Declaring Canalside to be at a "tipping point," waterfront officials approved a contract Monday to construct historically aligned canals, keeping the project on schedule for completion late this year.
Looking beyond that, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. members approved a cultural master plan packed with ideas and recommendations for bringing year-round, family-friendly attractions to the waterfront.
The board also approved seeking a company to develop a master plan and capital campaign feasibility study for a "Buffalo Story Center," conceived as a visitor centerpiece at Canalside with imaginative informational and interactive displays.
A request will also go out for an operator of a children's "experience" museum with a solar-powered carousel, planned for 2014 or 2015. A "Buffalo Fed America" theme for a future public market got a green light, too.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Mayor Byron W. Brown; and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz were in attendance as the board approved a $23.7 million contract with DiPizio Construction Co. of Cheektowaga to build the replica canals at the former Memorial Auditorium site.
A second phase bringing the canals east to Washington Street will be bid later this year.
"On one block you have the Aud block, where you have $23 million in construction. On the other corner, the Donovan block, there will be $30 million in private investment [from Benderson Development Co.]," said Thomas P. Dee, the waterfront agency's president.
"You put those together, and that's the tipping point. We are moving forward in a very positive way."
The project is one of seven the waterfront agency has in either a design or construction phase. Others include the permanent extension of the Central Wharf, building of the Liberty Hound restaurant inside the naval museum, developing a parcel on the outer harbor and bringing cars to the lower end of Main Street.
A request for proposals has also been issued for a major art installation at Canalside and for summer programming.
"The last three years have been a period of incredible progress," Higgins said. "The next two years are going to be even better, which will transform the waterfront to a vision of public places and parks that will make the waterfront not only more attractive, but more attractive to private-sector investment as well."
Jordan Levy, the waterfront agency's chairman, said the day's votes marked another milestone.
"This creates permanent construction, permanent activity we believe will become a catalyst for private-sector investment in Canalside, and that is what our job is," Levy said.
"We've had a few meetings with the entire real estate development community of Western New York," he said.
The message, Levy said, was, " 'Bring us your deals, and let's see what we can do.' "
Levy also said Project for Public Spaces, whose concept of "lighter, quicker, cheaper" helped spur waterfront activity last summer, continues to serve as a consultant, and more than 100 volunteers remain engaged.
Two consultants, Lord Cultural Resources and Ralph Appelbaum Associates, prepared the 115-page cultural plan for Canalside. The process involved the public, with the report exploring hundreds of ideas while delving into market demographics and other arts institutions to gauge future success.
Maureen Hurley, who has led the cultural steering committee, said the choice for a children's museum was clear. "It has mass-market appeal on a year-round basis; would draw children, families and grandparents; and has demonstrated, high-repeat visitors."
The agency will pay $5 million to construct the "core and shell" of the future museum.
Levy, Brown and Higgins suggested that some of the $1 billion Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said will come to Western New York to improve the economy could go toward Canalside.
"This is the single biggest thing that has happened to this region in 50 years, and it's an opportunity for the community to take the challenge," Levy said.