FR is investigating an unusual eminent domain taking in Niagara Falls New York. This is part #4 in a series examining the City’s effort to take a property that the owner wants to develop, announcing the move to take the property shortly after the developer announced his plans. This is in essence a story that is not merely a local Niagara Falls story but one that concerns property owners everywhere.
The city does not have the money to develop the property, and the Mayor is in a political battle with the developer, and he is in an election year. What justifies a “public purpose” for a taking, and can a municipality take your land without the money to develop it just when you come up with suitable plans for land, you have paid taxes on for 25 years? This promises to be a landmark case in the sphere of eminent domain.
Ken Cosentino, the writer of this article, mentions an old, failed dream of Niagara Falls, AquaFalls.
An ambitious, and ultimately fanciful, plan to build an underground aquarium called AquaFalls was revealed during the administration of former Mayor James Galie. New York Governor George Pataki came to Niagara Falls to laud the brilliant project.
Ground was broken in 1999 amid much hoopla, but not much happened once the one-acre, 40-foot-deep hole had been excavated.
Various alleged financiers came and went, and promises of work starting in “two more weeks” abounded. Yet the pit remained, providing a huge liability risk and an open wound on the civic psyche.
The hole remained for six years until the publisher of Frank Report purchased the hole from the developers, filled it and made it a parking lot.
Op-Ed: NFR Vs. Restaino
By Ken Cosentino
Of course, Niagara Falls already has an aquarium; and Aqua Falls never manifested. At that age, I couldn’t understand why our parents took us to see a hole in the ground. I honestly thought we were going to see marine animals. I guess we were all hoping something cool was actually happening in our hometown.
Fast forward twenty-something years, and I now understand more.
There have been many “Aqua Falls” in my lifetime. Lots of empty promises. Boarded up windows, demolished properties and developers who take the money and run; these are all too common here in the Falls.
We should be playing “poverty bingo” at this point, at least to pass the time.
One such example is Rod Davis, the developer who is at the center of several controversies, legal troubles and unpaid debts. Despite all these red flags, Mayor Robert Restaino has doubled down on his support of Davis.
Mayor Robert Restaino has a dream that somebody will have to pay for…
Just last week, local contractor Demetrius Nix blew the whistle on Davis, and the Niagara Gazette launched an eye-opening investigation, exposing some of what’s really going on behind the scenes. Mayor Restaino sure can pick ‘em.
Another ongoing dispute is between Mayor Restaino and Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR). The mayor is attempting to acquire NFR land via eminent domain.
NFR owns about 140 acres of land in downtown Niagara Falls. Just after NFR developed plans to build a $1.5 billion data center, Mayor Restaino decided to kill the project and try to force NFR to sell the land to the city for an unfunded events center. NFR is fighting back.
First, NFR proposed the fully funded, $1.5 billion Niagara Digital Campus. Then Mayor Restaino responded by announcing his plans for the $150 million Centennial Park and event center on their land.
Now, I personally would love an event center. It sounds like a great idea. I’d also love NYPA to start paying my electric bill. Is it ever going to happen? Probably not. We can spitball ideas all we want, but let’s look at the facts…
I’ve lived in Niagara Falls all my life, and what do I have to show for it? A solid, prolific career as a professional artist and filmmaker.
Despite all odds, I’ve managed to make a name for myself in one of the most cutthroat industries ever. I also have a lot of scars and trauma from staying here in this impoverished, beaten down place. People have called me insane, stupid, and many other names because I can’t stop loving our hometown; and because I choose to stay.
All while being bled by excessive taxes that I’m forced to pay. On top of my taxes, I pay an extra garbage fee, a disgustingly high electric bill, and a “sewer fee” for a water board riddled with shadowy activity.
Recently, our school taxes increased, which caused my homeowner’s insurance to increase. Simply put: We are tired of being screwed.
I know budgets. I know contracts. I know to listen to the experts, even when I think I’m right.
Patrick Whalen, the former director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute (NGTI), has been trying to warn us about Mayor Restaino’s lofty plans. According to Whalen: The NGTI was hired to analyze and determine a location for a proposed event center. They never got the chance, because Mayor Restaino launched his plan with “no analysis, no study, not much thought.”
Mayor Restaino had this sketch of the events center placed on NFR’s land – Parcel 0. He has no money to build the center. In fact he does not have the money to buy the land, but he is determined to force NFR to sell through eminent domain.
Whalen also warns that Mayor Restaino’s proposed budget of $150 million is actually half of the total cost of the event center and park; and he continues to say that Mayor Restaino wants the event center to seat 7,000, when in reality it should only seat about 4,000.
Who will pay for all this? “Nobody knows.”
As a film executive, my movies have packed theaters. One thing that hurts is when a venue is so grandiose that 300 people look like a small crowd. Too many seats is a major issue for live performances, and will turn away big acts who don’t want to play to a half empty venue.
Similarly, I’ve experienced many amateur filmmakers with huge aspirations who didn’t understand a budget or how to make a movie.
Mayor Restaino reminds me of a student filmmaker who wants to make his first screenplay into a $50 million blockbuster movie. It’s just not going to happen.
If construction starts, it will stop halfway through. Mayor Restaino isn’t listening to the experts, he doesn’t have the experience or credibility to pull it off, and nobody will give him the money.
When it flops, he will likely blame someone else before becoming a distant memory, like E. Dent Lackey (only without the white horse).
Mayor E. Dent Lackey is known as the man on a white horse who fronted the failed urban renewal program in Niagara Falls.
On the other side of the field is Niagara Falls Redevelopment LLC, [NFR] who comes fully funded and ready to break ground.
My only issue with this type of project is the noise, but NFR’s website assures that the digital campus will produce low sound. To me, that means they’ve taken residents into consideration.
That’s already a lot better than the crypto mining operation on Buffalo Avenue, which can be heard all the way in China.
Also, NFR does not suggest the city completely scraps the concept for Centennial Park. NFR suggests both projects be built. They have even offered to donate land for Centennial Park and $250,000 annually for ten years to cover maintenance costs.
The facts: NFR owns the land, is willing to make a generous donation, and has financial backing for the digital campus.
This makes NFR the winner.
Mayor Restaino’s proposed park and event center are his legacy projects. He couldn’t erect a golden statue in his likeness so he is settling for a grandiose pipe dream – while ignoring the warnings from all the experts.
If any man deserves a 120 foot tall, 24 karat all gold statue in Niagara Falls, it is Restaino the First.
Let’s not have another Aqua Falls. We don’t need another hole in the ground. We need well paying jobs and something fun to do.
NFR promises 5,600 construction jobs and 550 permanent jobs. That’s half the battle. As long as the proposed Niagara Digital Campus isn’t pumping out toxic gases or echoing the roar of a jet engine, I say build the damn thing.
If Mayor Restaino would rather blow his own horn than listen to the people he’s supposed to represent, then this is the year for us to vote him out and find someone who will actually serve us.