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Olmsted be damed at Olmsted Park

Niagara Falls Repoerter

August 11, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

They love to boast.

And use the name Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted -- designer of Central Park, Yosemite and the original Niagara Reservation.

The problem is, when the Niagara Falls State Park says, "We're an Olmsted Park," it's a lie.

It's like when people in Niagara Falls think they get their power from the falling of Niagara. It's a lie.

In the 1870s, the village of Niagara Falls planned to take land -- almost to the brink of the American Falls -- and subdivide it into building lots for residential homes.

Map of the Niagara Reservation


Olmsted got the state legislature to stop the home building plan and approve reserving land around the falls, including Goat Island, which at one time was planned for a prison.

In 1886, the "Reservation of Niagara" became the first state park in the United States, and the state adopted Olmsted's 100-page plan for stewardship of the park.

Olmsted's plan can be reduced to four points:

1. Keep the park all green -- with indigenous flora.

2. Absolutely no commercial enterprises in the park.

3. No man-made gardens, fountains or statues.

4. No parking except for "a few shady harbors."

At first, the park operated as an Olmsted park. And the region flourished.

We had hydropower and tourism.

We were called "The Power City."

In 1956, we had the most abundant, inexpensive electricity in the nation.

In 1957, Robert Moses persuaded the city of Niagara Falls to surrender control of its hydropower to Albany. Moses claimed his New York Power Authority would preserve our prosperity better than having local control of the world's greatest hydropower.

After 52 years of Albany control, Niagara Falls residents now pay the third-highest electrical rates in America. And instead of having use of our local power, Albany diverted it to other areas, particularly New York City.

Meanwhile, as stewards of the "Olmsted Park," Albany changed the name from the "State Reservation of Niagara" to the "Niagara Falls State Park." Other changes followed.

"It may be safely assumed," Olmsted wrote, "that no improvement that the State can make will increase the astonishing qualities of Niagara."

Olmsted wanted a pristine park to promote "pensive contemplation." He said, "In this respect, Niagara deserves to rank among the great treasures of the world."

Among the changes Albany accomplished was to reduce the flow of water going over Niagara Falls. Albany diverted more than 60 percent of the water approaching the falls into underground turbines to generate electricity -- for New York City and, to secure federal money, eight other states.

Today Niagara Falls is a tame and timid waterfalls compared to what it used to be.

And the city bearing its name is a tame and timid city compared to what it once was.

Olmsted's plan called the prohibition of restaurants and stores "a cardinal necessity (for) success." He wrote, "If it were a commercial undertaking into which the State was entering, in competition with the people of the village of Niagara, it cannot be questioned that the restaurant could be made profitable."

Today park restaurants and stores compete aggressively with city businesses.

Albany added statues and man-made gardens.

Olmsted also planned there would be no land set aside for parking, except a few "shady harbors" for brief stopping, "because at best many trees must be destroyed."

By 1987, Albany clear-cut acres of trees for parking, including a giant lot near the Maid of the Mist attraction.

Ironic: Olmsted snatched that land away from a housing development. Now it's a parking lot.

The owner of the Maid of the Mist boat ride, James Glynn, is said to have had a hand in persuading park officials that, if they made an expansive parking lot near his attraction, both he and the park would make more money.

From this point onward, the park went from Olmsted to a parking, souvenir and restaurant business -- with a waterfall attraction.

In return, helpful state park officials gave Glynn one sweetheart deal after another -- including, amazingly, in 2002, when they built him a souvenir store, gave him the pig's share of the profits on the state-owned observation tower, and threw in an unheard-of 40-year lease on his boat ride -- all done in secret. Best of all -- instead of Glynn paying rent -- park officials signed a secret lease where they pay Glynn.

And as Glynn got rich, as the park changed to a business enterprise, it saw itself as increasingly in competition with the city.

Their plan: Route all tourists along the state-owned parkway -- ironically named after the man who stole our hydropower, Robert Moses. Get them into the state lot, diverting them from parking in the city. In the park, tourists pay $10 for parking. Albany gets that. Then right to the Maid of the Mist: $13.50, that goes to Glynn. Then exit the boat tour, through Glynn's Maid of the Mist souvenir store. Glynn again. Then eat at restaurants in the park and perhaps do the Cave of the Winds. Then, because the park is small and has limited parking, get them out fast. Every tourist dollar spent in the park alone.

The local Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation now wants to move the Niagara Falls State Park entrance from where it is on Prospect and Mayor O'Laughlin to the front of the Comfort Inn Hotel.

It will surprise few readers to learn the sudden urge to move the historic park entrance coincides perfectly with the fact that Maid of the Mist owner Glynn recently purchased the Comfort Inn, along with a strip mall of vacant retail stores.

Immediately before and after Glynn's purchase, a series of coincidences occurred.

These include USA Niagara, a state agency, spending $7.9 million of taxpayer dollars to improve the road, including a cobblestone walkway, in front of Glynn's hotel, as Glynn sat on the advisory board of USA Niagara advising them to spend it.

Mayor Paul Dyster, meanwhile, pushed the Council to approve $310,000 of taxpayer money to buy out businessman Lou Antonacci's street vendor's lease in front of Glynn's strip mall. Curiously, Glynn's hotel purchase was under contract -- but kept secret -- when Dyster recommended buying out Glynn's competitor's lease.

Meanwhile, Glynn, according to sources, committed somewhere near a million dollars to a secret fund to help Dyster find and pay for City Hall aides who would be sympathetic to Glynn. In fact, Glynn's son Chris, along with shadowy Dyster campaign manager, attorney Craig Touma, sat in on the interviews.

Touma got his prearranged payback by having Dyster appoint his wife, Diane Vitello, to the post of city court judge. Glynn's payback apparently has come elsewhere -- or everywhere.

Similar scheming, but on an infinitely smaller scale, made "Smokin' Joe" Anderson a felon and placed former mayor Vince Anello on trial on federal charges.

Glynn, by the way, was Dyster's biggest campaign contributor.

Dyster also pushed a city master plan that includes rerouting traffic and focusing all tourism development toward the immediate area around Glynn's hotel and strip mall.

And Dyster eliminated the rights of veterans and other residents to set up sidewalk vending on any sidewalk near Glynn's hotel and stores, a right they enjoyed before Glynn bought his hotel.

At public hearings, hundreds of residents came out to protest the park's plan to move the park entrance to accommodate Glynn.

An investigation should be launched to determine whether designer/engineers Hatch Mott MacDonald and particularly Ronald J. Klinczar, project manager, schemed with park officials and Glynn to design a plan to move the park entrance toward Glynn's hotel.

A lawsuit is in the offing -- which will be funded by this writer -- if park officials, who will unveil their final plan in the fall, think they will be able to get away with moving the historic entrance of the Niagara Falls State Park, knock down more trees and divert more traffic away from city businesses in order to get the park entrance closer to Glynn's new hotel and shops. Discovery on that lawsuit should be revealing.

When Gov. David Paterson came to town last spring for a town meeting, Mark Thomas, deputy commissioner in charge of the Niagara Falls State Park, was there.

Thomas spoke only for a minute, saying, "No, we don't contribute money directly to the city. However, we represent the attraction that brings people to this area and we work very hard to continue to improve the attraction for the public. The attraction is Niagara Falls. We have forged a new working relationship with the city to help bring more people to this area."

Thomas received loud boos from nearly all of the 300 people in attendance.

They knew that he, not Olmsted, was a liar.


  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.