The code enforcement director in Niagara Falls said this week that he will not grant a demolition permit allowing owners of the former Johnnie Ryan plant to tear down the building as long as city officials are considering declaring it a local landmark.
"It's an iconic building," said Seth A. Piccirillo, who also serves as the city's community development director. "We want to see this landmark process happen before the demolition happens."
The Johnnie Ryan plant at 822 Niagara St. was built after World War II and for decades housed the production center for the local soft drink brand.
"We don't want to lose another building, especially when a block down the street, you've got TM Montante redeveloping a building, you've got Ellicott Development renovating the old (Niagara) Gazette building, you have Savarino (Construction) renovating 310 Niagara St.," Piccirillo said. "To lose the Ryan building would not move us forward."
In a Facebook post, Preservation Buffalo Niagara called the plant "an excellent example of Art Moderne-influenced commercial architecture as characterized by its smooth glazed brick exterior, accented brick stringcourses, glass-block windows, and curved corner."
"I think we can all agree the last thing the City of Niagara Falls needs is any more shovel-ready sites," said Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. "We want to make sure they don't take any shortsighted decisions when they could be protected and investing in the things that have proven to be so successful just down the street."
Demolishing the vacant former soft drink plant requires a permit. Piccirillo, as the city's code enforcement director, would have to sign that permit. Piccirillo said he won't sign a permit while a local landmark application from the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society is pending.
Concern about the building started when people saw asbestos abatement crews at the plant, prompting inquiries from the preservation society. When city and society officials learned about the demolition plan, the society put in a landmark application. The City Council decides whether to approve such applications.
The City Council will be asked, perhaps by next month, to add the Ryan plant to the city's list of local landmarks. If the council grants landmark status to the building, it would not be legal to demolish it, said Piccirillo, who is running for mayor.
Council Chairman Andrew P. Touma said he personally favors the application, but the Council hasn't discussed it yet.
Piccirillo said he talked to Matthew Moscati of Buffalo's TRM Architect, who is part owner of the building.
Moscati told him buyers have shown interest in acquiring the site, but only as a vacant lot, Piccirillo said.
Also, Piccirillo said Moscati told him that he wanted to tear the building down by March 1, which is the deadline for a change in the taxable status of a property in Niagara Falls.
In a text message, Moscati said Piccirillo's statements were "not true and partially true." He did not respond to a request for clarification.
"What the owner's saying is, he's basically looking to demolish it to reduce his tax bill. It's not in support of an actual development," Piccirillo said.
That strategy has been used by Niagara Falls Redevelopment, creating swaths of open land around the Seneca Niagara Casino, he said.
The plant was erected in 1949, according to city assessment records. The Janik family, the owners of the Johnnie Ryan Co., sold it in 2001. The building has changed hands a few times since then.
City Assessor James R. Bird lists MATC Inc. as the owner of the building, which is assessed at $286,200. Bird said Moscati is a part owner of MATC, whose address is 448 Delaware Ave., the address of TRM Architects.
Public records show MATC was created in October 2015 by Mongolian businessman Davaasambuu Dashsambuu, whose company, Tumen Khishigten LLC, acquired the plant in 2014 from Niagara Falls attorney John P. Bartolomei for $350,000.
A month after creating MATC, Dashsambuu transferred ownership of the plant from Tumen Khishigten to MATC for $1.
Attorney William D. Berard III, who handled the incorporation and the transfer, said Tuesday he had no information on what's happened since then.