On Dec. 9, 2004, I bought the closest privately-owned building nearest to the brink of Niagara Falls. Maybe it was destiny meeting strangely at one sudden goal. Maybe it was luck.
Nevertheless, without knowing much about Niagara Falls, I came, invited to look at distressed real estate, and wound up buying it: a nine-story, all-glass building. I renamed it — aptly, I think — “One Niagara” — since it’s the first building one sees in the USA after coming over the Rainbow Bridge.
One Niagara (formerly the Occidental Chemical Center) looms large over the Rainbow Bridge; it is the first building people see when coming into the USA from Canada.
Up until 1999, the building was called “The Occidental Chemical Center.” Built, partly, as an apology for an environmental tragedy known as Love Canal, it was completed in 1981, by the Hooker/Occidental Chemical Co. (Oxy) for regional headquarters. It became somewhat famous as a pioneer of “green;” the first in the Western Hemisphere to have a double-glass “skin” (for capturing solar heat) and that, and other innovations, justified its mention in several architectural digests as historic. It was listed, also, in the “Guinness Book of World Records” (1987), in connection with its role in the Festival of Lights, for “the largest sound and light display in the world.”
The location, too, adds, I think, to its piquant interest: It rests on two-and-one-half acres of land bordering the Niagara Falls State Park — the closest multi-story building in the river peninsula where the Niagara makes its dramatic fall. From within this all-glass building, there is a stunning aerial view: The wide, calm, upper Niagara; Grand Island; the upper rapids; the American Falls; Goat Island; The Maid of the Mist; the Horseshoe Falls; the Ontario skyline; the Rainbow Bridge; and the lower Niagara River and its gorge. All can be seen from inside.
It’s the only building on the American side where one can see the whole Niagara Falls panorama. One understands why Oxy executives wanted to keep this view solely for themselves.
Incidentally, when Oxy built on the border of Canada, right next to the state park — making it the gateway property to Niagara Falls — a lot of people thought it wise to build a private office building to act as fortress, blockading the park. Tourists in the park would have little reason to go around a giant, carefully guarded (with armed security guards and, inside, metal detectors) and un-welcoming building — to venture into the city. It gave the impression that outside the park, it was all business. There were no tourist amenities in the glass building next to the most-visited state park in the USA. It helped keep tourists in the park where Albany could profit.
(In Ontario, the mindset is different. All buildings near the Niagara Falls Provincial Park are tourist-oriented. They foresaw the advantages of supporting tourism.) Meanwhile, as justification for giving Oxy this choice land and inhibiting tourism (which this location for more than a century had historically promoted), Oxy provided good year-round jobs for locals. Ironically, however, by the late 1990s, Oxy laid off most employees and the building, becoming mainly vacant, served only to blockade tourism.
Then it got worse.
In 1999, Oxy sold the building to David Ho of Hong Kong, who claimed he would build an underground aquarium. After getting millions in tax benefits and millions more from investors, he left the building in shambles. He also, rather amazingly, blasted into bedrock, on part of the property, an acre-wide, 40-foot deep hole that he said was going to become an underground aquarium. Some believe Mr. Ho never intended to develop an aquarium, but merely to swindle investors in a ponzi-type scheme.
If a whole world, with all its greatnesses and littlenesses, lie in a twinkling star, David Ho in his littleness left an empty building and a giant hole immediately next to the Niagara Falls State Park. The property — hole and building both — went into foreclosure.
And, if I may immodestly say so, I demonstrated a twinkle of greatness when I bought the property and filled that huge, stinking hole.
I also had occasion to think about a panoply of ironies: Oxy built an all-glass building, next to one of the wonders of the world, in a location that should be dedicated to tourism. But Oxy did not wish to use the location to aid tourism or share its world-class view. They were fated, however — the largest employer in the area, the only one that could, in a tourist destination, politically commandeer such a location for an office complex — to go, effectively, out of business. Then, of all the buyers in the world, they procure a foreign, phony aquarium developer. And thanks to his unconscionable disregard for this community (to whom he bequeathed a hole in the heart of downtown) and his terrible mismanagement (the property went into foreclosure) I wind up with a glass building perched atop Niagara Falls.
These facts blended to my mind like green leaves with golden flowers, into one beautiful and perfect whole. I saw not the hole, not the vacant building, not the depressed tourist town across the river from a boom town, but a chance to turn the building into a giant tourist facilitator, a tourist attraction, a tourist magnet.
The building’s “long night was ended,” I thought, “and the way lies open onward to eternal day.”
I could fill the hole (which I did), fix the building (which I’m doing) and provide the community with an American view of Niagara Falls. For nowhere in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is there a place where one can get a panoramic view of what our city is named after. It would enhance tourism and even locals might enjoy a giant glass observation area, restaurant and banquet facilities with a view equal to that of any in Canada.
I started perforce with the first floor and opened restaurants, stores and other tourist services. But opening the ninth floor was always the ideal: To develop a new vista for the millions who come to Niagara Falls almost solely for its vistas.
One Niagara (far left) is the only significant building in the entire Niagara peninsula that is close to the Falls. This permits it a world-class, panoramic view.
It is not open yet and I have to satisfy yet a number of requirements to get it open. But if I succeed at getting it open — this new and unique American view of what is perhaps the most famous natural landscape in the world — some might call its happenstance, indeed; or fate or dumb luck. Still, even one minute of success can sometimes pay for all the failure of the years.
That may be true for men and perhaps even for cities.
All are invited to come take a look.
Frank Parlato Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.