Urban design critic and publisher Matthew Ricchiazzi wants the Seneca Nation Tribal Council to adopt an urban design plan for its sovereign 50-acre territory in downtown Niagara Falls — and he wants the Council to prioritize individual entrepreneurship rather than allowing the Seneca Gaming Corporation to continue to monopolize the entirety of the territory. Ricchiazzi believes that the acreage can be parceled into tightly packed commercial streets and pedestrian alleyways, with high-quality urban design that creates compelling public spaces that encourage tourists to wander and explore bustling pedestrian-oriented streetscapes.
Ricchiazzi is circulating an urban design concept that calls for 78 private parcels to be carved out of the site, to be owned by individual Seneca developers rather than the Nation’s casino operating company — which is federally regulated and unable to take an innovative posture when it comes to tribal economic development. Many Seneca entrepreneurs — especially those in the tobacco industry — are unable to fully access the American and Canadian banking systems. Some would be quick to invest their on-territory cash accumulations into tourist-oriented real estate investments in downtown Niagara Falls if the Tribal Council created a zoning code and permitting process that enabled it.
Following the end of its casino compact in 2023, the Nation will continue to have sovereign authority over the Niagara Territory and will be able to conduct gaming on it, unabated — but the Nation will no longer enjoy the exclusivity rights to operate gaming devices in Western New York — rights it had paid more than $1 billion for in the form of revenue sharing from slot machine receipts. That is likely to mean that Delaware North, the region’s largest national operator of casinos and racetracks, is likely to construct a venue in downtown Niagara Falls.
“The flood gates are going to open, so why not pre-emptively saturate the market with a slew of new hotels on the sovereign territory, each one of which could locate a dozen slot machines in the lobby and operate a card room on the second floor, marketing themselves as casinos,” he posits. “Suddenly the territory becomes like Times Square, with the Seneca Niagara Casino positioned as the anchor attraction in the middle of it all — but with individual Seneca developers and investment vehicles taking the lead in terms of investment and pursuit of new growth.”
The Seneca Gaming Corporation has been reluctant to over-invest in the Niagara Falls venue, for fear that emerging competitors will enter the Western New York market and cannibalize top-line revenue. If operating costs are too high, a competitor with a comparable venue could squeeze profits too tight to support tribal operations.
Ricchiazzi argues that, rather than expanding the gaming floor or wasting resources on superficial makeovers, the Nation should be diversifying the commercial activities that are taking place on the Territory, which will have the impact of growing gaming revenues without increasing the cost of operating the current gaming floor.
“Recreational marijuana in New York State is around the corner, and this parcel is three blocks away from one of North America’s most visited natural monuments,” Ricchiazzi notes. “The economic development that happens on the territory should be broad-based, and the impacts should be maximized. That starts with compelling urban design.”