Niagara Falls: What Happened?
By Don Glynn
All photographs in this article © Jim Bush.

There are no easy answers to the dilemma that the Cataract City faces in its ongoing struggle—as relentless as the rapids above the brink—to regain its ranking as an international visitor destination. Nor does it help that much of the heavy industry that tourists used to sniff on their way into town has fled for more user-friendly places to do business.

There have been so many blunders since the first bulldozer arrived on the scene that it would be virtually impossible to assess blame.

But a short walk from the aging Convention and Civic Center through the grimy Lackey Plaza and along Old Falls Street, past drab structures more suitable for warehouses than the entertainment-retail centers the developer envisioned, is convincing proof that Niagara Falls suffers from an edifice complex.

An eerie scene
Falls Street, once a world-famous address, is now a pedestrian mall, with trees standing as silent sentinels near benches seldom used, and vacant storefronts on both sides of the street.

Gone are thousands of languishing honeymooners who spent hours in those crowded souvenir stores, at the hot-dog and popcorn stands, and under the Vernor’s Ginger Ale sign with its dazzling lights.

People knowledgeable about revitalizing a downtown will tell you that pedestrian malls seldom, if ever, work. “The street should be put back,” says Paul Verciglio, an experienced hotelier who was general manager of the Niagara Hilton (now the Holiday Inn-Select) in its better days, even though the room occupancy rates have always fallen short of the mark.

“People want to drive close to where they’re going, whether it’s for shopping or any other reason,” he added.

City planners compounded the problem by approving the Wintergarden, conceived as a horticultural showpiece. As it developed, the glass-enclosed complex linking the indoor shopping mall and a hotel became a sprawling roadblock, sealing off the view of downtown as visitors leave the state park to explore the city.

What makes it worse, in the rush to ban the diagonal parking from Falls Street and force tourists into three-story ramps, no serious thought was given to a people-mover, such as mini buses to transport visitors from their hotels to the state park and nearby attractions.

Instead, people were generally left on their own to cope with restrictive one-way streets, and, of course, little left to lure families, honeymooners, or anyone else along the mall.

How did the city of Niagara Falls end up in such an abyss?

At a glance, those empty buildings so close to the natural wonder, the reason that millions of people come here every year, prove that misguided or unfinished development has contributed greatly to the steady decline of Niagara Falls.

A brief heyday
For the first half of the 20th century, Niagara could rightfully claim its ‘Honeymoon Capital’ title. It had earned it from the days of when the railroad passenger trains rumbled into the New York Central Depot with hundreds of people stepping off the trains to stream along Falls Street to the Niagara Reservation, the nation’s first state park.

For the honeymooner especially, downtown had it all: they could pose for a photograph taken against a canvas backdrop of the cataracts, browse in one of those stores stacked high with souvenir cushions, cheap jewelry, and dozens of gadgets, and stop by a sidewalk soft-drink concession.

A travel writer visiting the city shortly after World War II called the tawdry air “a mixture of Coney Island and a carnival, an atmosphere of impermanence, as though nobody was quite certain that the falls would continue to flow.”

The writer observed what local residents undoubtedly didn’t want to believe: that many of the shops looked as if their owners anticipated closing their doors at any moment and moving onto a more profitable stand.

No one paid much attention at the time, but by the mid-1950s, the city was losing it—that coveted tourism crown.

The passenger trains were on the decline. Automobiles brought a steady influx every summer but the visitors often found blotches on the welcome mat.

In that era, the typical hard-sell sightseeing operator would direct unsuspecting tourists to pull to the curb—you would too, looking at the man in a blue suit, dark glasses and a badge identical to a police officer’s—for information. The spiel was quick and convincing: for starters, you weren’t to attempt driving around town because there was no place to park. Within minutes, the tour hawker often had the people out of their cars and into sleek, black air-conditioned limousines.

As the tourist trade declined, the city was jolted even more in June, 1956, when the Schoellkopf Power Station collapsed into the Niagara Gorge, an earth and rock slide which wiped out about 25 percent of the tax base.

By the early 1960s, downtown Niagara Falls had become what was obviously a losing deal for city government.

It was creating a situation where the expense of the South End was more than its worth.

Irene Elia, Mayor of Niagara Falls.
Lackey, Moses, and “renewal”
Conceding the rapidly deteriorating conditions, the City Council commissioned DeLeuw, Cather and Associates in 1962 to study the area and recommend a productive plan.

After almost six months, the consultants released their findings labeled “Rainbow Center.” They determined that the downtown core was too small and being used so inefficiently that there wasn’t space for all the people, businesses, activities and automobiles that it had to attract if it were to prosper.

At a glance, it was evident that many of the residences and business structures were old;
a majority were unkempt. The vacancy rate continued to increase.

Streets were spacious, the consultants agreed, but they did not always lead the right way; most of them were not used effectively.

Retail sales throughout the city increased 9.3 percent between 1954 and 1958 but stores in the South End—close to the falls—dropped by 10.9 percent in the same span. The decline continued into the 1960s.

One of the most talked-about public figures from that period is E. Dent Lackey, an ex-Methodist minister who decided in the mid-60s to pursue a political career. The citizens took him to heart; he was elected mayor.

The flamboyant Lackey—sometimes riding a white horse at the head of a parade—is still blamed for spearheading a short-sighted urban renewal policy that clamored for everything to be torn down. True, extensive demolition followed, but it was necessary for the city to secure the federal and state monies to rebuild.

The State Urban Development was considered the catalyst in the construction of a $20 million convention center, the 400-room hotel on Third Street, and the new Carborundum Center (now the Niagara Office Building), among other projects

Even before the Lackey administration unveiled its ambitious scheme, the New York Power Authority had moved swiftly to complete the $720 million Niagara Project to replace the Schoellkopf Power Plant. The Niagara Project added 10,000 jobs to the Niagara Frontier and generated millions of dollars for the local economy.

As part of the payback—for the widespread disruption to the community—Power Authority Chairman Robert Moses had included a vast public works program that provided for new roads, bridges, and expressways.

A major element of that network was a 22-mile parkway linking the North Grand Island Bridge and the state Thruway to Lake Road near Youngstown.

Closer to the city, Moses’ legacy divided downtown Niagara Falls from the state park. “Nothing more than a Chinese Wall,” snapped Lackey, as cars crawled through the heart of the park at 20 miles per hour, less than 100 yards from the falls.

That parkway through the center of the park created a barricade. Steep pedestrian overpasses were built so tourists could enter the park. To compound matters, countless motorists glimpsed the American Falls and then turned onto a ramp for the Rainbow Bridge to Canada.

The parkway named for the ‘Master Builder’ became a nightmare for the city and its economy. In the 1970s, long after the blunder was first conceded, the state removed the section that sliced through the park; traffic was diverted into the downtown area.

Subsequently, in celebration of its centennial, the state parks commission removed the ugly overpasses, restored the unused portion of the parkway to parkland and built the landscaped Great Lakes Gardens and new visitor information center in the park. The downside of the improvements: nearly 40 percent of the parking spaces in the lot closest to the falls were lost.

Today, with few exceptions, the downtown area is not too different from a couple of decades ago.

The ambitious plans never came to fruition. For wide-ranging reasons, developers never scrambled to replace many of the buildings wiped out. Severe height restrictions resulted in seven and eight-story hotels as opposed to the 25 and 30-story structures dotting the Niagara Falls, Ontario, skyline. And despite all the talk about potential investments, not much appears to be on the horizon.

Big promises and high hopes Longtime local residents often grow peevish whenever urban renewal is mentioned. Their irritation stems from decades of disappointment, grandiose schemes seldom making it off the drawing boards, election campaign promises vanishing soon after counting the ballots, and poor planning.

By the 1996 mayoral race, there was increased pressure to take action, for the city to make a commitment to get something started. About a year after Mayor James C. Galie assumed office, the administration signed an agreement with an investor group known as the Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR), headed by Toronto dealmaker Ed Cogan.

Under that plan, Cogan and his team were given an eight-year option to rebuild some 200 downtown acres.

Their master plan provided for hotels, restaurants, entertainment and retail centers, and a gambling casino close to the convention center.

Three years into that option, the developers have yet to put a shovel into the ground. That irks new Mayor Irene Elia, whose campaign pledge in the November election was to make something happen downtown. “If they (NFR) don’t have anything going by July, we’re going to ask them to leave,” she said. In the same breath, the mayor contends that developers have been “standing outside her office,” waiting for the right opportunity.

While the new City Hall administration pledges to help Niagara regain its status as a destination, some deep-rooted issues continue to hamper the rebuilding efforts.

Now, the biggest attraction on the drawing boards within a short walk of the state park is the $45 million state-of-the-art AquaFalls, an underground aquarium in front of the former Occidental Center. Set to be open for this tourist season, it has been stalled by design changes, and glitches in the funding package. At this point, it appears the ribbon cutting probably won’t occur until December.

The AquaFalls developers plan to promote the aquarium by a giant illuminated message on the side of the nine-story office complex facing Ontario. They could encounter problems with that marketing strategy since the across-the-street landlord is the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Albany-based agency with jurisdiction over the nation’s oldest state park.

On a related note, when officials of “A Festival of Lights,” which starts in late November and runs through Jan. 1, sought permission to install some Christmas displays on Goat Island for a drive-through experience such as offered at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, West Virginia, and other successful holiday festivals, the request was denied. Although the displays would be in place for just two or three weeks, the festival committee was told the extra lights would not be in keeping with Olmsted’s philosophy.

In the late 1970s, a small task force from the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce—headed by agency executive vice president Henry Kalfas, a retired school district superintendent— visited Simcoe, Ont., to look at the highly-touted “Festival of Lights,” a spectacular outdoor display that brought thousands of visitors to the Ontario community during the Christmas holidays.

Back home, the chamber board quickly approved a similar 40-day scheme for the Cataract City.

Unfortunately, by 1999, the 19-year-old event had lost its appeal. A new committee working to revive it this year is buoyed by the prospects of doubling the operating budget.

The vacant Turtle (formally known as the Native American Center for the Living Arts) is a scar on the edge of the upper rapids. The paint is peeling, the dirt-streaked windows haven’t been washed in years, and it is doubtful if the facility can be used for anything—even a bingo hall, as two entrepreneurs have suggested. Major league gambling, however—well beyond bingo—has been discussed as a solution to the city’s problems.

The lure of casinos
While the city continued on the downslide, a number of political and tourism leaders suggested it might be saved by casino gambling. As early as 1972—six years before the dice started rolling on the Atlantic City, N.J., Boardwalk — state Senate Majority Leader Earl W. Brydges, whose district included Niagara Falls, mentioned casinos as a cure for the city’s ailing economy.

Nearly 30 years later, casino gambling still looms as a possibility but the odds appear staggering. Since the state Constitution prohibits legalized casinos, the measure would have to be approved by two separately-elected legislatures prior to the statewide and local referendums. A number of proposals have already been introduced in Albany but none ever made it beyond the initial stages. The lawmakers have been mostly reluctant to submit the question to a referendum.

“That’s all we’re asking for, a chance for the voters to have a voice in this matter,” says Frank V. Roma, chairman of the Niagara Falls Coalition for Casino Gaming.

Roma points to the thriving Casino Niagara across the border where the more than 20,000 average daily attendance has pushed gross monthly revenues over $50 million.

A non-gambler, Roma stresses the estimated 2,200 direct jobs that would be created by a single casino hotel. He also points out that New York State loses $2 billion per year in monies spent at casinos in surrounding states and Canada.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other reasons why motorists tend to cross the border rather than explore the American Falls. Often, they do it simply because the Canadian Falls are easier to get to.

Finding the falls
Confusing signage plagues motorists arriving via the state Thruway. After crossing the North Grand Island Bridge and entering the city, the choice seems simple: the scenic parkway leading to downtown or the 1-190 (Niagara Expressway) ramps to Buffalo Avenue or Niagara Falls Boulevard.

Too often, the unsuspecting motorist is the tug-of-war victim. Phillip Villella, who owns the Howard Johnson’s hotel near the ramp from the boulevard (Route 62) leased a billboard on the interstate with a large arrow pointing east for “Niagara Falls and Canada,” the opposite direction for the Falls-bound drivers. Less than 50 yards away, a similar billboard advertising the Falls featured an arrow pointing west—the right way.

“I was losing too much business,” Villella said, when confronted with the confusion he had created. “I need to get the people in here so I can give them the information too,” he said.

Tourists are in for another surprise, if the city council approves a current resolution that would encourage motorists to use Route 62-A (Pine Avenue to reach the falls) instead of the faster alternative, Walnut Avenue.

“We need to get people into our commercial sectors,” said Councilman Joseph D’Angelo. The Pine Avenue route would result in a sharp increase in traffic past dozens of businesses and through the busy City Market section.

Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to force tourists to shop or dine before they see the falls. “If you dump 500 more cars a day onto Pine Avenue, you’ll have gridlock,” says Anthony Rendina, an insurance agent who notes the current volume delays countless pedestrians from simply crossing the street.

Meanwhile, the downtown traffic system needs revamping. One-way streets tend to limit the motorists’ choices. For example, there is no direct route for visitors to reach Goat Island, the parcel separating the American and Horseshoe Falls. Rainbow Boulevard, a half block from the bridge to the island, leads motorists north, away from the park. City officials are weighing the strong possibility of restoring two-way traffic on all the main streets near the falls.

One of the biggest embarrassments is the new system designating intersections by large numbers dangling from the traffic signals. Under the plan—ex-Mayor Galie got the idea on a visit to Gatlinburg, Tenn.—motorists were supposed to pick up the brochure with the map at the official information centers. By tracking the numbers, they would find attractions and services, which also are advertised in the pamphlet. The project coordinated by the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce fell short of sponsors, and the map supply was depleted. While the numbers are still there, motorists have no idea why.

Bringing back the park
Regardless of the additional attractions brought in to enhance Niagara Falls, USA, the major player will always be New York State, the entity responsible for maintaining the parkland surrounding the falls. A persistent drawback to proper maintenance of the parkland is the district state park commission’s lack of fiscal independence. Except for receipts from some concessions within the park, most revenues flow to the state Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation in Albany. Even the Niagara Frontier State Park and Recreation Commission, a group that is supposed to advise the governor’s office on issues affecting the park, has no clout. For years, district parks officials have raised concerns about the budget crunch in Albany. As a result, capital projects often move as swiftly as a dry creek. Meanwhile, routine preventive maintenance is often sacrificed.

Less than three years ago, the parks agency protested when the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission proposed to build a 75-foot high administration building across the new $29-million Rainbow Bridge Plaza.

An official with the state parks Office of Historic Preservation said the design of the plaza building would intrude on the national landmark—the state park—close by. Subsequently, the plaza building to house customs and immigration offices was downsized to 45 feet.

Securing approval for any project within the state park can be time-consuming and frustrating.

For years, attorney Jack Gellman, who served on the commission until recently, had pushed the parks department in Albany to approve funds for the last phase of the upper rapids illumination, a project started in the 1980s.

Gellman was told several times the lights were a luxury, considering the tight budget situation. Finally, about a year ago, the $400,000 was provided by the Delaware North Park Services, a major concessionaire in the park that operates the Top of the Falls restaurant overlooking the Horseshoe Falls and several souvenir shops within the park.

At first, the white lights were viewed as an added attraction, something to encourage tourists to stay longer, perhaps overnight. Shortly after the fixtures were installed, someone from the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy complained the lights created too glitzy of an atmosphere. Subsequently, a number of the bulbs were removed.

A prime example of the State’s inattention to maintenance problems at the falls is the rusting Prospect Park Observation Tower with its unmatched view of the American Falls and the Niagara Gorge. The 250-foot tower elevators offer the only access to the Maid of the Mist sightseeing boats.

More than a year ago, Gov. Pataki toured the state park and announced the tower would be replaced. “It’s nothing more than an eyesore,” the governor said.

Edward Rutkowski, assistant deputy commissioner for the state parks commission, said it would cost upwards of $4 million to paint the tower.

So the state has hinted at a high-speed elevator system to be built in bedrock, some 200 feet back from the edge of the embankment. At the bottom, a tunnel would lead tourists to the lower river viewing areas and the boat docks.

Pataki has hailed the $20 million tower replacement project as an example of the state’s innovative plan for more public-private partnerships within the state’s 156 parks. The project would be funded by $10 million from the state, with the New York Power Authority and the Maid of the Mist each contributing $5 million.

During a recent stop at the Falls, state Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro made it clear, however, that the parks agency has yet to decide on the tower. The options range from demolishing it or eliminating part of it to letting it stand.

The parks commission also is sensitive to any plan that would mean another building in the park—wiping out green space—to house the elevators.

Castro said the challenge is to provide a facility that will have the capacity to move visitors more quickly from the park into the gorge and to the boat docks without adversely impacting on the environment. The Maid of the Mist, the major private concessionaire within the park, also operates from the Canadian side of the lower river where an improved elevator system carries more than 2,000 passengers an hour.

Meanwhile, Castro remains a staunch proponent of returning the parklands surrounding the falls and gorge to the vision landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted espoused in 1885, when the Niagara Reservation was established.

Put more emphasis on nature and less on asphalt, she said during a recent stopover. Castro thinks that “ecotourism” will make the U.S. side more attractive because visitors will have the chance to interact with the natural beauty through a seven-mile Niagara Gorge Trail between the city and Lewiston.

The governor also is intent on adding green space as evidenced by his announcement that the state has acquired the 51-acre DeVeaux Campus in the northwest corner of the city from Niagara University. The property is opposite the Whirlpool State Park, which affords a commanding view of the 200-foot gorge and lower river.

Signs of hope
New York State’s renewed committment to restoring Olmsted’s vision of Niagara is encouraging. And as another tourist season arrives, there are other signs that the city will eventually have more to keep tourists here.

The Cordish company plans to convert its failing Rainbow Factory Outlet—about 100 yards from the state park—into an entertainment complex. The mall has experienced a steady exodus of tenants for years.

Cordish also has secured permission for tethered balloon rides, starting June 1, on a vacant city-owned parcel the developer has an option to buy. But the permits, including approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the 40-passenger balloons to lift 100 feet over the launch site adjacent to the mall, have been delayed until July.

Across the street, businessman Peter Stranges has invested nearly $800,000 in a new wax museum that he is convinced visitors will find intriguing, as they make their way along the west mall to the state park. The museum had been bogged down for more than two years after the foundation was dug, victim of a legal battle between the entrepreneur and the adjacent owners of the 110-room Comfort Inn. It will be almost impossible for passersby to spot the hotel behind the 1 1/2 —story museum, the owners argued.

In the end, the court ruled in favor of Stranges. The added delay precluded any chance for the construction to be completed by the time the tourist season kicks off.

There’s even hope for the drab Wintergarden. A firm with an option on that site has proposed an indoor dinosaur theme park. Paul Grenga Jr., an attorney and partner in Wintergarden Entertainment, said the attraction, Wintergarden Rainforest Dinosaurium, would feature more than 20 species of dinosaurs and fossils in a re-created habitat.

With Disney’s new digital studio gambling some $200 million on a movie called “Dinosaur,” the fledgling Falls investors could find themselves ideally poised for the inevitable long-term spinoff.

Don Glynn, a native of Niagara Falls, has been a reporter and columnist for the Niagara Gazette since 1961.


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