Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Midterm examination

Here's a number that might make you think twice. This is the 20th season that the First Niagara Center in Buffalo has been open.

Yup, it opened for business in the fall of 1996. So if you're 26 years old or so, you only have heard of Memorial Auditorium as a working facility. It was an abandoned building for a while, containing only memories for some, and eventually came down years after it should have - if only to sell more stuff to a nostalgic public before it rotted away. Translation: everyone who cared should have a pair of seats in the basement.

Therefore, the First Niagara Center, which isn't the original name and I assume won't be the name for much longer once the next bank merger takes place, is closing in on half of its expected lifespan. That might be a little premature, since the Aud made it through 56 years. But for argument's sake, let's call this a good time to see how we did in the arena-building business.

My initial verdict is that it's been a functional building with all the needed features, with one possible exception: charm.

A lot of arenas went up in big cities in North America in the 1990s. They all seemed pretty similar. They had a lower level, an upper level, and a middle level filled with club seats and suites. It's not as bad as the cookie-cutter baseball stadiums that popped up in places like Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the 1970s, but you get the idea.

If you are in the inside of the building, with a few of the ice, well, it looks like most of the other new buildings. The sightlines are clear, although not as good and steep as they were in the Aud. But there's not much that shouts Buffalo when watching a game, either on television or in the building. If you take a lap around a concourse, you probably know where you are in the building at a given moment but that's about it.

The most interesting architectural feature of the place is probably the entrance. The atrium serves as a good gathering place coming in and out of the arena, and that creates a little energy. Of course, it also creates some crowds and lines thanks to post-9/11 security measures that couldn't have been foreseen in 1996. The plaza is nice, and the statue gives the area a bit of a history lesson. Granted there haven't been too many pregame playoff parties there lately for Sabre games, but that's not the arena's fault.

Obviously, the Sabres of that era didn't put many distinctive features into the building, because there wasn't much money to do so. Some things like a second freight elevator got cut out of the plans for budget reasons. If you recall, there was some doubt that the team could sell enough suite leases to even get the structure built in the first place. But to their credit, they got it built, and it still looks good in its 20th year.

Still, the First Niagara Center is a basic arena without many frills. Would you be excited about taking a visitor there to show it off? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a catch, though. The thought struck me that this is just "old guy" rhetoric. When I first came to Memorial Auditorium in 1970, it was the new home of the Braves and Sabres. That meant I felt excitement just by walking in the door. The Aud was already 30 years old then, and it had more nooks and crannies than an English muffin. Can you picture the stairs come down to the floor from the upper golds at the locker room? Can you see the television bucket hanging over the edge of the oranges at center ice? Me too.

Maybe it's just difficult for the First Niagara Center to compete with a building that contained so good memories, and for young people the FNC is generating its own such memories. After all, either building is one of those rare public facilities in which people expect to have a good time as soon as they walk in the door.

But at least from this old guy, it would be nice to see the building have a little more character. It would be good to have some memories updated in that way.

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