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Canal Side Approved by ECHDC Board

By Mark Sommer

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s board voted unanimously to adopt the project plan and completed environmental review process. That leaves only the Empire State Development Corp., its parent, to do the same at its March 25 board meeting.

When that happens, as expected, requests for bids can go out, and in the near future, the development agency will know whether Bass Pro, the long-proposed anchor tenant, and Benderson Development, designated as the master developer in a predevelopment agreement, will be part of the project.

“We are now ready to go forward and build Canal Side, which, hopefully a couple of years from now, will be the first phase of the ‘re-renaissance’ of the waterfront of Buffalo that’s waited more than 50 years to have something happen,” said Jordan A. Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor’s board. “I think, in general, people are going to be really pleased with the outcome.”

Final approval will allow construction of the mix of public, retail and entertainment space to start in late summer or early fall. It will begin with public infrastructure, including the proposed Canal Side Hall, and underground parking for Bass Pro, said Thomas P. Dee, president of the development corporation.

“One year from today, you’ll see construction fences with hundreds of employed construction people inside those fences. That will really lighten the heart of people to see construction workers operating in a major project like this,” Dee said.

“Two years from now, [people] will be having a bite to eat and celebrating what a great place it is, and what a great success it is.”

The development corporation also will be able to negotiate with the city to purchase several tracts of land, notably the 12 acres that constitute Erie Canal Harbor.

Levy said the development corporation will continue to hold discussions with three groups that have voiced dissatisfaction with the project.

The Marine Drive Residents Council has expressed reservations about a parking ramp by the complex. The Coalition for Economic Justice has pushed for binding agreements on sustainability and living wage jobs. And Campaign for Greater Buffalo has been critical of design guidelines and what it estimates to be more than $90 million in direct and indirect subsidies for Bass Pro.

Daniel Sack, a member of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, told the board he was critical of the board’s approval of a provision that allows overriding local zoning regulations.

“The design guidelines are written in such a way that, really, anything is allowed to happen,” Sack warned.

Levy downplayed the change, saying it was Empire State Development’s policy to do so for all of its projects in the state.

“Does that mean we do not listen to and adhere to local standards? We think we’ll exceed them,” Levy said.

Levy also said Canal Side architect Stanton Eckstut is looking into whether modifications can be made to the ramp design to resolve some issues raised by Marine Drive tenants.

Dee said the development corporation could go along with the Coalition for Economic Justice’s proposed Community Benefits Agreement with one exception—a provision to pay a living wage at businesses with more than 20 employees.

“The living wage won’t be paid by retailers; no retailer pays that. I don’t think it’s a stumbling block, because it’s a nonstarter,” Dee said.

The Common Council is expected to vote on the resolution Tuesday.

On another matter, the board voted to accept a final report that narrows to two the number of sites in which to build a lift bridge to connect downtown with the outer harbor. One choice is at the foot of Main Street, the other at Erie Street.

The development corporation’s bid for stimulus money to build the bridge, however, recently was turned down by the U. S. Transportation Department, so for now, the yet-to-be-determined bridge design lacks a funding source.

Buffalo News, March 13, 2010

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