Buffalo’s Arts & Industry Island

A couple weeks ago, I attended the Aspirations & Inspirations: Imagining the Buffalo Waterfront meeting at City Honors High School. The event was to galvanize the public’s imagination when it comes to creating something special on the Lake Erie waterfront — the last, great, urban, undeveloped waterfront in the country. Speakers included organizer Mark Goldman; Fred Kent, director of the Project for Public Spaces; and Mark’s brother, Tony Goldman, CEO of Goldman Properties.

The grain elevators are
within sight of downtown

Mark’s been after me to attend some of the meetings he’s been holding for artists, community leaders, and dreamers for a few weeks. I have so much going on with Garden Walk Buffalo and the National Garden Festival and the boards and committees I’m on already, and didn’t need another cause. But I acquiesced and decided that this would be a good meeting to attend.

The existing body in charge of developing the waterfront, The Erie Canal Development Corporation, has spent the better part of ten years planning on recreating the Erie Canal District as it originally was (presumably without the prostitution, illegal bars, black markets, and slums). Though everything was to be built from scratch, and to current fire & safety codes. Not very authentic.

From left: Kurt Von Voetsch, Messbag Series, 2007; Amy Greenan, 1972;
Mark McLoughlin,
Stolen Souls Willing exhibition portraits.

Along with faux, canal-esque buildings, they had been wooing retailer Bass Pro to establish a sporting goods store, intended to draw shoppers from around the region. It may have been savvy when Bass Pro had so few stores throughout the country and they were genuine regional destinations. But that was a decade ago. They’ve built dozens of stores in the meantime, and Buffalo is smack dab between the store in Auburn, NY and Toronto, Canada. We don’t need a retail store with low-paying jobs that ships profits out of town. We have malls and shopping plazas filled with those. We also don’t need to accommodate the inflated parking requirements/demands of ANY big box store.When given an ultimatum, by our congressman no less, Bass Pro backed out (thankfully). The problem was that the “new” revised plan for waterfront development was basically the same as the old plan, but without a big box store.

They’re immense!

That’s why this Imaging the Buffalo Waterfront meeting was needed. To put the brakes on existing plans and to incorporate, more emphatically, what the residents of Buffalo want. Fred Kent, who’s worked with municipalities world-wide regarding waterfront development and public spaces, spoke first and presented a smart, practical, pragmatic, sell-able (and frankly, quite Buffalo-like) solution to development — Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. No big projects. No expensive plans. No massive concert venues. No grand public spaces. Make it a place people want to be — safe, clean and walkable, with food, art, accessible water, and modest music & entertainment — and people will be there.  Fred Kent was aspirational.

Jim Charlier, Powerplant, 2010. Ha!

Tony Goldman? He was inspirational. Tony’s a developer that has been instrumental in the development of SoHo in NYC, Miami Beach, and Philadelphia’s City Center. He spent the better part of that day touring the Canal District in question. He was even more jazzed about the forgotten old industrial area of Buffalo — what you can see across from the Canal District — Buffalo’s behemoth grain elevators. We take our kayaks through this canyon of industrial hulks often. These are photos I took from our last trip through (some re-imagined, obviously). We have the largest collection of grain elevators in the world. They’re an important part of the nation’s industrial & architectural heritage. And they sit, decaying — too expensive to tear down, eating up acres and acres of potentially valuable real estate.

Tony Goldman envisions creating “Arts & Industry Island.” The merging of two of Buffalo’s greatest assets — a vibrant current artistic community & impressive industrial past. He proposed creating the world’s largest free outdoor museum — have international artists paint massive works on the grain mills. Promoted as such, it would be an international draw. It would make the millions of tourists visiting Niagara Falls, only minutes away, stop to check them out — drive by, boat by, walk by, bike by, and kayak by. Designed to be enjoyed from different vantage points, it would help develop the entire area for miles around — not just the Canal District.

He suggested building nightclubs in some of the grain elevators with light shows by lighting designers in the cavernous interior spaces. I suggest the grounds around them have to be no more than fields for soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, driving ranges, running tracks, bike paths, playgrounds and such. Oh, and gardens. Always gardens. Once people start coming the entrepreneurs will show up — as long as the city makes it easy and cheap for them to set up and thrive.

Use ’em or loose ’em.
Though it’ll take centuries for them
to crumble on their own.

How to pay for it all? That’ll take smarter people than me. But I’d rather see the plans for the Canal District made more modest — with casual restaurants; interactive public sculpture/water features; and inexpensive arts, crafts and food markets — all with low overheads and minimal start-up costs for entrepreneurs. Throw in some intimate performance areas, plentiful places to sit, some playgrounds and obviously some kick-ass gardens and cutting-edge garden design.

Then spend a good sum on making these grain elevators one-of-a-kind works of art.

With the existing bike paths; the Peace Bridge (a whole other topic); the break wall walkway; Broderick Park; the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fontana Boathouse; the Buffalo Yacht Club; the Buffalo State College Maritime Center; the crew teams racing along the Black Rock Canal; LaSalle Park & bandshell; the Barkyard; the residential condo towers; the Erie Basin Marina; The Hatch; the Observation Tower; the Marina Test Gardens; Miss Buffalo Boat Tours; the Veteran’s Memorial; the Naval Park with its destroyer, battleship & submarine; the Small Boat Harbor; the HSBC Arena and the current Canalside concert venue & authentic canal-era remains; the kayak rentals; Buffalo’s 1818/1833 lighthouse; the USS Cotter; Tifft Nature Preserve; Festival Park; Conway Park; the Ohio Street small craft launch; and the sun setting over Canada already make for a one-of-a-kind, spectacular waterfront.  Other cities don’t have all this.  I think we’re too close to see it. No one’s looking at it holistically. And not enough are taking advantage of it all. And we never needed to drop a chain store in the mix. But art? It always adds, it never detracts.

Feel free to pick up and use these images as you wish, just please use the artist’s credits if you do.

Top photo: Tom Holt, Berzerk!, 2009 (center four grain elevators); Felice Koenig, Cherry Fizz, 2009, and Gardening 2008-2009 (two right tanks).

I have a long-time garden blog, a popular garden on America's largest garden tour, and have co-written a book on garden design titled, "Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs" When I'm not doing all that, I am an advertising designer always out looking to design things to promote your business. Look me up at #jcharlier.

0 comments on “Buffalo’s Arts & Industry Island

  1. Very interesting concept. I sure would stop to give it a look if I was arround


  2. Why not paint Buffalo's FL Wright houses while we're at it, and maybe the Guaranty Building? Bill G.


  3. BD & WG,You have a valid point. It's a bit of a crime to desecrate a genuine industrial artifact. We don't “gussy up” authentic museum pieces. I'm just looking to have something that is currently a detriment become an asset. The FL Wright houses and Guarantee building are assets that ARE being appreciated – enhancing tourism, adding to the tax base and enhancing the quality of life in Buffalo and the neighborhoods in which they sit- so it's not a fair comparison. There are other less intrusive options, like projected light images, that might have a similar effect – but only at night. Until someone comes up with a reuse plan to restore the elevators, I don't think it is better to watch them rot and make a huge part of the waterfront a bleak wasteland for another few generations. I, speaking solely for myself, would rather have them appreciated in a new way. But, it's not up to me, fortunate for you, as well as, I'm sure, the many others that share your concerns.


  4. I agree with most of your ideas although also believe with BD & WG that painting the grain elevators would be detrimental. They, and the surrounding remnants of Buffalo's industrial heritage are sculptures creating an incredible landscape to paddle through, walk through, etc.I would like to see Buffalo focus on creating and improving these green and blue connections, making the existing buildings safe (I think that most of them are built to last but probably need some minor work), and slowly creating the “Lighter, quicker, cheaper” types of projects that Fred Kent and you suggested.


  5. Andy,They do create an incredible landscape. One that is abandoned, desolate and of interest to only the most fervent of industrial heritage / architectural fans. Most of my historical preservation and museum curator friends & acquaintances would agree with you – they need to be left alone. But as an advertising / marketing guy, who's worked in the tourism realm a bit, I think their potential as a national draw is significant. Thanks for commenting.


  6. Hello,Our organization in Omaha, Nebraska just completed a project repurposing one of our vacant grain elevators with over 32,000 sq. ft. of art about land use, agriculture, and food. We are beginning another such project with another community in the state to be completed in the fall of 2011.You can read all about the art and the project on the blog portion of this website: http://www.emergingterrain.org/storedpotentialand you can see pictures from the epic 500 person onsite dinner here:http://emergingterrain.zenfolio.com/Best of luck to Buffalo as you all navigate the process of a similar project!Anne Trumble, landscape architectDirectorEmerging Terrain


  7. Anonymous

    While I agree that the elevators are an important part of history, patching up concrete and some paint until someone re-purposes these elevators or buffalo has the money to restore them to former glory isn't something that will destroy the history this building holds never mind desecrating it. It's not like they are changing the structure, paint can always be removed. If it keeps the buildings on the waterfront I say put as many flowers on it as you like as long as it's unique, tasteful and brings in business I'm all for it. What I don't want is these elevators torn down that would be desecration…these buildings were built to have function. They came from someone with a vision and progressive purpose I seriously doubt he or she envisioned them laying in waste unused. Too me that laying in waste is the true desecration here.


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