Posted on Buffalo Pundit today. One of the best blogs in Buffalo!
Bass Pro: End of Civilization as we Know It?
I don’t understand why every anti-Bass Pro thing I read in the Buffalo News doesn’t sport that title. Because once you read the text, that’s not far from the point being made. The latest missive against the Missouri outdoor store comes courtesy of Cynthia Van Ness, Preservation Coalition President and Buffalo Issue Alerts moderator.
It was 2000, and in a breath of fresh air befitting the new century in a city long suffering from a stale, crony- based political culture, the Preservation Coalition of Erie County led a passionate grass-roots campaign to develop a historically sensitive Erie Canal district that honored the archaeological remains of a site known the world over.Known the world over? I’m sure people in many places know about the Erie Canal district of Buffalo, but I doubt many people in other places do.
Our vision seized the imaginations of 15,000 Buffalonians who signed petitions calling for restoring the Commercial Slip and unearthing the original street network of Buffalo’s birthplace.That particular sentence is the most important one in the entire piece. As I’ve written before, the fight in 2000 was about two things: street network and re-watering about 50 yards’ worth of the old canal terminus. The former remains in the Canal Side plan, and the latter has already been accomplished. The quaint seaside village recreation that was done in 2004 was not what the fight in 2000 was about.
Out of this participatory process, a consensus plan emerged with design guidelines respecting the Erie Canal harbor’s history. The 2004 plan, which won an award from the Waterfront Center in Washington, is under way, with the Commercial Slip rewatered, the bowstring bridge in place and the new Naval & Military Park Museum overlooking the slip.“Respecting…history” is shorthand for, “build something new that looks kinda old, and put some plaques up here and there”. There was never a plan to completely recreate what was once there, and there’s nothing there now, so “preservation” is a misnomer. Again: the argument right now is over two competing historical re-creations; two somewhat different replicas of the old canal district. One being better than the other is a subjective matter.
Progress is there for all to see. The reconstruction of Central Wharf, scheduled for a ribbon-cutting later this year, has come to a screeching halt, postponed indefinitely due to pre-empting by a small group of unelected insiders.Whoa, whoa, whoa stop right there.
Back in 2000, when the first fight was being waged, it was between the gubernatorial appointees at the Empire State Development Corporation, and a group of preservationists which included media and political types. Everyone involved was a member of a “small group of unelected insiders.”
In 2007, we have the members of ECHDC who were appointed by the duly elected governor. On the other hand, we have…? Pot, meet kettle. Don’t go down the small-group-of-unelected-insiders path unless you’re part of a large group of elected outsiders. No one elected Tielman, Van Ness, or Esmonde to wage war against the ECHDC. At least I can point to accountable, elected officials who populated the ECHDC itself.
Back-room, old-boy-network wheeling and dealing, which has crippled Buffalo for decades, once again rears its ugly head.Sorry, didn’t the 2000 battle end in a consent decree? “Back room…wheeling and dealing” is sometimes shorthand for “mediation, compromise, and settlement.”
A big-box outdoors store and a suburban strip mall developer have been handed the most globally significant land in Buffalo, with million-dollar subsidies. That small triangle of land is the “most globally significant land in Buffalo”?! Really?
This deal violates a legal agreement that this community hammered out and was successfully implementing. It fleeces taxpayers and sets a terrible precedent for every other national retailer eyeing Buffalo, who can also demand corporate welfare.Bass Pro isn’t getting a penny of taxpayer money in its pocket. We are building the structure for them, and that permits the public to maintain control over what it looks like. I think that’s a good thing. The legal agreement wasn’t hammered out by “this community”, it was hammered out by lawyers for the state and lawyers for the Preservation Coalition. That represents, what? A fraction of one percent of the “community?”
The out-of-scale Bass Pro and ramp garage footprint obliterates our intimate cobblestone streets and trivializes the nearby New England Block, which housed Dug’s Dive, a likely refuge for fugitives escaping slavery. For the sake of tackle boxes and parking, we cheapen Buffalo’s role in one of the great moral achievements in American history.Bass Pro and a garage “obliterates” the street? How so? The plans I’ve seen maintain that streetscape that PresCo fought so hard for in 2000. Are the cobblestone streets any less “cobblestone” or “streets” because of Bass Pro or the parking lot?
The “For the sake of tackle boxes and parking” line stinks of little more than anti-retail snobbery. I’d love to see the reaction from preservationists if someone suggested plopping a Larkin Admin Building replica on that site. Big box? Yep. Out of scale for the area? Yep. Holy Grail for local preservationists? Yep. Heads would explode.
But Bass Pro is an easy target. How many times have you seen one opponent or another irrelevantly bring up Wal Mart in any discussion about Bass Pro on the waterfront? No one has accused Bass Pro of engaging in the business practices that Wal Mart is known for, so that’s unfair. What all that amounts to is represented by a simple equation:
Bass Pro = fishing & hunting = NASCAR = rednecks = poor dentition = Wal Mart.
It’d be funny if it weren’t tragic, because upstream is empty land on the water’s edge, close to existing parking, that better suits a big-box retailer. We can have a vibrantly urban, historic, walkable canal district of museums, shops, apartments and cafes lining 200- year-old cobblestone streets and we can have a Bass Pro. The Webster block has been “shovel ready” for 50 years.Why lie? You’ve made it crystal clear that you think Bass Pro is an evil taxmoney monster, so why now suggest where else it should go? Would you still oppose the Canal Side project if Bass Pro were moved to another block but Benderson was going to construct the quaint museums, locally owned fair-trade shops, apartments, and cafes? Why aren’t “bars” and “restaurants” included in that laundry list?
Preservationists are often called obstructionists, a pejorative label we accept in honor of all the obstructionists that Buffalo needed when the Larkin Building was demolished, when Humboldt Parkway was sacrificed, when “urban removal” destroyed neighborhoods and when other wrongheaded backroom deals were carried out.See? OMG! Larkin Building!!
Comparing Canal Side to 50s and 60s era urban renewal is incorrect. Comparing the empty weeds and gravel of the historic block with the Larkin Building is incorrect. Comparing apples and staplers is incorrect.
Again: if the identity of the developer and the anchor retailer were different, I’d bet the outcry would be minimized. Benderson is an easy target, and Bass Pro (as we’ve already outlined) is equal to Wal Mart.
But in this case we bow our heads to Larry Quinn, Bob and Mindy Rich and everyone who gave away our place in history to Benderson and Bass Pro. In the “obstructionism” game, they make us look like rank amateurs.
We can build a quaint lakeside replica (which, incidentally, in no way, shape, or form would resemble the dirty, nasty, rough-and-tumble of the 1800s canal dock district) and invite 10,000 Villages and locally owned hemp retailers to come in. But who’s going to build the buildings? And who’s going to come? I don’t think the Erie Canal terminus is as globally known or cared-about as Cynthia suggests. But because it was there, the street grid and canal terminus will be restored.
Apart from that, all we’re talking about is historical interpretation.
Will tourists from the Falls come down to see a quaint little lakefront village and have a cup of coffee and a stroll under the Skyway? I tend to doubt it. As I’ve said before, the vast majority of tourists come to look at things, buy things, and eat things. If you’re marketing to the millions who come to that gorge 20 miles from Buffalo, give them something to do, for God’s sake. You can’t eat a meal on green space unless you bring it yourself. Green space doesn’t pay any tax. Apartments aren’t a tourist draw, and there are loads of cafes in Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake already.
But if you market the area as a shopping and entertainment destination, part of which (that one triangular block) replicates the history of the old canal district, people will be drawn. Add a very sought-after national retailer as an anchor which can, in turn, attract other popular retailers that might otherwise balk at the opportunity to site next to the Marine Drive Apartments, and you have a recipe for success.
We can, indeed, have it all. Historical re-creation and contemporary commercial success.