Why is downtown Niagara Falls mostly vacant?
Maybe it's the senior planner.
Six years ago, I bought a distressed building and the property around it in Niagara Falls N.Y. -- the failed AquaFalls underground aquarium project. The developers had blasted a one-acre-wide, 40-foot-deep hole 1,000 feet from the American Falls. Then they ran out of money.
I signed an agreement with the city, on April 25, 2006, that I would fill the hole in return for the planning department -- under Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis -- approving a plan to open the vacant building, now named One Niagara, in time for the 2006 tourist season.
The first floor was to operate as a tourist center. The other eight floors were to remain closed until I was ready to develop them.
I kept my end of the bargain. The city didn't. There was a lawsuit. I won.
I submitted a formal site plan in February 2007.
One Niagara grew in time from a single restaurant to 12, from one store to seven, as well as a 28-bus Niagara Falls shuttle service and an array of tourist services, from free Internet to discount hotel bookings, employing many people in the area.
In 2009, Senior Planner DeSantis rescinded my site plan. The original plan called for a number of shrubs to be planted and, two years later, he said we were several shrubs short.
DeSantis wanted the building closed and the 200 people working there laid off.
DeSantis, declining my offer to plant additional shrubs, said, "One Niagara must start the planning process all over again."
DeSantis, although he wanted the building closed, learned that "insufficient shrubbery" is not sufficient cause for the condemnation of a building in America.
By 2009, I decided to open the ninth floor to offer the public a free, panoramic view of the falls. Canada has many buildings with panoramic views, but One Niagara is the only public space in America that has such a commanding aerial view. I hoped the observation tower would draw people to the building and help support the vendors, who in turn would employ more people and make us all more money.
When I tried to submit engineered drawings, the city Inspections Department refused to accept them.
On Jan. 12, 2009, City Attorney Chris Mazur wrote to the Building Inspections Department, "I spoke with Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis and we both concur that your department should not accept and review any engineered design drawings regarding the One Niagara property. Since 2005, One Niagara has done nothing other than frustrating the planning, inspections and law departments. As such, the City should take no action with regard to the One Niagara property except those required by ordinance, statute or regulation."
So I sued, under NYS Article 78. The city, I alleged, was acting in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner in denying me the right to develop my own property.
An injunction, issued by state Supreme Court Justice Richard Kloch, on July 2, 2009, ordered that I could open the ninth floor and submit a new site plan that the city should not arbitrarily and capriciously deny.
The fight cost us perhaps a million dollars in lost revenue, since the season was half over, but the ninth floor was opened on July 4, 2009.
Over the winter, entrepreneur "Smokin' Joe" Anderson and I invested significant money to develop a retail store on the ninth floor, creating dozens of new jobs. We were about to create a museum and interpretive exhibits that would make the observation area a world-class attraction. Just as the 2010 tourist season neared, I received a letter from the city Law Department informing me the city was going to appeal Kloch's decision. They ordered that I must, while awaiting appeal, keep the ninth floor closed.
Of course, I had to suspend the heavy investment of the museum and go to court instead. I won an injunction on April 13, preventing the city from interfering with my use of the property until the appeal was decided.
The president of One Niagara, Tony Farina, met with DeSantis in hopes of settling our differences.
DeSantis told Farina that he wanted "just a few things" to make City Hall happy. All he wanted was for us to eliminate 25 percent of our existing parking lot to make a large green garden in front of our building.
Parking is at a premium in Niagara Falls. There are numerous other parking lots that service competing businesses downtown. None of these have green space or shrubbery.
The new city-owned parking lot, two blocks away, is not green at all. None of the other buildings nearby with parking lots have large amounts of green.
DeSantis said his dream was to have all buildings in Niagara Falls have parking behind their buildings and only green in front.
While it may sound utopian, it is somewhat impractical.
The Super Wal-Mart, for instance, recently developed, has parking between its store and the street. Parking cars is its economic engine. Would Wal-Mart survive if it had to have a giant lawn in front, with insufficient parking behind the building?
The amount of parking is often critical to the success or failure of a business. If there is no place to park, people drive elsewhere.
DeSantis' requirement of large amounts of green space would injure our vendors, who already do not have enough parking for their customers. His plan meant a 60-car loss of parking -- thousands of potential customers lost -- in return for an area of green where, frankly, more green is not really needed. After all, we are next to a park.
Still, how long can you fight City Hall? I reluctantly considered agreeing to DeSantis' plan.
Farina went before the Planning Board on May 21 to learn if we could win site-plan approval with this harmful parking-lot reduction. But some of the Planning Board members showed little understanding of economic realities. One asked, looking at the reduced parking lot drawing, "Why do you need so much parking, anyway?"
Answer: For our customers.
A few days later, DeSantis sent us a letter. Besides the 25 percent loss of parking already required, he wanted to expand the front "yard" garden.
"Parking spaces numbered 136-145," he wrote, "... are (now deemed) located in the front yard. ... The area in front of the building shall have grass or other landscaping installed, maintained, and generally kept clear of parked cars. ... Parking spaces numbered 35, 36, 157, 158 (should also be eliminated)."
He explained his vision: "Parking areas shall be designed so as not to result in an unduly adverse impact upon the natural environment, the pedestrian realm, or detract from the city's beauty. ... Parking areas are secondary to structures and streetscape elements and shall not overwhelm or dominate a site."
DeSantis simply does not understand business, I thought as I read.
Then the letter seemed to take on a crazed dimension, as he gave us impossible orders:
"Minimize the visual ... impacts of parking areas. ...
"Buffer the view of parked cars from adjacent uses and pedestrians. ...
"Parking areas should be (both) shaded by large canopied trees and shall be adequately screened and buffered from (the view of) adjacent uses. ...
"A minimum five-foot buffer strip ... shall be (removed from the parking lot and) landscaped ... along all sides (consisting) of planting materials ... to create a minimum four (4) foot high visual relief screen in the form of a hedge, fence, planter box, berm, dividers, shrubbery, or trees. ...
"(Consequently) parking spaces numbered 114-121 and 152-160 shall be eliminated."
DeSantis was requiring us, in addition to making a large garden in front of our building, to plant large canopied trees, and perhaps 1,000 shrubs, around and in the parking lot to hide the parking lot from the view of the public. In the real world, parking lots should not be hidden, but should be easy to find for drivers looking for a place to park.
DeSantis was not finished: "A decorative 4' high wrought-iron fence ... shall be installed along the ... sides of the parking lot in order to protect and buffer the proposed landscaping areas."
He wanted us to add a fence to protect the shrubs that hide the parking lot. The fence would also make it harder for people to walk onto our property. They'd have to jump over bushes and fences.
Following his plan, we would go from a 200-plus-car parking lot down to a 100-car lot, ensuring our businesses would not survive.
There was more. A business cannot survive without signage. And big signs mean big business. Go to any major tourist destination and see if the local government discourages signage.
DeSantis, however, wanted all the One Niagara signs "permanently removed." Then, we could, in time, try to get approval from various governmental agencies, including his own, for new, small signs.
DeSantis explained, "Signs shall be ... scaled (down) so as to serve their function without dominating the overall design."
We were sandbagged.
Farina set up a meeting between DeSantis and myself on June 3 at City Hall.
DeSantis spoke about how his job was simply to use his expert knowledge to make rules for planning and to enforce them.
I was representing myself and the hundreds of people who make a living at One Niagara.
My project was perhaps the first during DeSantis' tenure that could be said to be somewhat successful in the downtown core area.
After DeSantis spoke, a city official in attendance scolded me and said I should simply follow whatever DeSantis says, and that my trouble was that I simply did not listen to DeSantis.
I said that I am convinced that people simply following what he says is why the city is in the shape it is in. He obviously does not understand business. Planning things on paper is not the same as running a business or running a city where business is allowed to thrive.
DeSantis stood up and announced, "This meeting is over!" And he walked out of the room.
Perhaps DeSantis has some hidden agenda as to why he wants One Niagara to fail. Or is he merely an incompetent amateur? Perhaps he wants some government-sponsored pie-in-the-sky project, with millions allotted for planning alone, instead of a locally grown and fostered enterprise.
Hey, how about an underground aquarium?