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Editorial: State buying 31 Niagara Falls properties could spur new development

New York State’s completed purchase of 31 properties running through the center of Niagara Falls’ downtown tourism district is a game-changer, as the mayor said, and follows decades of decay. It is the state’s largest real estate deal in downtown Niagara Falls in a decade-and-a-half.

USA Niagara Development Corp., the local arm of Empire State Development, paid more than $15 million to buy the parcels from Tuscarora businessman Joseph M. Anderson, who runs the Smokin Joes Trading Post gasoline outlets.

As a result, the state now has 9.5 acres to sell, from open land to parcels with buildings that range from a defunct hotel to a former Niagara Mohawk office building. The other plots on the state’s new for-sale list include a former call center, Anderson’s 4-acre, year-round snow park and several restaurant-nightclub buildings. Development of those properties could help to lift the entire, long struggling city.

The Falls had been on a steady decline, dating back to the 1970s and urban renewal, when whole city blocks were demolished. Some new infrastructure was built but much of it was questionable, both in design and quality.

Some historic vaudeville theaters saw the wrecking ball, but mostly mixed-use buildings fell, with nothing to replace them. From this core, many vacant and underused properties emerged, bringing urban blight as its partner.

At the same time, the city felt the smothering influence of the Robert Moses Parkway choking off downtown from the river, along with the effects of the great suburban sprawl, as traditional department stores vacated along with their clients. It was as Mayor Paul A. Dyster said, the perfect storm that left a large number of vacant properties, particularly on Third and Main streets.

The future looked grim, except perhaps to speculators who got wind of cheap commercial properties assessed well below market rate, lowering the cost to hold them. It brings to mind the largest landowner in downtown Niagara Falls whose company, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, is controlled by New York City businessman Howard Milstein.

NFR holdings, held under the name of five different corporations, total 450 properties, some vacant but some with structures, including the “Turtle” building and the Nabisco plant warehouse and silos. Company officials have, through the years, challenged the assessments on those properties.

Remember when Dyster and Sen. Charles E. Schumer met with Milstein back in January 2010 hoping for development of the parcels? Dyster, who had taken office a couple of years earlier, held high hopes. He is now in his third term and not planning on running for re-election in the fall – and the NFR properties remain relatively unchanged. They remain a difficult and unmet challenge.

But over the years, the city worked around the edges: The casino is on the western face, now the Niagara Lofts development on the eastern side. Improvements have appeared on the city’s south side and developers have even ventured in to remake historic structures, such as the Giacomo by Ellicott Development.

The former Robert Moses Parkway is now known as the Niagara Scenic Parkway and after removal of one portion and the planned removal of others, developers can see opportunity. The state’s purchase of the new properties offers an opportunity for more development.

It won’t happen overnight but the move stands to create another wave of development, playing off important public investments in the parks and parkway removal. As Dyster observed, it sets the trajectory for the next 10 years. With luck and foresight, the city may even come to resemble what visitors might expect from one the world’s best-known names in tourism.

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