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In defense of One Niagara

Niagara Falls Repoerter

August 04, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Curiously, some people have been critical lately of One Niagara, a nine-story, all-glass building I own next to the Niagara Falls State Park.

Some aren't happy the building takes business away from a parking, souvenir and restaurant business misleadingly known as the Niagara Falls State Park.

The building I own deserves first some historical perspective.

Built by Hooker Chemical, it arose, in fact, out of a nightmare, which occurred nine miles from the site.

Hooker had, by the early '40s, dumped a quantity of dioxin into Love Canal, an erosion ditch that ran through undeveloped land in LaSalle. Love Canal was capped with clay in the late '40s, but as land nearby was developed, the cap was breached. By the '70s, people living nearby were said to be getting cancer from it.

The EPA placed the blame on Hooker and its parent company, Occidental Chemical, and frankly they built our building somewhat as an apology.

More on that later.

In downtown Niagara Falls, where my building sits, up to the late '60s, an assortment of mom-and-pop shops were alive, four months a year, during the tourist season. The rest of the year almost everything was shuttered.

The Urban Renewal program came to change that and they seized downtown land and demolished everything. The federal program converted an active but homely honkytonk to a desolate downtown.

They did mange to erect the now-vacant Rainbow Centre Mall and build a convention center, and they acquired the 2.5-acre site closest to the falls, where a hotel was planned and where my building today sits.

Formerly, Niagara Falls had been home to the electro-chemical and carbon industries. These required large amounts of cheap electrical power. When we lost our hydropower in 1957 to the New York Power Authority, these industries realized it would be cheaper to move to other states. Under Albany rule, electricity would be expensive in Niagara Falls.

Within a few years, the Power City lost 5,000 jobs.

We did not initially notice, since 10,000 temporary jobs were created to build the NYPA power plant between 1958 and 1962.

By the late '70s, however, Niagara Falls, having lost cheap power, lost 37,000 jobs. Union Carbide, Pittsburgh Metallurgical, Great Lakes Carbon and others -- gone. By 1979, the largest employer still standing -- Occidental Chemical -- was faced with the public relations nightmare of Love Canal.

They wanted the 2.5-acre parcel next to the most famous natural landscape in the world, vacant land owned by Urban Renewal, to build an environmentally friendly building for their regional headquarters.

Meant for tourism, the land was sold for executive offices for a chemical company.

Completed in 1981, the building was heralded as the most environmentally friendly building ever built, but was in reality over-engineered and somewhat inefficient. Too cold in winter, hot in summer, with different floors having disparate temperatures. It had louvers that followed the sun, closing in summer sunlight, opening in winter sunlight, with double glass skin to control the heat.

The double glass, a first, gave the building a place in architectural history. The louvers blocked the view.

By 1989, the Oxy Chemical office building, only eight years old, was largely empty. Oxy also lost thousands of local jobs, their executives removed to Texas.

In 1999, they sold the building to AquaFalls developers, who blasted a one-acre, 40-foot hole in the building's lawn where they planned to build an underground aquarium.

The hole remained six years.

People coming to Niagara Falls must have been surprised. Around one of the world's greatest waterfalls is really a rather small state park, and next to it a vacant glass building, followed by a one-acre hole, with sidewalks collapsing and fading fence signs reading, "AquaFalls coming soon." Followed by a vacant, deteriorating, five-story, concrete mall called Rainbow Centre -- another remnant of Urban Renewal.

Not everyone was unhappy, however, with the aqua-pit.

Since few tourists would venture out of the increasingly commercialized Niagara Falls State Park to meander around the enormous hole, the park and its vendors got all the tourism business.

In December 2004, I bought the building and the hole. Everybody had the chance at the public foreclosure. I was the only bidder.

With little prospect of office tenants, I filled the hole and opened tourism businesses like in the days before Urban Renewal.

One man in particular was displeased -- Jimmy Glynn, owner of the Maid of the Mist boat tour and souvenir store inside the park.

His son Chris made disparaging remarks. His brother Don -- columnist for the Niagara Gazette -- used his pen to discredit. Park officials turned against me.

As I spent millions converting the building from a vacant, inefficient, obsolete office building to a tourist center, I fought mayors, inspectors, councilmen and the legal department at City Hall. I fought the state, and most significantly fought the man who tried most -- behind the scenes -- to thwart me: Jimmy Glynn.

I sued or was sued multiple times by the administration of Mayor Vince Anello. If Anello was hard, he was straightforward.

But Mayor Paul Dyster was incommunicado.

Who can know Dyster's motives?

Why would a mayor of a small town like Niagara Falls refuse to meet with the developer of a building on property that is perhaps the most important in downtown Niagara Falls?

True, Dyster did everything he could to help Glynn, his biggest campaign contributor.

True, Dyster is chairman of the Niagara Experience Center.

His committee identified my property as the preferred site for the NEC.

If the NEC got launched, the state would seize my property.

Were I successful, it would cost more, which would mean less state money for the preferred developer -- who by all accounts will be Jimmy Glynn.

By late 2008, Tom DeSantis, planning director, tried to get Guy Bax, then chief building inspector, to close my building because there wasn't enough shrubbery planted according to a site plan DeSantis approved.

"I'll plant the shrubs," I said.

"Too late," DeSantis replied. "You had your chance. Since you did not comply, we want you closed."

"But 200 people will be out of a job," I said.

Guy Bax, possibly the most honest man City Hall ever had -- today immorally deprived by Dyster of the legal presumption of innocence and on forced leave because of a federal investigation into his conduct -- stood up to Dyster and refused to close my building, since life-safety issues were in code compliance.

A man has a right to operate his own building -- American law says so.

No matter how much Dyster conspired with Glynn, no matter how much Glynn contributed to a secret fund for Dyster, or gave Dyster directly, Bax would not obey.

You don't close a building that employs 200 people because of shrubs.

I planned to open a ninth-floor observatory where tourists could view the Niagara panorama. Dyster said, "If Bax won't close One Niagara, at least we can stop them from opening the ninth floor. Issue no permits."

At first I sought out Craig Touma, the lawyer who managed Dyster's campaign and got payback by having his wife appointed city court judge. Touma told me Dyster would never meet me and hustled me out of his office.

They criticized me for being behind in my taxes, but would not let me improve my property to help earn money to pay taxes.

They did everything to devalue my property.

After requiring me to put sidewalks in, at double width, so people on wheelchairs could use them, they placed bollards on the sidewalks so people with wheelchairs could not pass.

A letter written by the law department, part of the evidence submitted when I sued, stated I "did nothing but frustrate the planning department, law department and inspections department" -- consequently no permits will be issued.

There are people, I now understood, who for years owned the whole tourism pie. Dyster campaign contributors. They supported his secret fund.

Today they investigate Bax, but if justice were ever the goal, someone should look at that. I was informed by City Hall I was to throw my property in the toilet. I had to spend tens of thousands in lawsuits.

But I won and got the ninth floor open, which in turn now employs 25 people, making our employment figure over 225.

Over four years of struggle, I built a tourism business -- souvenir, gift and convenience stores, an international food court, a Niagara Falls shuttle, a ninth-floor observatory. I made a parking lot where the hole used to be.

All done without government assistance.

All done with a hostile City Hall and hostile competitors who schemed behind the scenes with public officials to make sure they deprived me and others of the tourism pie.

After losing 37,000 industrial jobs, it is emblematic of Niagara Falls that the first individual tourist enterprise not bought and paid for with government money rose from its own exertions and employs more than 200 people.

Some say the Seneca Niagara Casino is a greater accomplishment.

But the casino is not part of Niagara Falls, America. Seneca is a sovereign nation, tax-free and gifted with city property that was once our convention center.

That's not rising by your bootstraps

One Niagara did it on its own.

From a chemical company that poisoned waters, to a failed aquarium that left a hole in the ground, to a tourism center.

Meanwhile, as the city tried its best to make our property fail, last year One Niagara paid $437,000 in property taxes, culled by taking the entire profit from its parking lot.

The state park's profits, conversely, go to Albany to support parks in New York City, just as power from our hydroelectric energy goes to light homes in New York City and not Niagara Falls. Some people, however, think I should throw my property in the toilet, seemingly concerned that a car not parked in the state lot, but in our tax-paying, private lot is a tourist lost, since we deprive Albany and Glynn of their profits.

Don't worry.

Not one person who ever parked at One Niagara or bought a meal or souvenir here and enriched any one of 20 American, old-fashioned entrepreneurs, failed to find Niagara Falls.

They got what they came for.

And maybe so did I.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.