They are not hulking eyesores. They are concrete canvases.
They are not embarrassing remnants of bygone prosperity. They are stepping stones to our future.
The mantra: Light them, and they will come.
Light them, and people – here, there and everywhere – will look at Buffalo differently.
In the latest leap forward on our downtown waterfront, state officials last week OK’d an idea for a year-round, kinetic light show on a Canalside grain elevator and nearby structures.
The only thing more astounding to me than using the monoliths of the past to illuminate our future is the source of the idea’s approval.
A few years ago, members of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. – the state agency that oversees waterfront development – were fast-tracking civic suicide. Their plan for a big-box retailer for the downtown waterfront would have yoked us to arguably the lowest and worst use of prime property.
Not only have some of the board’s faces since changed, its philosophy has done an about-face.
The canal development agency was clueless and adrift after Bass Pro’s 2010 rejection ended the “magic bullet” pursuit. Thankfully, informed citizens stepped in to fill the vision void. Civic activist Mark Goldman brought in New York City urban planner Fred Kent. His “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” philosophy has largely shaped our post-Bass Pro waterfront. The impact is obvious.
Next to the historic Commercial Slip, excavated after another state versus public battle in the late 1990s, is a lovely waterfront park – site of concerts and daily summer events – along with the commercial buds of a sandwich stand and a sit-down restaurant. Instead of massive subsidies for a big-box retailer, we are cementing the harbor’s historic identity by re-tracing the Erie Canal at the old Aud site. The project uses public dollars the right way – for infrastructure that paves the path for private investment, instead of to “bribe” reluctant retailers.
The kinetic light show strikes me as our equivalent of Christo’s 2005 flowing-fabric installation in Central Park – different and inventive enough to catch the nation’s eye. Erie Canal Harbor: from big box, to – pardon the cliche – outside of the box.
The post-Bass Pro course was shaped by informed citizens in public workshops and committees. It is where the grain elevator idea was hatched. Committee members were kicking around ways to celebrate the concrete behemoths. Lynda Schneekloth, a UB professor, was involved in a small, simple lighting of a local grain elevator eight years ago.
“Someone mentioned painting the grain elevators, but it didn’t seem feasible,” Schneekloth recalled. “This is a lighter touch, with shifting images.”
A project was born.
The canal development agency, to its credit, has opened its collective eyes and ears to bright, creative citizens who care about the community where they live – and whose tax dollars pay the bills. Not only is it about time, but it leads to better projects – and avoids the community-deflating, hand-to-hand combat that had become our trademark.
“The reality [state officials] had to face was public opposition to this authoritarian, top-down approach,” said preservationist and urban designer Tim Tielman, who spearheaded both the ’90s fight to recover the historic slip and the anti-big box battle. “I think they realized that they needed to open up the [decision] process, listen to what people wanted and acknowledge the power of good ideas.”
Right. Even if those ideas came from people whom agency members – typically, corporate power brokers – do not run into at the Buffalo Club or see at $2,500-a-plate political fundraisers.
That is the beauty of the grain-elevator light show. It makes use of two long-ignored resources: the concrete behemoths on the waterfront and the people who live in this community. It strikes me as positively democratic.