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.
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.