A Niagara County businessman said his plan to bring saunas and steam baths to Third Street won't be affected by a recent debate among city leaders over whether his planned "relaxation spa" falls under the city's zoning ordinance that prohibits adult-use establishments downtown.
Despite reservations by Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Vincent Spadorcia, Allen Tsui's request for an interpretation from the board last year was narrowly decided, 4-3, in favor of allowing him to open the spa at 446 Third St.
What might slow down Tsui -- who owns three similar businesses in Wheatfield and the Town of Tonawanda -- is the rejection this month by USA Niagara Development Corp. of his application for a state grant to help with renovations and equipment purchases.
"This is sad to me. I'm not going to change my plans, but I will still open up a lot of businesses on Third Street," said Tsui, a native of Hong Kong. "It will take me one or two years now, almost five years to get all the equipment set up."
Tsui said he was counting on the state business development grant -- administered through USA Niagara and worth up to $100,000 -- to help purchase steam baths and other equipment for his spa. USA Niagara President Christopher Schoepflin said he decided the city zoning code would not permit such a business at that location.
It's a unique situation where state and city officials have interpreted a piece of municipal law quite differently.
"The most important thing from our perspective is that we're obligated under the grant program to look at proposed use to make sure it's a permited use . . . ," Schoepflin said. "When we read and compared [Tsui's] business plan to the city's zoning law it was clear to us that, as proposed, it was not."
He said language in the city's ordinance on what constitutes adult use plainly corresponds with many of the proposed uses at Tsui's relaxation spa. The business plan included relaxation, steam sauna, Jacuzzi, acupressure, body shampoo and aromatherapy.
The city's zoning law defines a massage establishment as a place "where massages are administered for pay, including but not limited to massage parlors, sauna baths and steam baths."
It further states that those uses are allowed in a medical clinic or office setting, a health club or at a barbershop or beauty salon where massages are only administered to the scalp, face, neck or shoulders and "which do not receive their primary source of revenue through the administration of massages," according to Chapter 1332.
Ralph Aversa, the city's senior business development officer, bristles at the suggestion that Tsui's business may have adult uses. Aversa is involved in helping the relaxation spa gain a facade grant through the city, which would help with renovation on the outside of the building.
Aversa points to letters of support Tsui submitted to the Zoning Board from the Town of Tonawanda and Wheatfield, where there have been no complaints about any of his other businesses. Aversa also credits Tsui as a mediator between Third Street property owners and business connections he has in New York City, resulting in the sale of five properties worth about $1.4 million.
Tsui says he still plans to have his spa open by the start of the tourist season but will have to add more expensive equipment "little bit by little."