personal time for the good of the community. Powerbrokers are people who steer public projects to their own benefit. I’d love for someone to show where we’ve done that. I thought I was doing a public service. We’re citizens who care about the community and want it to move forward. I’ll tell you this, after this public flailing I’ll bet you’ll see the private sector really think twice before they involve themselves with this cast of characters again.

AV: Have any of these meetings you mentioned actually affected plans as the project moved along?

Quinn: Absolutely. I’ll give you a perfect example. Peter Dow, chairman of First Hand Learning, submitted “Another Voice” column in the Buffalo News about taking advantage of the cultural heritage of Buffalo and of what that had to offer. That led to a series of meetings with him, which led us to a full discussion with the Buffalo Maritime Center, which led us to hire them as designers for all the barges in the project. So, yes, a lot of these meetings present new ideas and new ways of looking at things on how to develop plans.

AV: There was a great deal of attention given to the recently published Public Accountability Initiative, which was extremely critical of Bass Pro and cited numerous failures and broken promises by the retailer across the country. ECHDC has since created an analysis of the PAI report (read the PAI report here) and followed with its own investigation into the suppositions of the report. Where is that analysis?

Quinn: The Public Accountability report was a classic example of how a political group masks itself with respectability by using an iconic name like the Public Accountability Initiative, issuing a political white paper and passing it off as an unbiased academic paper. The report contained very few direct sources and used blogs as if they were legitimate news sources.

That’s their prerogative. But what’s far worse is that the Buffalo News used this white paper as a source for a series of news reports and columns without checking its authenticity. Our analysis was designed to check the accuracy of the PAI report and its findings. We found it had no credibility, that it used blogs as news sources, distorted facts for its own purposes, and failed to transparently disclose its association with the SEIU, ACORN, and the Hoyt campaign. Donn Esmonde and Mark Sommer rode on that report in their campaign to drive Bass Pro out of town. But it was almost all wrong. (read ECHDC's response to the report here).

AV: But when you first read it did the PAI cause you to question the Canal Side/Bass Pro partnership?

Quinn: It caused us to reexamine it. And in reexamining, it reaffirmed that Bass Pro would be great for the project and shows that it is now a very real loss for the city.

AV: One final question: Immediately following Bass Pro’s announcement Donn Esmonde and a few others called for EHDC board members to leave the board. Is that a possibility?

Quinn: If Donn Esmonde wants me to leave the board I’ll stay on it until hell freezes over.

Both the Public Accountability Initiative’s Report and ECHDC’s response to that report are available an AV Daily. There you’ll also find commentary by Congressman Brian Higgins and Dr. Eddie Friel, visiting professor and expert in residence at Niagara University’s school for hotel and restaurant management.

blog comments powered by Disqus