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Customs House Project Is Disaster Despite $2.4 Million Investment

By Frank Parlato

You got to be kidding? You spent $2.4 million and turned a historic building into this hodge podge, bastardized, half modern, half old style building? What were they thinking? Look at the modern roof and the modern picture window (see next page right, for close-up of picture window).They have made it look like a suburban house in Amherst or Clarence.

This is a case when the "before" is a hell of a lot better than the "after. At least the Old Customhouse, run down as it was, looked authentic.

Despite spending millions, the Customhouse is not even close to being finished. All they have been able to do so far is ruin the outside. The interior is far from complete.

A Niagara Falls Reporter investigation into the progress of restoring the former U.S. Customs House on Whirlpool Street by Mayor Paul Dyster shows that, despite spending more than $2.4 million, the job is far from completed, is mired in litigation, and was done in such a slipshod fashion as to be laughable.

Dyster requested that the city's share of state DOT money -- $2 million of what normally should have been spent on road repairs - be used on the project instead. This explains why Wendel, Dyster's handpicked engineering and architectural firm, scoped the job using the DOT forms as if it were a road project.

The general fund put in $57,336 toward the project and casino funds added another $500,000.

Then there was $350,000 more in casino money for the Underground Heritage Commission.

New York State Parks chipped in $100,000 and the NYPA Greenway fund put in $100,000 for a total of $3,107,336.

The city has spent $2,883,215 for a project that probably could have been done by private investors for $500,000.

At 9,000 total square feet, the city has invested more than $267 per square foot, which is more than it would cost to build new, and the project is not even completed.

Built in 1863, the Customs House served inspectors for the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, Niagara Cantilever Bridge, Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, and Michigan Central Railway Bridge at various points in its history.

With Niagara Falls receiving the second highest amounts of American imports at one point, the Customs House was once a very busy post for its inspectors. Remaining in a U.S. Customs capacity until the 1960s, it was sold to several different commercial owners before it was abandoned in 1998.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, the building has been  owned by the City of Niagara Falls since 2003.

The work done by the Dyster administration has been a blend of architectural styles that look not unlike one of those bastardized suburban homes that mix modern and period architecture in a grotesquely unaesthetic way.

A large modern picture window spoils the historic facade, and modern shingle roof clashes harshly with the more than 150-year-old bricks to create an oddity that is not visually pleasing, and property that seems to want to look historic but fails to succeed.

It reminds one of a man with a toupee. While the person may not look bald, there is still something inauthentic about his hairline.

They would laugh at this in Saint Augustine, Boston or Old Town Key West where they have authentic historic districts.

It proves once again that government ought to stay out of the development business and leave it to the private sector where real people spend their own money and therefore are careful about it.

There is also a lawsuit by the Resetarits company which claims the firm has not been paid $294,000 for work it had to do that Wendel did not properly include in their scoping plans.  City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka said that plan was done to DOT road specifications rather than architectural specifications.

One of the main bones of contention is there were more pigeon droppings that had to removed from the roof of the building than Wendel had imagined. Pigeon droppings, the fruit of the graceful birds lighting on the rooftop for all those years, was encrusted in layers and is hazardous to remove and dispose of. If those pigeon droppings could only talk, they might tell the whole history of Niagara Falls, up to the Dyster administration.

City taxpayers, and not Wendel, will get to pay for Wendel's mistake.

Dyster plans to spend $150,000 of money that would be otherwise available to be used for road projects to pay Hodgson and Russ, Buffalo lawyers, to defend the Resetarits litigation.

The mayor hired Kevin Cottrell in 2008 and paid him more than $74,000 a year to manage what was expected to go inside the Customs House, artifacts associated with the Underground Railroad Heritage Center. The mayor gave another $350,000 of casino money to a commission Cottrell headed to promote the exhibit.

Cottrell recently quit after costing taxpayers more than $250,000 and without spending one day operating an exhibit that some think may never open.

And, if that was not enough, the building is incomplete.

In spite of spending almost all the money the city had in grants for the project, as well as a substantial sum of city money, the project is far from complete and years past due.

Over budget, behind schedule and headed for court.

Sometimes it makes you think Dyster cannot do anything right. Maybe it is because his priorities are all wrong.




Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Apr23, 2013