While visiting family back East I was pleasantly reminded that Granville Island isn’t the only waterfront area trying to redefine itself (full disclosure: I work for Bunt & Associates, the transportation engineering firm who provided the travel analysis for Granville 2040; although I did not work on that project.).
For several years I had heard of serious efforts underway to develop areas along the Buffalo River for recreation and legitimate (or at least taxable) non-industrial commercial activities. An area of the city that was formerly dominated by industry now shares some of this space with kayakers, river tours, residents, and lots of hockey players (getting to that).
As a quick primer, the Buffalo River is located southeast of downtown and meanders in a south-then-easterly direction for about 13 kilometres, starting from its mouth at the far eastern end of Lake Erie. The more well-known Niagara River that separates Buffalo from Fort Erie, Ontario and eventually leads to the Falls, starts about 2km to the north.

BFLO copy
The Buffalo River in lower third of image

Like the Chicago River, much of the Buffalo River is still a working waterfront. On most days it still smells like Cheerios, which are made there. But unlike Chicago, the Buffalo River has never been on any tourist checklist. There were no tour franchises, no fun opening shots of the river on TV sitcoms; none of that nonsense.
It all smells like Cheerios.

Though Buffalo has long been big with architecture geeks, there has never been much focus on the river itself as a destination. Until as recently as five years ago, if you had told friends you were hanging out by the Buffalo River, they’d have logically concluded you were either trying to find work with General Mills or hustling.
Of course you’re still free to do either of those things down there but now there are also alternatives. Buffalo Riverworks is one prime example of development helping to achieve critical mass of interest and activity in this ‘new’ area of the city. It opened in 2015, and is a year-round and very flexible 5,000-capacity venue for arts, sports, entertainment, and casual – well, let’s be honest – drinking.
World’s largest Labatt Blue cans

These pictures, taken on a random Thursday morning, show a versatile indoor and outdoor destination of a type that would be well-suited to a revamped Granville Island. Of course there’s more industrial room to play with in Buffalo, but it’s a good example of new and established land uses co-tolerating one another.
Outdoor Beer Garden

The river, facing northwest towards downtown

Off the main dining room, the main indoor floor serves multiple duties: spillover area for large events, dance floor for concerts (main stage off left of photo), and main floor for Buffalo’s roller derby team, the Queen City Roller Girls.
Main dance floor for concerts and roller-derby arena

Outdoor areas include covered soccer/lacrosse field and field/ice hockey rinks that host adult and kids’ leagues year-round; including the annual Labatt Blue Pond Hockey tournament, the TCS Hockey League, and the Cup North American Championship. Each of these events brings in thousands of spectators, families, and participants all year long.
Covered outdoor lacrosse and soccer field

Floor and ice hockey arena (left) with soccer field (right)

Whether hockey or roller derby or modest-sized concerts are your thing or not, the point is that this space is a successful draw and it works. It’s an interesting example of the type of flexible venue that should make its way into the conversation about the future of Granville Island – a year-round place for both locals and tourists.


  1. Interesting approach to keep a lot of the industrial remnants in place. Foreign concept to Vancouver where we like to remove it all and start from a blank slate.

      1. Thinking about industrial elements (Think Shipyards in North Van with the cranes) not a select few restored buildings. The planning of Granville Island was great but it was done in the 70s, sadly we have a nuke it attitude lately.

    1. Have you noticed the Salt Building, at the heart of Southeast False Creek? Or the Steel Toad brewery (formerly a steel warehouse) round the corner?

      1. Thinking about industrial elements (Think Shipyards in North Van with the cranes) not a select few restored buildings. The planning of Granville Island was great but it was done in the 70s, sadly we have a nuke it attitude lately.

        1. Can you identify any industrial elements that have been nuked lately? Particularly any that should have been repurposed?
          Vancouver’s industrial buildings of any significance – Water Street and Yaletown for example, have almost all been retained and given new roles as office or residential. The Roundhouse was saved (after a fight). Even the old laundry in Downtown South became Choices supermarket. The two examples in SEFC were the only significant structures there, but most industrial buildings elsewhere were cleared away in the 1970s or earlier.

  2. Sorry I am not communicating well this morning. I feel the planning decisions in the 1990s did a great job of accommodating the elements you mentioned (Choices, Roundhouse). I feel this spirit has been lost recently. If you look at the Buffalo example there are concrete remnants that are left as an honest reminder of the sites previous use, whether or not they meet ones aesthetics is debatable. The Olympic Village landscape seems to lack retained or repurposed industrial elements of any type, instead replacing them with elements such as oversized dock cleats and granite blocks. There are interesting light industrial buildings along the 2nd avenue corridor that could be incorporated in some way into the new condo developments to add some variety and grit to the urban scene but are all being torn down. My favourite example for retention of previous industrial use is the Wynyard Quarter precinct in Auckland where industrial architectural and landscape elements are preserved and highlighted against new design elements to great effect. See link below:

    1. Wynyard is one of the only examples of ‘design by committee’ that I’ve ever seen work well. The newer portions incorporate the former marine uses better than the first portions built in the early 90’s for the America’s Cup. And I agree with you about Olympic Village. Aside from a few token features, it’s a blank slate.
      One thing I dislike about both spaces, however, is the over-reliance on special pavers. Too much fuss and maintenance for those things – especially in wet climates. That is one simplifying advantage of a 4-season climate: with the exception of a few types of brickwork, pavers are too impractical for the freeze-and-thaw cycle to be considered.

    2. I understand what you mean, but I suspect the economics of retention of ‘interesting light industrial’ buildings during construction is pretty difficult, and the City of Vancouver don’t have too many levers to enforce retention. The Best Warehouse, (which was a BC Telecom warehouse originally) part of the Maynards Building, the Opsal Steel / Steel Toad and Salt were saved and incorporated. The remaining building on 2nd Avenue that’s old, and still standing for now, was once heavy industry – a truck assembly plant – but it’s difficult to see how it could be incorporated into a condo building. There is another building on the City’s old works yard that’s been saved with a view to reusing it, although it looks past it’s best today!
      Much of the industrial legacy from a century or so ago has gone, and many of the sites have required expensive and careful clean up. On the positive side there are conversions of old industrial space into new more public uses – like the breweries and tasting rooms throughout Mount Pleasant or the Clark Drive and Strathcona areas, along with new employment spaces, but there won’t be residents mixed in because the economics of residential development drive the employment uses out. Because we were never really a significant manufacturing base, and because many of our processing plants were built cheaply and were pretty basic, we don’t have the legacy of easily reused older buildings that some cities have.
      We have seen a couple of older buildings lost recently (like the old factory on Smithe Street that’s just being demolished), but we also have projects retaining older structures like the Catholic Charities on Robson that was built by Northern Telecom and is now proposed as the base for a tower, reused as a boutique hotel.
      The biggest building that might have been repurposed into an interesting alternative is the BC Sugar Factory, but that’s still operating, and it’s behind the Port security zone which means that it would be really difficult to find a viable alternate use if Rogers ever chose to close the operation down.

      1. Great points. Perhaps more incentives to dangle in front of the developers? Preservation leads to added density credits to be used onsite or traded? The Smithe building is being replaced by one of the blandest towers in the city, in Yaletown to boot. Sad we can’t get more from our developers, would this be acceptable in Portland? Seattle?

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