Disparate treatment of historic structures in Niagara Falls raises questions of political bias

The Mehta building had been owned by the City of Niagara Falls since 2016.

The Mehta Building at 550 Main Street in downtown Niagara Falls was of classic American commercial architecture typified in the early 1900s, at the peak of Niagara’s industrial prowess, boasting a dense mix of uses on a narrow lot, with a storefront abutting Main and office and apartment spaces located above.

Most in the development community, including the City of Niagara Falls, asserted that the building was of considerable preservation value, located within eyeshot of the Falls itself and only a short two-block walk to the State Park.  In fact, the building was located at the crux of the Third Street commercial district, where the State and City have poured nearly $30 million in public investment to encourage pedestrian foot traffic in recent years.

As far as preservation opportunities go, the Mehta Building was ripe for a glorious restoration and a prime case for historic preservation tax credits.  Mayor Paul Dyster‘s administration even issued a Request for Proposals in September of 2017 that established selection criteria that were to preference a restoration of the structure, citing its historic standing.

That excited Merle Smouse, a local preservationist who has restored a dozen turn of the century residential structures into vacation rental properties and bed and breakfast venues in the City’s historic South End neighborhood adjacent to the Niagara Gorge.

Smouse has long wanted to open a high-end whiskey bar in the neighborhood, and he thought that this was his chance. He is well known at City Council meetings, and he’s never been one to shy away from taking the microphone and offering his honest feedback to his elected officials.

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The Park Place Historic District in Niagara Falls has seen a flurry of development in the last year, much of it involving vacation rentals.

Smouse submitted a bid in response to that RFP, offering to purchase the building for $28,000 and to fully renovate the structure into a mixed-use retail and vacation rental property — and was willing to do so without public subsidy and congruent with the tourism objectives that the City stipulated in its RFP.

He even had financing for the redevelopment project in place, and he included documentation from his underwriters in his submission.

But City officials instead awarded the RFP to Penn Terra, an out-of-town firm based in St. Catherines, who bid $30,000 for the property.  That proposal, however, did not meet the various selection criteria that the RFP was written to preference in its decision making.  Penn Terra’s project didn’t have financing in place, was vague in its proposed reuse, and required public subsidies.

Initially, the firm agreed to save the structure, but by November of 2017 the firm began lobbying City to allow for the demolition of the building, despite it being under the stewardship of City Hall.  The lobbying was premised on the claim that a wind storm damaging two bricks from the cornice of the building’s facade.

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The firm Penn Terra received a free City-funded demolition of the former Mehta Building, which they committed to preserving only three months earlier.  Mayor Paul Dyster watched the demolition from his car, parked in an alley across the street.

The City fast-tracked the demolition with no input from the City’s preservation community.  Preservationists argued that the City owned the structure since 2016,

“The City has a full-time mason on staff who was eminently capable of making the minor facade fix in a matter of hours,” Smouse argues.  “How could the City use such a minor premise to justify the demolition so swiftly?”

Without explanation, the City paid for that demolition.

More than 18 months after the RFP was awarded to Penn Terra, the firm still lacks financing for its proposed project, and 550 Main Street sits empty as a vacant dirt lot.

Some have wondered aloud how the investor group knew to bid precisely $2,000 more that Smouse’s bid.  The firm claimed their project would require Community Development Block Grant money to complete.  They wonder: by what logic did Dyster administration staff entirely ignore the selection criteria that they themselves drafted?

Johnnie Ryan

The behavior of City officials becomes particularly suspect when considered relative to their treatment of other structures located further from the State Park and of lesser preservation value.  Such is the case of the Johnnie Ryan building located at 822 Niagara Street, which is now in the demolition process.

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Observers wonder why city officials are inconsistent in pursuing preservation projects, and some have raised questions of political bias. 

The Johnnie Ryan warehouse on Niagara Street is located more than ten blocks from the State Park and is not located in a historic district.  Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo fought hard to designate the building a historic structure, despite engineering assessments that detailed longstanding water damage and a very limited square footage available for adaptive reuse.

Still, Piccirillo — who often endorses projects independently of the City Council in his role as Community Development Director — is said to have pressured the Council to designate the property as historic with the aim of thwarting a sale of the structure to a party unfavored by the Dyster administration.

Matthew Moscati is the owner of the structure.  He is an architect who is noted for his preservation projects, but his plans for the structure were thrown into chaos after several of Piccirillo’s political compatriots tagged him on social media with critical commentary that fawned over the warehouse.

Shortly thereafter, Piccarillo, in his capacity as Acting Director of Code Enforcement, refused to issue a demolition permit.

Moscati was unable to secure a permit for asbestos removal on February 12 because he was told by Code Enforcement that it was a federal holiday — Presidents’ Day — and that he would have to come back tomorrow.  But that same evening, the Planning Board (despite the holiday) met as regularly scheduled to discuss designating his building with landmark status.

The following day, on February 13, Piccirillo refuses to issue a demolition permit — at which time Moscati filed an Article 78 ‘abuse of power’ complaint against the City.

At the State Supreme Court proceeding, City Attorney Tom O’Donnell told Justice Daniel Furlong that the City wanted to defer the decision regarding landmark status to the Court.  Furlong instead sent the decision back to the City Council “to do their job,” noting that if they refused he would make a decision in the matter.

The Council subsequently voted 4-to-1 to allow the development.  Bill Kennedy, an ally of Dyster and Piccirillo, was the lone opposition vote. It’s believed by local attorneys that Moscati has an outstanding claim for damages against the City, but they are hesitant to put a dollar figure on those damages.

The Koshian Mansion 

City Planning Director Tom DeSantis and Mayor Dyster often identify themselves as leaders in the preservation movement, sometimes clinging to quirky and impromptu visions of a downtown developed to their whimsical tastes — the Johnnie Ryan building being, perhaps, a case in point.

But one developer seems to be immune from the politics that slows down everyone else at City Hall.  His name is James Glynn, the patriarch of Glynn family of Lewiston, the owners of the Maid of the Mist, and Dyster’s principal political backer.  Don Glynn, James’ brother, is an influential columnist at The Niagara Gazette, often providing the enterprise considerable strategic value.

“The Glynns paid a reported $750,000 for the landmark Koshian mansion at 305 Buffalo Ave. Before the sale was even registered, the magnificent structure was razed, leaving only the ornate wrought-iron gate out front as evidence it had even existed in the first place,” Mike Hudson reported at the time of the December of 2008 purchase.

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The vacant lot at 305 Buffalo Avenue, Niagara Falls, NY was the site of the now demolished Koshian Mansion, completed in 1910.

The building was demolished, practically overnight, and Dyster — whose “fierce dedication to historic preservation is well known, emitted not a peep about the wanton destruction.”

City Historian Tom Yots, who has acted as an obstructionist in practically every corner of the City, ostensibly in the aim of preserving its heritage, was silent on Glynn’s brazen demolition.

The imposing mansion would have celebrated its centennial in 2010. For decades it was the home of the late state Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Koshian, who stepped down from the bench due to debilitating illness in 2001, following 36 years of distinguished service.

A pioneering woman who was elected just six years after Birdie Amsterdam of New York City became the first woman to successfully run for the state Supreme Court, Koshian bravely endured her medical condition without complaint, retiring from the bench only when her illness virtually kept her from leaving her grand Buffalo Avenue home.

At the time, it was thought that the Glynns would construct their operation’s headquarters on the site.

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305 Buffalo Street, the site of the former Koshian Mansion, remains undeveloped.

 

 

1 Comment

  1. I love this article. So sad to see the area’s architectural history disappearing, but great that someone is reporting on it.

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