Travel with us through a Buffalo Niagara that might have been, if some of the most captivating artists’ renderings created in recent years had actually come to life.
Start downtown outside the gleaming Adelphia office tower, where the thriving cable company has become a big employer. Traffic around here is thick, with people pouring into the Bass Pro store that revitalized old Memorial Auditorium. Some of the customers arrive by boat at the Inner Harbor.
Looming over downtown is a skyscraper built by respected developer Bashar Issa. The Outer Harbor is dominated by an enclosed amusement park, a massive convention center and residential community, and the Buffalo Bills’ new stadium.
Head north on the Niagara Thruway and your eye is drawn to the striking new Peace Bridge, proof of cross-border cooperation. In Niagara County, new attractions abound, from the below-ground aquarium near the falls, to the Wizard of Oz theme park.
Of course, none of those projects was ever built. They burst onto the scene with a banner headline, a news conference suffused with big shots, a multimillion-dollar price tag, hyperventilating praise and, of course, a dazzling artist’s rendering of the project.
Predictions of surefire economic transformation follow, despite doubts over who will pay for the thing, whether it will win approval, or is even realistic. Then, years later, nothing.
It became a running joke among a few of us skeptics that seeing an artist’s rendering on the front page was the kiss of death for a project.
Developers came to town like snake-oil salesmen, peddling magic elixirs guaranteed to fix what ails our economy. Or we begged big companies to build a store here, and had a hard time letting go even when it was clear it was over.
Now this isn’t a “woe-is-us” type of story. We finally have real progress – and tower cranes! – in places once only imagined in colorful drawings: Canalside. HarborCenter. The former Donovan State Office Building. The medical campus. Larkinville.
Still, we can’t ignore our track record of getting caught up in these grandiose visions for revival, no matter how far-fetched the ideas might seem. What does it say about us as a region that we seemingly want to believe in them?
And do all these failed fanciful visions leave us unfairly skeptical about more realistic projects when they come along?
On the Webster block in Bizarro Buffalo, the Adelphia Communications tower and its 1,500 employees stand sentry over Adelphia Arena, home to the two-time, Stanley Cup champion Buffalo Sabres.
Of course, in this world, the Rigases never committed fraud with Adelphia, the company never went into bankruptcy and never had to sell the Sabres.
And there was no “Black Sunday” dismantling of the team’s core. (This is a fantasy.)
Step over a block to the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World Store, in a renovated Memorial Auditorium, where customers guide boats right up to the store and visitors come from hours away.
The store came together so quickly that it added a new term to the local vernacular: Building something without delay is now called “Bass Pro-ing.”
Over by City Hall, if you strain, you can see to the top of Bashar Issa’s City Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Buffalo. Issa’s first name translates to “bringer of good news,” and he sure brought welcome tidings.
The City Tower project complements his conversion of the Statler Towers into a convention hotel. We thanked him by electing him mayor of Buffalo.
In the lobby of its headquarters on Grand Island, Cannon Design has nine models showing the evolution of City Tower, which the international architectural firm designed for Issa.
Issa dreamed big: A $361 million, 40-story tower that would have been Buffalo’s largest.
His excitement rubbed off on Cannon-istas, but the firm soon saw the writing on the wall.
“No, we never got a ‘Dear John’ letter,” said Michael A. Mistriner, a Cannon principal, but after a while, Issa stopped immediately returning phone calls, and he began canceling meetings without explanation.
“You can’t let ’em discourage you,” he said. “You can’t take it personally when it doesn’t go. You’d go into a depression. So you have to take them in stride. And certainly hope that there’s going to be more out there.”
Mistriner pointed to the projects filling in the space on the waterfront, and to the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, designed by Cannon, as examples of projects that were actually built.
Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, agrees the unbuilt projects opened up the possibilities for those spaces.
“On a site-by-site basis, what has been described as failure has been replaced with something better. Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince,” Shibley said.
It’s valuable to dream big, he added, even if those dreams often go unfulfilled. “God forbid we ever give up those aspirations,” Shibley said.
Let’s keep dreaming big on the Outer Harbor.
Bills fans flock to the new stadium, Bass Pro Field, on Sundays. No wonder, with quarterback EJ Manuel aiming to win a third Super Bowl title for his team. Under mastermind Doug Marrone, the Bills haven’t lost to the Patriots in years.
Next door, Buffalo Lakefront LLC’s project is thriving. The Talkin’ Proud Convention Center and neighboring hotels helped secure Buffalo as the host for this year’s Super Bowl.
And who can forget the E-Zone, the domed amusement park that jump-started everything? Yes, you really can snowboard here in the middle of July!
At the new Peace Bridge, common terns fly safely through their own version of a NEXUS lane, while cars pour into the Andrew Cuomo Binational Harmony Plaza. Toronto football fans cross the bridge for one Argonauts “home” game per season at the Bills’ stadium.
Mark Goldman, a local historian, said he believes the reason some people get swept up in the grand visions is “sort of complex. Some people have a misunderstanding of how change occurs. If you think change occurs from the top down, you’re going to be predisposed to look for large-scale, heavily funded, top-down projects.”
Goldman advocated for the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” model of development unfolding at Canalside, in contrast to the idea of a big-box retailer anchoring the site.
He notes the concept of an Outer Harbor football stadium has been received far more skeptically by lawmakers and other decision makers than big projects of years past.
“It’s new thinking. It’s taken a while, but it’s getting there,” he said.
When he was mayor of Buffalo, Anthony M. Masiello was often part of these big-idea announcements. He donned a camouflage jacket and a Bass Pro hat at the 2004 news conference where then-Gov. George Pataki hailed an agreement to open a Bass Pro in the mothballed Aud. Today, there is no store, and no Aud.
Masiello said it was hard to watch visions like Bass Pro and Adelphia’s tower fizzle. “I invested a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of capital,” he said.
But he isn’t ready to dismiss the value of embracing big-idea projects. “I think the important thing is the right mix. You’ve got to have attractions that are diverse. Some are going to be large, and some aren’t going to be as large.” And the region shouldn’t give up just because some ideas don’t pan out, he said.
Speaking of big dreams, the excitement in Niagara Falls hits you while cruising into the city on the Howard Milstein Parkway, named after the civic hero who single-handedly transformed the blighted city into an entertainment extravaganza.
Couples stroll hand-in-hand along the Niagara River on a winding trail that links a series of resort hotels. The romantic lodges have once again made Niagara Falls the Honeymoon Capital of the World.
For young people and singles, there’s a bustling casino district just a few blocks away, where Venice-like canals snake between the gambling halls, making Las Vegas look quaint by comparison.
You can’t see all the attractions in one day – there’s just too much to do.
What really makes Niagara Falls a special place is the Magical Land of Oz theme park. The 400-acre resort in Wheatfield is one reason Niagara has been termed “Disney of the North.”
Wire-walkers prance across the Niagara Gorge each summer, but no one pays much attention with everything else going on. There are things to do on the Canadian side, as well, though they’re not as popular.
That Niagara Falls’ many failed dream projects never came to reality is no surprise to Chris Schoepflin, a native who spends most of his days trying to undo the mistakes of the past.
Schoepflin, president of the state’s USA Niagara Development Corp., said Buffalo Niagara was primed to believe in the pie-in-the-sky proposals because of the swift decline of industry and a desire to replace what was lost. “People wanted to pivot as quickly as possible,” he said. “We’re a very proud community.”
In a place like New York City, he points out, one project does not make or break a town – and the media also have more things to focus on, so the importance of each plan is not overstated.
Schoepflin knows that when an angel investor or developer swoops in with a plan and goes straight to the media – without talking specifics or financing – there’s a good chance it’s not going to happen. “When you’re desperate for something to happen, sometimes it gets past the sniff test,” he said.
In the spirit of this story, we offer one more project for consideration: the Museum of Failed Ideas. This will be a place worthy of all the visions that became nothing more than awe-inspiring pictures, where the passers-by stroll in perpetual sunshine and cars are never stuck in traffic.
The museum will be a transformational mega-tourist magnet, unlike anything this region has ever seen. The developer is serious about it. It’s a done deal. Just watch for the rendering.