Preserving Olmsted Plan

Olmsted be damned at Olmsted Park

Niagara Falls Reporter

By Frank Parlato Jr.

August 11 , 2009

They love to boast.

And use the name Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted -- designer of Central Park, Yosemite and the original Niagara Reservation.

The problem is, when the Niagara Falls State Park says, "We're an Olmsted Park," it's a lie.

It's like when people in Niagara Falls think they get their power from the falling of Niagara. It's a lie.

In the 1870s, the village of Niagara Falls planned to take land -- almost to the brink of the American Falls -- and subdivide it into building lots for residential homes.


(Click the map for a larger image)

Olmsted got the state legislature to stop the home building plan and approve reserving land around the falls, including Goat Island, which at one time was planned for a prison.

In 1886, the "Reservation of Niagara" became the first state park in the United States, and the state adopted Olmsted's 100-page plan for stewardship of the park.

Olmsted's plan can be reduced to four points:

1. Keep the park all green -- with indigenous flora.

2. Absolutely no commercial enterprises in the park.

3. No man-made gardens, fountains or statues.

4. No parking except for "a few shady harbors."

At first, the park operated as an Olmsted park. And the region flourished.

We had hydropower and tourism.

We were called "The Power City."

In 1956, we had the most abundant, inexpensive electricity in the nation.

In 1957, Robert Moses persuaded the city of Niagara Falls to surrender control of its hydropower to Albany. Moses claimed his New York Power Authority would preserve our prosperity better than having local control of the world's greatest hydropower.

After 52 years of Albany control, Niagara Falls residents now pay the third-highest electrical rates in America. And instead of having use of our local power, Albany diverted it to other areas, particularly New York City.

Meanwhile, as stewards of the "Olmsted Park," Albany changed the name from the "State Reservation of Niagara" to the "Niagara Falls State Park." Other changes followed.

"It may be safely assumed," Olmsted wrote, "that no improvement that the State can make will increase the astonishing qualities of Niagara."

Olmsted wanted a pristine park to promote "pensive contemplation." He said, "In this respect, Niagara deserves to rank among the great treasures of the world."

Among the changes Albany accomplished was to reduce the flow of water going over Niagara Falls. Albany diverted more than 60 percent of the water approaching the falls into underground turbines to generate electricity -- for New York City and, to secure federal money, eight other states.

Today Niagara Falls is a tame and timid waterfalls compared to what it used to be.

And the city bearing its name is a tame and timid city compared to what it once was.

Olmsted's plan called the prohibition of restaurants and stores "a cardinal necessity (for) success." He wrote, "If it were a commercial undertaking into which the State was entering, in competition with the people of the village of Niagara, it cannot be questioned that the restaurant could be made profitable."

Today park restaurants and stores compete aggressively with city businesses.

Albany added statues and man-made gardens.

Olmsted also planned there would be no land set aside for parking, except a few "shady harbors" for brief stopping, "because at best many trees must be destroyed."

By 1987, Albany clear-cut acres of trees for parking, including a giant lot near the Maid of the Mist attraction.

Ironic: Olmsted snatched that land away from a housing development. Now it's a parking lot.

The owner of the Maid of the Mist boat ride, James Glynn, is said to have had a hand in persuading park officials that, if they made an expansive parking lot near his attraction, both he and the park would make more money.

From this point onward, the park went from Olmsted to a parking, souvenir and restaurant business -- with a waterfall attraction.

In return, helpful state park officials gave Glynn one sweetheart deal after another -- including, amazingly, in 2002, when they built him a souvenir store, gave him the pig's share of the profits on the state-owned observation tower, and threw in an unheard-of 40-year lease on his boat ride -- all done in secret. Best of all -- instead of Glynn paying rent -- park officials signed a secret lease where they pay Glynn.

And as Glynn got rich, as the park changed to a business enterprise, it saw itself as increasingly in competition with the city.

Their plan: Route all tourists along the state-owned parkway -- ironically named after the man who stole our hydropower, Robert Moses. Get them into the state lot, diverting them from parking in the city. In the park, tourists pay $10 for parking. Albany gets that. Then right to the Maid of the Mist: $13.50, that goes to Glynn. Then exit the boat tour, through Glynn's Maid of the Mist souvenir store. Glynn again. Then eat at restaurants in the park and perhaps do the Cave of the Winds. Then, because the park is small and has limited parking, get them out fast. Every tourist dollar spent in the park alone.

The local Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation now wants to move the Niagara Falls State Park entrance from where it is on Prospect and Mayor O'Laughlin to the front of the Comfort Inn Hotel.

It will surprise few readers to learn the sudden urge to move the historic park entrance coincides perfectly with the fact that Maid of the Mist owner Glynn recently purchased the Comfort Inn, along with a strip mall of vacant retail stores.

Immediately before and after Glynn's purchase, a series of coincidences occurred.

These include USA Niagara, a state agency, spending $7.9 million of taxpayer dollars to improve the road, including a cobblestone walkway, in front of Glynn's hotel, as Glynn sat on the advisory board of USA Niagara advising them to spend it.

Mayor Paul Dyster, meanwhile, pushed the Council to approve $310,000 of taxpayer money to buy out businessman Lou Antonacci's street vendor's lease in front of Glynn's strip mall. Curiously, Glynn's hotel purchase was under contract -- but kept secret -- when Dyster recommended buying out Glynn's competitor's lease.

Meanwhile, Glynn, according to sources, committed somewhere near a million dollars to a secret fund to help Dyster find and pay for City Hall aides who would be sympathetic to Glynn. In fact, Glynn's son Chris, along with shadowy Dyster campaign manager, attorney Craig Touma, sat in on the interviews.

Touma got his prearranged payback by having Dyster appoint his wife, Diane Vitello, to the post of city court judge. Glynn's payback apparently has come elsewhere -- or everywhere.

Similar scheming, but on an infinitely smaller scale, made "Smokin' Joe" Anderson a felon and placed former mayor Vince Anello on trial on federal charges.

Glynn, by the way, was Dyster's biggest campaign contributor.

Dyster also pushed a city master plan that includes rerouting traffic and focusing all tourism development toward the immediate area around Glynn's hotel and strip mall.

And Dyster eliminated the rights of veterans and other residents to set up sidewalk vending on any sidewalk near Glynn's hotel and stores, a right they enjoyed before Glynn bought his hotel.

At public hearings, hundreds of residents came out to protest the park's plan to move the park entrance to accommodate Glynn.

An investigation should be launched to determine whether designer/engineers Hatch Mott MacDonald and particularly Ronald J. Klinczar, project manager, schemed with park officials and Glynn to design a plan to move the park entrance toward Glynn's hotel.

A lawsuit is in the offing -- which will be funded by this writer -- if park officials, who will unveil their final plan in the fall, think they will be able to get away with moving the historic entrance of the Niagara Falls State Park, knock down more trees and divert more traffic away from city businesses in order to get the park entrance closer to Glynn's new hotel and shops. Discovery on that lawsuit should be revealing.

When Gov. David Paterson came to town last spring for a town meeting, Mark Thomas, deputy commissioner in charge of the Niagara Falls State Park, was there.

Thomas spoke only for a minute, saying, "No, we don't contribute money directly to the city. However, we represent the attraction that brings people to this area and we work very hard to continue to improve the attraction for the public. The attraction is Niagara Falls. We have forged a new working relationship with the city to help bring more people to this area."

Thomas received loud boos from nearly all of the 300 people in attendance.

They knew that he, not Olmsted, was a liar.


'Olmsted-ing' at N.Y. Parks, Seneca surviving on the locals, and a most expensive courthouse

Niagara Falls Reporter

By Frank Parlato Jr.

January 05, 2010

Thing are not always as they appear.

Following Frederick Law Olmsted's design, Albany reserved in 1885 what is now the Niagara Falls State Park.

Unlike other state parks that help support local businesses, the Niagara Falls State Park, said to be the most visited in the nation, with 8 million annual visitors, developed into a business in competition with the city and private sector.

The New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (N.Y. Parks) advertises the park as "an Olmsted Park." One imagines, the Parks officials might think it adds prestige to their park to mislead people into believing this most famous of waterfalls has a park surrounding it that operates according to the careful design of America's most famous landscape architect.

A sort of Olmsted hypocrisy among Parks officials is much commented upon by those who actually know something of Olmsted. Olmsted's name is invoked for almost every deed Parks officials do. Indeed, it has become axiomatic that whenever Parks officials say they are going to do something "Olmsted," it means they are going to violate at least one of Olmsted's guiding principles.

A recent example is that consulting engineers Hatch Mott MacDonald completed for Parks a "project scoping report" for a hoped-for redesign of part of the Robert Moses Parkway. Parks labeled their preferred plan as the "Olmsted-inspired" alternative.

Part of the plan and perhaps their incentive for pushing the potentially unnecessary expenditure of $13 million is to route people directly into the state's paid parking lot by reconfiguring the road and moving a bus turn-around in order to make sure cars do not park in the city.

State Parking Lot

The Niagara Falls (false) State Park practices an audacious brand of false advertising claiming the park is an "Olmsted Park". Olmsted forbade parking lots in the park he designed. Look at the picture. They have converted Olmsted's all-green park into a massive parking lot with restaurants and souvenir businesses - all directly against Olmsted's vision. They clear cut trees to make a parking lot almost to the brink of the gorge near the falls.


There is more at stake for Parks than parking revenue. When tourists park in the city, they often patronize stores, restaurants and paid attractions in the city. These are in competition for the tourist dollar with the stores, restaurants and attractions in the park.

As part of their "Olmsted-inspired" redesign, Parks is moving the entrance of the park to give tourists "a clear sense of arrival" into their "Olmsted" park. The plan really calls for routing cars into a paid parking lot, where, with a hazy "sense of arrival," the tourists will meet at a gate a cashier who will give them a "clear" demand for $10.

The park is small compared to most state parks. Parks misleadingly advertises it as being 400 acres. Technically, it is true, but about 300 acres of it are under water.

The section of the park most people visit -- the Prospect Park section -- is about 20 acres. Of that, about five acres are parking, paved roads, stores, indoor theaters, restaurants and booths to hawk tickets.

There is not much to do after you've seen the falls. It has been estimated by people in the tourism industry that the average visitor spends about four hours here.

Had Olmsted's plan been honored, the park might be a multiday attraction. Olmsted strove for his park to inspire "pensive contemplation." He planned for the park to be entirely green. He knew people do not get contemplative surrounded by stores and parking lots. Olmsted's plan, in fact, forbade restaurants and stores in the park.

He wrote, "If it were a commercial undertaking into which the State was entering, in competition with the people of the village of Niagara, it cannot be questioned that the restaurant could be made profitable."

Businesses of any kind in the park, Olmsted said, would be "deplorable." Their prohibition, he said, was "a cardinal necessity of the success of the plan."

Today -- veering far from Olmsted -- upon entering the park on foot, near or at the main entrance on Prospect Street, following the main pathway, you cannot easily get directly to the waterfalls unless you go into the Orin Lehman souvenir store and snack bar. They have metal gates actually blocking the natural outdoor green pathway and stairs leading toward the falls.

Or should you enter the Observation Deck, when you exit, you will be forced to enter the Maid of the Mist Souvenir Store. Metal gates block the easier, quicker pathway back to the park.

Olmsted, you say?

Olmsted designed a park for people to walk slowly and meaningfully, to stop and contemplate in various pristine settings and be "astonished" by Niagara Falls. That might be a quest of many days, an experience ever deepening each time you repeat it.

He also planned only one 20-foot wide road in the park. No parking lots, absolutely.

"The (sole) road should be as narrow as it can be," he said, "because at best many trees must be destroyed."

The Niagara Falls State Park, with its acres clear cut of trees for parking lots, roads, restaurants and stores, certainly should not be advertised as an "Olmsted Park."

If this kind of lying was done in the private sector instead of by a state park, the perpetrator would be the target of a suit for false advertising.

Maybe that's not a bad idea.

Parks could make it truthful, however, if they add the word "formerly" to their advertisement.

Albany's goal has never been to tell the truth, but to get every dollar. They have succeeded in large measure. Consider the irony: Next to the most visited state park in the United States is a ghost town.

Meanwhile, New York state is first among all 50 states in state and local taxes. And according to the U.S. Census, property taxes in Niagara Falls average 2.9% of a home's value per year -- the highest rate in the country. We are the highest-taxed city in the highest-taxed state.

To hammer in the final nail, Albany in 2003 created a tax-free, 50-acre "foreign nation" -- actually the Seneca Gaming Corp., operated by members of the Sovereign Seneca Nation -- in the heart of downtown in order for Albany at least to get some fast revenues.

It is not really a country, of course, but a corporation with a nice advantage over the rest of us.

Within the boundaries of this 50-acre "country" is a casino, a tax-free 604-room hotel, and multiple tax-free stores, bars and restaurants. The real secret story -- which we will rue more in times to come -- is not gaming, but Seneca's growing no-gaming ventures, for which they pay nothing to Albany, and hence we get nothing but the extra competition, while Seneca gets a tax-free advantage.

Non-gaming businesses already take the lion's share of some local business. Seneca reported food and beverage sales were $58.5 million last year. Hotel revenues were $24.3 million, and retail, entertainment and other revenues were $23.3 million. That's $106 million in tax-free, non-gaming businesses that compete directly with local tax-paying businesses.

Since Seneca opened, dozens of tax-paying local retail stores, bars, restaurants and hotels have closed. Ironically, too, much of the 25 percent pittance we get from Albany from their 25 percent revenues from the Seneca slot machines, meant to be used for economic development, goes into mortgage payments for the newly built courthouse and jail: $3 million per year.

Originally, it was supposed to be a $12 million, no-frills courthouse. Instead, it is a $50 million, no-frills courthouse. It wound up costing $415 per square foot to build. Niagara Falls paid more for their courthouse than the most expensive courthouses in the country. According to Reeds Construction Data, the average cost for courthouses in 25 major U.S. cities was from $149 to $265 per square foot -- New York City being the highest. Jails ranged from $205 to $340 per square foot, the highest again being New York City.

A jail and courthouse similar to ours should cost about $225 per square foot. In New York City it might be as high as $300. But Niagara Falls paid more than $400 per foot to build the most expensive place in the United States.

The point, however, is that $3 million per year from casino revenues is going into criminal justice and scofflaw enforcement, not economic development.

There is already a disincentive in Niagara Falls. What new business would, in a highly taxed and declining city, want to invest near a tax-free nation that can open identical businesses and compete tax-free?

Meanwhile, gaming is down 14 percent across the nation. The novelty of believing in dumb luck and repeatedly losing hard-earned money may be wearing off for some. Or it may be -- with 420 casinos in the United States, 17 in New York alone -- there are now too many for the number of dumb-luck customers. Or it could be the poor economy.

Seneca, however, was only slightly affected. A financial report filed last week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission showed gaming revenues at the Seneca Gaming Corp. declined by only 7.2 percent in 2009. Seneca grossed $586.77 million last year from gaming.

The large volume of local patrons who kept Seneca solid by losing their money regularly was cited by Catherine Walker, Seneca Gaming's chief operating officer, as Seneca's singular advantage.