If you haven’t been to Buffalo in the last 5 years, and think that you know this city, you might want to think again. Buffalo has been reinventing itself over the past few years, with new life being breathed into old neighbourhoods, enticing both locals and visitors to come experience a very different Buffalo. Nowhere is this change more evident than at RiverWorks on the Buffalo waterfront. Here, once-defunct commercial warehousing lands have been repurposed into a popular year-round destination, offering things to do both day and night on the banks of the Buffalo River. And it’s during summer that this reimagined Buffalo waterfront area really comes to life.
Former Warehouse Yards are Reborn as “RiverWorks”
Buffalo’s RiverWorks may just be the ‘poster child’ for imaginative re-purposing of warehouse ruins. A site dominated by abandoned grain silos and half-demolished concrete foundations sprouting twisted rebar has become an industrial-chic playground for all on the Buffalo waterfront.
What To Do With Buffalo’s Silos?
Buffalo has more concrete grain silos than anywhere else in the world, thanks to its location on the Erie Canal and its history as a huge grain shipping and distribution centre beginning in the late 1800’s. But getting rid of these huge concrete structures to make way for new construction can be costly and difficult. So it takes a developer with imagination to work with them, not against them, and that’s exactly what the people behind Riverworks did.
Silos Become Beer Cans
Local private sector entrepreneur Earl Ketry spearheaded the RiverWorks project, working with other partners to turn this Buffalo waterfront space into a massive 4-season sports, event and entertainment district, with a roller derby track, ice rink, restaurants, a concert venue and more. The developers wanted to keep the authenticity of the area, which meant finding creative ways to repurpose the existing silos. They began by painting a group of 6 silos to look like giant Labatt Blue beer cans. The giant ‘6-Pack’ instantly created a visual icon in Buffalo, anchoring this new development and becoming a playful centrepiece for RiverWorks.
Silos Become a Brewery
More than just an icon, though, this oversized 6-pack of beer now actually houses beer in the form of the RiverWorks Brewing Company, the world’s first craft brewing company to actually be built inside repurposed silos.
Visitors can step right up to the base of one of these silos and order a cold beer at the Silo Bar. (Just don’t expect a Labatt’s beer, despite the exterior decor – RiverWorks’ beers are all brewed right here in the silos in small batches that stay true to their craft name.)
Then pull up one of the colourful chairs and enjoy that cold beer in another unusual structure beside the 6-pack: the circular ruins of another silo known as ‘Stonehenge’ (or as ‘Beerhenge’ by some).
Silos Become Art Spaces
A few steps away from the Labatt 6-pack is a large multi-story structure known at the ‘Bunker’ that includes another group of silos. There are plans for the Bunker to become an on-site hotel in future but for now, RiverWorks has found other ways to repurpose its silos: as a community art space.
Henk and I were visiting in October during Chalkfest Buffalo, an annual event when local artists are invited to decorate the pavement around the Bunker as well as the interior walls of the silos with Halloween-themed artwork.
Visitors can wander through the silos admiring and photographing the artwork, and watch artists while they work. Or just look up at the giant hoppers still in place overhead in the cavernous concrete columns. The weekend we visited there was even a DJ in the base of one silo spinning tunes (talk about interesting acoustics!)
A Playground for the Adventurous
The silos of the Bunker make a perfect rock wall for climbing both inside and out, a recent addition to the adventurous activities available at Riverworks. I was impressed with a young climber who was testing her skills scaling the exterior of these smooth concrete walls.
Zipline Over “Medusa’s Front Porch”
The open space adjacent to the 6-pack and the Bunker is known as “Medusa’s Front Porch”, named for the twisted rebar protruding from the remains of concrete columns that resemble the mythical creature’s head of snakes.
There’s nothing scary here, though, unless of course you are afraid of heights – or sharks: because if you look up you’re likely to spot an adventurous visitor whizzing along a zipline course right above your head.
The course starts about 100 feet or so up on the 6-pack, travels to a platform halfway up the Bunker and then zips its riders across to their final destination inside the ‘mouth’ of a giant great white shark in a nearby building.
The Ward: Food, Drinks, Music and More on the Buffalo Waterfront
One of the best parts about summer in Buffalo (or anywhere!) are the outdoor restaurant patios, and there’s no better location for a patio than on the water. Which is why you’ll definitely want to head to The Ward, a 2-level bar/resto/event space beside the 6-pack that sits right on the banks of the Buffalo River. This is the perfect place to grab a spot on the deck, enjoy some casual pub grub and a cocktail and watch the boats go by on the river.
You can also stroll along the boardwalk below, or rent a kayak or paddle board at the dock and get right out on the river. Better yet, hop aboard a floating tiki hut bar and enjoy the best of both worlds: getting out on the water with a cocktail in hand!
Attached to the Ward restaurant is another massive complex that houses an indoor rope course and a covered rink that in the summer is used for summer sports and sometimes houses a craft market. Summer means outdoor concerts will be coming to the RiverWorks stage, too, making this venue a major player on the local concert scene.
TIP: Riverworks is located at 359 Ganson Street on the south side of the Buffalo River. There is plenty of free outdoor parking (event parking comes with a fee). Visit the RiverWorks website for more information on events.
Illuminated Silos at Canalside
When dark falls, if you haven’t been impressed enough with what Buffalo has done with its silos at RiverWorks, head over to the ‘Central Wharf’ at Canalside. This former harbour was the first major Buffalo waterfront area to be completely transformed from ugly parking lots into a public space that now offers bike trails, restaurants, green space and the perfect outdoor venue for concerts and festivals.
At night, Canalside is also the perfect vantage point to watch a brilliant light show across the water: a long set of silos known as the Connecting Terminal becomes the canvas for a spectacular display that runs on a continuous loop from dusk until 11pm or so.
More than 550 light fixtures illuminate these silos in a colourful display of stylized trees and flowers that transition with movement and colour, beautifully reflected in the calm waters of the harbour. Henk and I like a good light show, and this was the perfect way to end our day exploring the Buffalo waterfront.
It took vision to transform the Buffalo waterfront into where it is today, and the future holds even more potential, with plans in place to expand on the success of these riverside redevelopments. After visiting both RiverWorks and Canalside, it’s clear that with enough imagination, everything old – even very old – can become new again when seen with fresh eyes.
If this is what today’s reimagined Buffalo is all about, Henk and I are all in.
If you are looking for a place to stay in Buffalo that has undergone its own reinvention, read about Hotel Henry, a former insane asylum that has been transformed into a chic boutique hotel.
Special thanks to Visit Buffalo Niagara who hosted Henk and I on our visit to Buffalo.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.