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Buffalo's Waterfront Shuffle
City makes a comeback as a destination with planned rebuilding of the Erie Canal.
Concept rendering of Buffalo's planned Erie Canal redevelopment.
Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman Company

Buffalo’s historic inner harbor waterfront has changed radically over the past century. The terminus of the legendary Erie Canal was buried, the site filled in, and the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium built on top. A soaring 75-foot tall highway sliced the city off from the water. Now, Buffalo is poised to remake its waterfront with newly approved plans to restore the canal to a 12-acre, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood.

In 2005, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) was formed to jumpstart multiple developments on the waterfront. Preliminary ground work began on the site bounded by Main Street, Marine Drive, Pearl Street, and Lower Terrace following the demolition of the auditorium in 2008. After a series of public events and workshops, the ECHDC approved plans on April 12 to restore the original street grid and canal alignment with construction of the canal ready to begin this fall. “We’ve done so much work already,” said Erich Weyant, communications director for the ECHDC. “The block is stabilized and shovel ready.”

Erie Canal redevelopment in Buffalo.

Initial phases of the Erie Canal redevelopment include the canal and street infrastructure.

“The canal project is part of a trend of reclaiming waterfronts across the country,” said Hilary Bertsch of EE&K, a Perkins Eastman company, who is overseeing the design. “We’re pulling the waterfront into the city and celebrating the canal.”

Situated on a complex, layered site with fifteen feet of grade change, plans call for the canal’s original layout to be restored as a two-foot-deep pool above the massive, buried sewer. The new canal ranges in width from 60- to 100-feet and will be spanned by a series of pedestrian bridges. In fair weather, small boats will have access to the water and a large ice-skating rink will be set up in the winter.

Once the canal infrastructure is complete at the end of 2012, future phases will rebuild the street grid and build up the surrounding land. These cobbled streets will form the framework for a mix of public and private development including a market, hotel, retail space, a visitors center, and a transit hub, although the development concept is still evolving.

Renderings show a dense mix of traditional styles that echo the architecture of the lost mid-19th century neighborhood. “We’re still looking at this as an early concept,” said Bertsch. “Paying tribute to the site’s history is important, but we can’t lose sight of today’s realities.” While the canal design is complete, the architecture that surrounds it is evolving and could offer a more modern aesthetic.

Funding for the project’s infrastructure is already in place, said Bertsch. “We’re hoping this is going to roll right along and not sit long between phases. Buffalo started with a boom—with the Erie Canal and Olmsted parkways. If we rebuild the infrastructure, development will come.”

Branden Klayko