Any further signs of sanity, and we will be forced to declare the patient cured. Cured of pot o’ gold fantasies. Cured of salvation-project fixation. Cured of mega-proposal hallucinations.
For all of our grand, ridiculous plans over the years, the key to Buffalo’s recovery was always hiding in plain sight.
Resurrecting downtown buildings. Restoring the Larkinville neighborhood. Reclaiming Erie Canal Harbor and the waterfront. Re-purposing the old Republic Steel site as a high-tech campus. Every development, project and proposal has the same philosophical foundation: Self-belief. Faith in what we have. Recognizing – and building on – our assets.
Our communal inferiority complex this month took another body blow. An inactive grain elevator on an industrial backstretch of the Buffalo River will, it was announced, morph into a $15 million bar/restaurant/brewery/entertainment complex. It was sitting there, through all the years we dawdled with E-Zone and Bass Pro and aquariums and mega-convention centers. Hiding in plain sight.
Developer Doug Swift, landowner Jon Williams and Earl Ketry of Pearl Street Grill & Brewery will transform the Wheeler-GLF grain elevator site into Buffalo RiverWorks. Again, the New Buffalo involves reclaiming the Old Buffalo.
“We’re Buffalo-zealous,” said Ketry, who on Pearl Street transformed 1860s buildings into a brewpub/banquet/hotel destination. “We have substantial assets, the key is re-purposing them.”
From Toronto’s Distillery District to Baltimore’s Fell’s Point, other cities long understand that you reuse the things that speak to who and what you are. Few things scream “Buffalo” louder than hulking grain elevators lining an industrial riverfront within a barge pole of downtown. You’re not in Kansas anymore. Dorothy.
“Maintaining our authenticity is the key to this,” said Swift, whose resume includes the Larkin at Exchange and Genesee Gateway buildings. “It’s a cool spot.”
It took a long time for Buffalo to catch on. We are anywhere but “Anywhere, USA,” and that muscular presence – from grand old buildings to grain silos to a post-industrial waterfront – helps to make this place interesting.
Most local development officials over the years never understood that. The downtown waterfront myopia went beyond the fevered pursuit of Bass Pro. Erie Canal Harbor officials for years dangling “please come” dollars at Barnes and Noble and other suburban mall mainstays. It was a wrongheaded philosophy that undervalued who and what we are, disdained homegrown business and would have homogenized our waterfront.
The collapse of Bass Pro plans three years ago thankfully took the Canal Harbor board’s “chain retail/restaurant” sensibility down with it. The subsequent citizen-driven “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” mantra spawned a Buffalo-centric mentality; an understanding that our buildings, businesses, history and waterfront ARE the attraction.
Buffalo RiverWorks is more evidence of developmental sanity. It takes an identity-stamping grain elevator on a now-cleaner river and morphs it into a bar/brewery/restaurant with ice rinks and entertainment. RiverWorks connects the geographic dots to Canalside across the Cobblestone District’s history-reflecting, canal-era buildings. And – unlike many projects from our “silver bullet” past – it’s real.
“We wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on this,” Swift told me, “if we didn’t have the capital.”
Industrial neighbor General Mills recently voiced concerns over potential traffic – an addressable “problem” the largely abandoned area hasn’t faced in decades.
“I envision that whole area, connecting across the Michigan Street bridge, as an entertainment zone,” Swift said, “Potentially, it’s like San Antonio’s Riverwalk.”
If you heard that a few years ago, you’d think Swift was munching magic mushrooms. These days, no one even blinks.
“We’re just re-using what already exists,” Swift said. “The attraction is the buildings and the location.”
And to think that this stuff was just sitting there, all along.