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By David Staba

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles looking at the downtown area of Niagara Falls. Now more than ever, the future of downtown impacts the rest of the city's fate, from the North End to LaSalle, from Pine Avenue to Highland Avenue. Over the coming weeks and months, the Niagara Falls Reporter will go beyond the news conferences and public pronouncements to explore what's really going on downtown.

Look at the picture on the cover.

Look at it again.

To most readers under 45 or so, the photo triggers thoughts of just about any booming post-World War II city, with the cars giving away the time period.

Maybe Chicago. Maybe even upper Manhattan.

But plenty of you know better. You know you're looking down Falls Street, circa 1951, its intersection with Main Street dominating the picture's center and the Nabisco building lurking in the background.

Over a couple ensuing decades after this bustling streetscape was snapped, the federal government decided that downtown Niagara Falls (and hundreds of other downtowns across the United States) needed saving. The decision-makers here, as in dozens of other cities, decided the best way to save downtown was to level it.

Even given the devastating failure of that tactic, it's difficult to blame most of the people involved. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, politicians at all levels praised Urban Renewal and proclaimed that the flow of federal money would provide the lifeblood of a revitalized downtown.

If that sounds familiar, well, it's because you've been hearing the same sort of thing for the last few years. Only this time, the hoped-for development will be driven by the arrival of a casino. And instead of the federal government playing Sugar Daddy, we have the benevolent souls in Albany ready to oversee the rebirth of downtown.

With state-sponsored salvation still in the nascent stage, and with the USA Niagara Development Corporation vowing to seize privately owned property to make its as-yet-unannounced vision a reality, the painful lessons of Urban Renewal are more relevant than ever.

Niagara Falls was far from the only place to clear-cut the aging buildings that gave downtown its character and vitality while providing most of its commerce. Historic preservation was barely a concept in those days, much less a workable form of redevelopment. A drive through Buffalo, Batavia, Jamestown or Lockport to view the concrete boxes that replaced historic three-story brick structures makes the prevalence of the tear-it-down mentality during the 1960s and '70s painfully obvious.

In most "renewed" urban areas, though, only parts of the city's heart fell victim to the wrecking ball and the cookie-cutter construction that ensued, leaving some evidence of the area's past. In Niagara Falls, only a smattering of artifacts, like the United Office Building, the Hotel Niagara and St. Mary of the Cataract Church, escaped unscathed.

The intersection of Main and Falls streets in the picture? Long gone, of course.

The long-neglected Wintergarden, itself a ward of preservationists barely a quarter-century after its completion, now squats over the once-busy crossroads.

Urban Renewal was designed to ease "blight," defined in those days as aging buildings and an increasing minority population. That it did, displacing thousands of residents and 300 businesses. The people moved to other parts of the city, or out of town altogether. Some of the businesses relocated, but many simply disappeared.

Few ever returned.

Once demolition was completed, the city's Urban Renewal Agency pumped money into infrastructure -- new roads and sewers to entice developers.

"The idea was, build it and they will come," said Niagara Falls Reporter columnist and St. Bonaventure journalism professor John Hanchette, who covered Urban Renewal for the Niagara Falls Gazette in the late 1960s and early '70s.

They never did come, though. At least not in the numbers envisioned. Without competition, but with much of their cost eliminated by Urban Renewal money, developers built, not a gleaming City of the Future, but the sort of anonymous sprawl usually reserved for suburban strips like Transit Road and the Erie County end of Niagara Falls Boulevard. Where they built at all, that is.

The failure of the indoor mall was outpaced only by its outdoor cousin. A series of lookalike hotels popped up throughout downtown, only to be forced to change owners and names every few years by perpetual bankruptcy. The Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center filled the role now envisioned for the casino, an anchor around which developers, and eventually tourists, would swarm.

And let's not forget the parking ramps designed to handle the teeming masses that never quite made it here.

But more than 30 years after they were cleared, plenty of lots remain vacant, a monument to the foolishness of tearing something down before you know what you're replacing it with. Gov. George Pataki, through the conduit of USA Niagara, vows to fix all that. How? By largely following the Urban Renewal game plan.

The first step -- eminent domain. Well before last month's announcement of a casino compact between New York State and the Seneca Nation, both Pataki and Mayor Irene Elia spoke of a "carrot and stick" approach, with government seizure of property from what they consider recalcitrant property owners serving as the hammer in the revitalization toolbox.

That's the first sign that there's no more foresight involved this time around. Taking property without a plan for what to do with it was the first, and biggest, blunder of Urban Renewal. Today, property owners downtown are scrambling to increase the value of their property, announcing grandiose plans and signing tenants to longterm leases. But under eminent domain, a government is able to take whatever it wants. Ensuing court battles have traditionally centered not on whether the seizure was justified, but rather the fair value of the seized property.

Predictably, both Albany and City Hall are well behind the national curve when it comes to their new favorite toy. Eminent domain was originally intended as a way to make space for roads, schools and other projects serving a public purpose. Starting during the Urban Renewal era, more and more governments and government agencies expanded the definition of "public purpose" to include economic development projects.

But does taking property from one private entity, then turning around and selling (or giving) it to another truly serve the public's best interests? That question has been at the center of the eminent domain debate around the country, according to the March, 2002 edition of "Urban Land" magazine, a trade journal of the development industry.

The question is especially pointed here, where the state has promised to give the Seneca Nation more than 50 acres surrounding the Convention Center that it doesn't actually own. There are more than 30 parcels within the promised casino zone. Since USA Niagara hasn't approached present owners of the proposed Seneca land to talk sale, that means an equivalent number of eminent domain proceedings.

The title of the Urban Land article is "A Last Resort," describing the way most governments now look at eminent domain. That hesitancy's cause is two-fold -- government seizure tends to erode community support for projects, while courts, which once allowed tremendous latitude in such matters, are viewing condemnation for the purpose of private development with an increasingly skeptical eye.

One of the biggest landowner victories in an eminent domain case involves a casino. In 1998, the New Jersey Superior Court stopped the state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority from condemning a private owner's property.

The agency intended to give the land to Donald Trump to use as a casino parking lot, but the court ruled that the "benefit" arising from the condemnation would be greater to Trump than to the public.

Given that context, along with the city's dismal history with government-driven "development," Albany's promised renaissance doesn't look nearly as simple, nor as easy, as we've been told at myriad news conferences.

Look at the picture one more time.

Downtown Niagara Falls will never look like that again. Wishing that it could won't make it any better than it is now. But neither will forgetting how it got from there to here, or sitting passively while a fresh crop of saviors make the same mistakes again.

Niagara Falls Reporter September 3 2002