In recent years, the City of Niagara Falls’ water treatment plant has become an international embarrassment. In 2017, the unsightly and confounding stenches of untimely sewage discharges — merely a few hundred feet from the loading docks of the Maid of the Mist — became the subject of international news stories that have damaged the City’s brand as a destination for eco-tourism.
Those discharges included toxic sediments that have long been leeching the City’s sewer lines. Much of the City’s downtown sewer lines are still made of wood. The vestiges of our industrial history (first catalyzed by cheap hydroelectric, and later with the wartime pursuit of the Manhattan Project), some of the world’s most toxic materials have literally been seeping into the sewer system, accumulating the toxic sludge that now must be periodically drained from the plant’s treatment basins.
Elected leaders across Western New York, and of every political affiliation, are in agreement that the City’s sewage system is beyond obsolete and must be replaced. The State of New York announced last December that it would allocate $13.5 million for improvements to the City’s sewage treatment plant.
But many City residents and business leaders worry that reconstructing the treatment plant on the same site would be an unconscionable urban planning mistake, the likes of which will be remembered and resented for generations. The current facility occupies a vast waterfront parcel along Buffalo Avenue that urban planners have long called ‘pivotal’ to the City’s redevelopment.
While many continue to disagree on how that waterfront parcel — which some see as the most valuable and strategically situated pieces of land in the City — should be repurposed, nearly everyone is in agreement that the sewage treatment plant should be relocated further from downtown and further from the waterfront.
The most obvious location would be nearest to the North Grand Island Bridge, where the City’s water authority already maintains its offices and water intakes. Others would like to see the facility located on the northern side of Buffalo Avenue, about a quarter-mile from the riverfront.
With an issue as critically important to voters as the efficacy of the City’s water and sewer infrastructure — and how requisite its modernization is to attracting large-scale high-density development projects — many political observers are baffled that the issue hasn’t been more central to the political discourse.
Voters will go to the polls on June 25th and November 5th to select a new Mayor and City Council members. Three-term Mayor Paul Dyster has decided not to seek reelection, creating an open primary in which Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo and former City Court Judge Bob Restaino will battle for the nomination; the winner of which will face Republican Glenn Choolokian.
While the City maintains a considerable enrollment advantage for Democrats, President Donald J. Trump won more than 41% of votes inside Niagara Falls’ city limits — a surprisingly strong showing in a largely African American polity, and in a high-turnout year.
Urban planners are at no shortage of development concepts for the site. The City owns the 40 acres that comprise the treatment plant, with 23 acres of underutilized private properties immediately adjacent to it. The New York Power Authority owns the land along the Niagara River, on which the Robert Moses Parkway was built.
The Dyster administration’s steadfast support of removing the Robert Moses Parkway from along the Niagara Gorge has created a paradigm shift among the electorate on the issue of highway removal more broadly. Repurposing waterfront lands for public access and green space is wildly popular among voters.
At the same time, the business community lusts to redirect vehicular traffic incoming to the City along Buffalo Avenue, Niagara Falls Boulevard, and Pine Avenue — where the undervalued real estate along those roadways would be given newfound access to tourists. They cite Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls, Ontario, as an example of the types of tourist-oriented development that would be likely to take place along Pine and Buffalo Avenues.
Perhaps the easiest development concept to execute would be simply to demolish the obsolete treatment plant and repurpose the space as part of a larger expansion of the State Park. Urban designers can readily imagine hiking trails, thickly planted botanic gardens, and animal habitats — similar to those of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
As tourists look for more authentic, eco- and culturally-oriented experiences, many industry experts believe that Goat Island and Prospect Point should be as natural a landscape as possible. Design critics have called for removing the large surface parking lots and unnecessary roadways that have blighted the natural monument. A vastly expanded park-space could become a preeminent hiking destination — with trails along the Niagara Gorge, Goat Island, and the Upper Niagara River that captivate tourists for days — with the aim of lengthening the average tourist’s four-hour visit.
Others argue that the City desperately needs to grow its property tax base in order to address a structural $10 million annual operating deficit, made apparent by the completion of the Seneca Nation’s revenue sharing obligations. For more than a decade, the City has been spending much of that windfall — at last count, $13 million in annual payments — to cover basic operating expenses.
By parceling such prime waterfront real estate, the City could substantially grow its tax revenue. The real estate enjoys extraordinary views, is located at the entranceway of the tourism district, and is within walking distance of the Falls. With new streetscapes, high-quality urban design, and a pedestrian-friendly orientation towards the riverfront, the area could quickly emerge in the mold of Clifton Hill.
High-density development relatively close to the water’s edge would be likely to draw pedestrian foot traffic further away from the park, encouraging visitors to wander and explore the city. Too often visitors drive into the State Park, where they spend three or four hours at the Cave of the Winds and the Maid of the Mist, before leaving the City altogether — which severely limits the industry’s economic impact on the City.
Short visits continue to be a serious obstacle to Niagara Falls’ evolution as a destination — but the most serious obstacle is the seasonal nature of tourist volumes.
Few business models are able to remain viable year-round because the vast majority of visitors come to the Falls between late June and early September. That short 90-day season is often lucrative for hotels, tour companies, and souvenir retailers — but not profitable enough to sustain gainful year-round operations for most businesses.
It’s a problem that is deeply damaging to Niagara Falls residents, who are often poor, unemployed, and under-educated. The only jobs that population has access to are seasonal, typically lasting for fewer than three or four months, before they fired at the close of each season — often not long enough to even qualify for unemployment benefits. It’s a pattern that repeats itself every year, trapping those unfortunate enough to depend on the industry.
Seasonal cyclicality will be at the crux of Niagara Falls’ redevelopment challenge until it’s addressed in a structural way. Generating tourist volumes off-peak is difficult given the climate and the lack of substantial indoor attractions, which are often too capital intensive to take private investment risk.
A convention center is one public investment strategy that has been advocated among economic development experts, given such a facility’s capacity to attract large volumes of visitors during the City’s long off-season. If it were well programmed, that flow of business could sustain more year-round business models that allow for year-long employment opportunities.
In recent months, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced a plan to construct a convention center in Buffalo. His administration is willing to spend up to $500 million on the facility, arguing that the County’s current venue (which is of fewer square feet than the typical Wegman’s grocery store) is too small to attract large national conventions.
But Poloncarz’s critics argue that Buffalo is not a nationally prominent enough — or compelling enough — destination in the national consciousness to be a substantial player in the market for conventions. Niagara Falls, however, enjoys an internationally recognizable brand and can be far more easily marketed to potential corporate and industry groups.
Financing a $500 million facility would cost Erie County about $2.7 million annually (at 5% interest and amortized over 30 years). If Erie and Niagara Counties were to collaborate on the project, that cost could be shared or the region could cooperatively finance a larger venue.
Without a critical mass of development, the City remains unable to emerge as a year-round world-class destination. Empire State Development has been unwilling to address this issue of seasonality in any substantial way — but Anthony Vilardo, the newly appointed leader of Empire State Development’s Niagara regional office, is said to be “energetically considering” strategies to generate off-peak tourism, and more broadly to extend visitors’ average length of stay.