Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino wants the land.
But it’s unclear why.
Mayor Restaino said he wants 10 acres of land owned by Niagara Falls Redevelopment LLC (NFR) to build Centennial Park, a 7000-seat events center with a parking ramp and small pocket park.
The mayor’s sketch of his proposed but unfunded events center.
When NFR did not want to sell, the mayor responded with a lawsuit trying to force the company to surrender its 10 acres of John Daly Boulevard, right across the street from the Seneca Nation’s sprawling casino and tax-free business enterprises.
The legal process of a government “taking” land from an owner is called eminent domain.
In a legal brief filed fighting the taking, NFR argues Mayor Restaino lacks a legal basis for the taking, claiming there is no “public purpose,” a strict requirement for the government to take land in New York State.
The land Mayor Restaino wants.
Mayor Restaino, who admits the city has no money to build the $150 million events center, said last year, “If you have the site and you don’t get the money, you still have the site and then you are looking at development…the first step is getting the property. With the property, we now control a critical corner in the downtown.”
The eminent domain law prohibits the government from taking land on speculation to become developers or to hand it to politically friendly developers, which NFR is not.
NFR alleges the mayor’s intentions have “little to do with a park, an event center, tourism, or anything of the like.”
On top of the $150 million in construction costs, the city will need about $20 million to buy the land. While the eminent domain law permits the forced sale of land, if there is a public purpose, the law requires the government must pay a fair market price to the land owner.
NFR wrote in its legal papers, “What the City wants is to eject a commercial developer from the property it owns in downtown Niagara Falls. After that, maybe funding [for Centennial Park] materializes, maybe it doesn’t. But the… Mayor will be in control, just ahead of election season.”
Knowing that a speculative and unfunded project like Centennial Park won’t pass the public purposes test in law, the mayor tried a novel approach, declaring the 10 acres of land “blight” because it is forest and lawns but not developed.
The mayor wants to take NFR’s land because he says this well kept park-like property is “blight.”
There is a precedent for municipalities to take blighted buildings from owners to combat urban decay. But NFR lawyers argue there is no legal definition of blight that covers well-kept park-like land.
NFR wrote in its legal brief that the city offered no evidence to support the notion of blight. NFR writes the land “consists of a well-manicured plot of land. The grass is consistently cut. The taxes are always paid. If simply saying the word ‘blight’ is sufficient to take a private citizen’s property, the constitutional and statutory safeguards preventing indiscriminate condemnation will have been rendered meaningless.”
Ironically, but for Mayor Restaino’s effort to take the land from NFR, it would not meet even his definition of blight.
NFR was well on the way to developing its land into a $1.5 billion high-tech data center, which they planned to call the Niagara Digital Campus.
Mayor Restaino decided to stop NFR’s development plans to take the land for his events center.
NFR projected its high-tech center would create 5,600 construction jobs and 550 permanent jobs. The company partnered with Urbacon, a Toronto-based developer and operator of state-of-the-art data centers when the Mayor stopped the development. Urbacon has developed similar facilities in Montreal, Toronto, Richmond Hill, and Ontario, which are 100% occupied.
NFR’s project would be privately funded, requiring no city tax dollars.
NFR and others in the city have identified an underused, city-owned land on Niagara Street and Third Street for the mayor’s events center. Because it is city-owned, it will not require the eminent domain law to take it.
Because it is next to an existing city-owned parking ramp, the taxpayers would not have to fund the cost of building a new one, as the mayor’s plans currently call for.
A = The 10 acres NFR owns and the city wants to take.
B = The Seneca Nation property, which is tax free.
C = City owned land, which might be an alternative site for the events center.
D = The Rainbow Parking Ramp – which would provide ample parking.
The Court Will Decide
A hearing on the City of Niagara Falls’ eminent domain petition will be held before the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court on May 22, 2023, with a decision expected in the months after.
Appeals could take years and cost Niagara Falls millions in legal fees and additional costs.
After nearly a year, there has yet to be an indication of how much the city has spent or will spend on legal fees to pursue its eminent domain plan.
Mayor Restaino chose to retain outside legal counsel to handle the eminent domain procedure – choosing one of the state’s most prestigious and successful law firms – Hodgson Russ. Renowned eminent domain expert Daniel Spitzer leads the legal team for the mayor.
When asked at a council hearing, Mayor Restaino declined to reveal the legal costs taxpayers have spent, saying he has matters in hand and will disclose such details when he can.
NFR’s land is the mayor’s preferred location because he wants to ensure the Seneca Nation of Indians benefits from the city taking the land.
The land Mayor Restaino wants is across the street from the sovereign nation’s entranceway to its sprawling casino, restaurants, bars, and hotel complex.
The location will ensure that patrons exiting concerts and sporting events at the mayor’s events center will be close to the Seneca complex.
The city-owned land proposed for the events center is close to Niagara Falls tourism and entertainment businesses along Third Street.
Mayor Restaino admits that if he cannot find the funding to build the events center, he will control the property and could offer it to the Seneca Nation to expand their holdings near the city.
The Senecas own 50 acres of sovereign land carved out of the City of Niagara Falls almost 20 years ago by a governor seeking reelection, who promised a casino would regenerate the city’s moribund economy.
The plan was flawed. The city is poorer than ever. Seneca businesses compete tax-free with Niagara Falls businesses, which pay among the highest combined property, sales, and state income taxes in the USA.
Recently, the Senecas opened a state tax-free gas station and smoke shop that shattered the businesses of several local gas stations.