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From parking lot to parking lot, another failed development plan

Niagara Falls Repoerter

Guido, Antonacci flout Planning Board directives

April 27, 2010

By Frank Parlato Jr.

A short time ago, the City of Niagara Falls owned a parking lot that was patronized by tourists from all over the world and the substantial profits that were generated poured into city coffers.

The lot, which is located on Rainbow Blvd. near the entrance to the State Park, provided parking for visitors to the Cataract City and generated revenue for taxpayers.

But then one day Baltimore developer David Cordish came along and said he could do better than a cash-generating parking lot for the city. He would create a real attraction, a world-class building on the site.

Apparently his promise of making an eye-popping tourist attraction persuaded city leaders and he was able to obtain the former parking lot. And so, what did he do?

Unfortunately, he did nothing, keeping the site vacant mainly for much of the last 10 years. For a while, he rented the lot to a group of Australians who operated a balloon ride, but the attraction failed.

Now, Cordish has made another move.

Last year he rented the lot to John Guido, formerly of Gray Line Bus tours, and local businessman Lou Antonacci. Now the former public parking lot is scheduled to be a parking lot again, only this time Cordish and his partners get the profit. The talk of a world-class building faded into just another parking lot, only it's not quite that simple.

In September 2009, Antonacci told the Niagara Falls Planning Board he was going to develop the site with a plan that included a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. Also pictured in the plan was a small Indian food stand called the Punjabi Hut, apparently a takeout stand since there is no seating inside.

In addition to the planned amusement rides and the hut, the site plan calls for a 51-car parking lot to service the rides and the hut. One of the conditions in the plan approved by the Planning Board is that total parking is to be no more than 59 per cent of the total site, or 22,826 square feet out of a total 38,424 square feet.

The board approved the Antonacci plan on October 28, 2009, which gave the developers 18 months to install the rides, pave the lot, install green space and bring the property into substantial compliance with the site plan.

The approval came with a warning in a letter signed by the Niagara Falls Planning Board Chairman Richard D. Smith, dated October 28, 2009. It read, in part, "failure to comply with (all the) conditions will result in immediate revocation of any approval."

This spring, Guido/Antonacci obtained a permit, leveled out the property, put in some drainage, and placed gravel over what was mainly grass and mud. They did not install the promised attractions, which was the centerpiece of their plan, and instead have started to charge tourists to park on their gravel lot. In simple terms, they made it a parking lot again, at least up until this point.

Ignoring the condition that they may only park on 59 percent of the site, Antonacci and Guido have converted, at least for now, almost the entire site for parking which, in effect, changes the site plan without Planning Board approval from 51 cars to an approximately 100-car paid parking lot.

Guido Parking Lot

(Click here for a larger image)

ALLEGED: This parking lot, allegedly procurred by David Cordish under an "alleged" development deal, was allegedly leased to Guido and Antonacci, who are now allegedly using it to park cars in complete violation of alleged city laws and a decision by the city's alleged Planning Board to use the space as an amusement attraction.

Now all this raises some important questions. One could reasonably conclude, based on what's been done or maybe what has not been done is that the real plan from the onset was to create a paid parking lot and not an Indian food stand or amusement rides for tourists.

The site plan would not have been approved by the Planning Board as a stand alone parking lot because that is against Niagara Falls zoning ordinances. The law requires an occupied building or an attraction to justify charging people money to park in a privately owned lot. Only the city can operate a paid parking lot without a building or attraction on site.

Antonacci told the Planning Board he was going to have an amusement park. Maybe he will, someday, but in the meantime he has more room for parking. One wonders, will the stand alone parking lot pass legal muster?

The supposed legal argument for opening the parking lot without the amusement rides is that the Indian food hut is justification enough to operate a paid parking lot. That may or may not be true.

But how much space for parking does that argument get you? For 51 as approved in the plans? Since the amusements are not in, they are using almost the entire lot for paid parking. And there is an obvious financial incentive to delay installing the rides.

Instead of using 22,826 square feet for approved parking for 51 cars, Antonacci and Guido are using almost all of the 38,424 square feet for cash parking. Now they have a 100-car paid parking lot on the site for which 51 spaces were approved in their plan.

Antonacci says he needs time to open the amusement park, and the Planning Board gave him 18 months back in 2009. In the meantime, apparently the Indian food stand is being used as the sole legal justification they hope to use to create their paid parking lot.

However is it justification to develop an oversized, unapproved paid parking lot?

Last Friday, a spokesman for the city's Inspections Department said a cease and desist order had been issued stating that unless the Indian food stand was open, the paid parking lot could not be open.Within hours, the Indian food stand was opened and is now operating at least during the hours City Hall is open. The legal question that may have to be determined is whether a paid parking lot should be open at all without the promised attractions.

It is true that Antonacci has 18 months to install his attractions but did the Planning Board mean that he should operate a 51-car paid parking lot in the meantime?

Did the Planning Board intend that they could double the lot to 100 cars while waiting for the rides?

This open, in-your-face deviance from approved plans should not result in a wink and a nod but rather an immediate termination of their site plan approval or at least a requirement that while they are awaiting the rides they conform to the approved site plan.

Should the Cordish/Guido/Antonacci parking lot be restricted to the 59 percent space allotted for parking on the plan?

Based on the shift from a public parking lot to a private parking lot, an investigation by City Attorney Craig Johnson or an independent citizens group is warranted to determine whether or not the city can seize this property and take it back.

It would be simple justice. Cordish got our valuable and profitable parking lot from us on the promise that he would develop it into something. He never did.

Instead of a gravel lot with a hut the city and the people might own this valuable lot again.


  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.