Developer gets free rein during tourist season
City lets Parlato pass on the usual permits
By GAIL FRANKLIN
28 July 2006
NIAGARA FALLS - City Hall is allowing a developer to do whatever he wants with his property - on which he owes county, city and school taxes - without the usual city permits and approvals until the tourist season ends.
In April, the Law Department OK'd a 180-day agreement with developer Frank Parlato of Buffalo, a partner in One Niagara, to renovate the former Occidental Chemical office building, 360 Rainbow Blvd., without Planning Board approval.
In addition, he is operating a paid parking lot, which some city leaders say is illegal, and selling package tours to visitors, also without the usual permits. He also has about a dozen vendors inside selling souvenirs and food.
Parlato says the arrangement, struck with the aid of his attorney, Paul Grenga of Niagara Falls, was necessary to get his businesses up and running during the peak tourism season, which ends around Labor Day.
"The main feature of the agreement was if I brought the building into compliance, made it safe and up to code, I would be permitted to use [the property] in an intelligent, legal fashion," Parlato said. "I thought it was the only logical way to get something going this year."
A city corporation counsel says Parlato's operation is allowed under the April agreement. A Freedom of Information request filed by The Buffalo News to obtain that agreement was denied this week. "The city has an interest in the building being fully occupied in order to generate economic benefit for the community, provided the owners comply with all municipal ordinance and safety codes," said acting Corporation Counsel Damon DeCastro. "This administration is business-friendly."
One Niagara, which owns the property, owes more than $100,000 in county taxes and as of March was in arrears nearly $400,000 in city and school taxes. The city tax office refused Thursday to say how much is still owed. Mayor Vince Anello said the fact taxes are owed on the property doesn't mean the city should treat Parlato any differently from other business owners. He sees nothing wrong with the April agreement.
City Council Chairman Charles Walker said Thursday that he had no knowledge of the agreement. "I think what he's done, as opposed to that hole being in the ground, is a great change," Walker said, referring to a two-story-deep pit where an underground aquarium had been planned. "But he should still have to go through the site plan approval process. There should never be an agreement made that he should do whatever he wants without [approval], especially without coming before the Council."
Parlato says the back taxes "is a legal question because the Senecas don't pay any taxes, and they compete directly with me." The Seneca Nation operates a casino and hotel on Fourth Street that is exempt from taxes under federal law covering Indian-owned land.
City Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis said Parlato submitted a site plan for the property in May, but withdrew it before it came before the Planning Board. It has not been updated since, he added, saying that he has not seen the agreement.
Planning Board member Marge Gillies said Thursday she didn't even know such a document existed. "I would question that, especially if Tom DeSantis has not even seen it. Then I think that's a flaw in the system," she said.
Parlato said he spent $500,000 on a new fire alarm and sprinkler system so he would be in compliance with building and fire codes, a requirement of the agreement.
He said the work enabled him to receive a temporary certificate of occupancy from the city Inspections Department on June 9.
City Inspections Director Guy Bax said that under city ordinances, a business owner can charge customers for parking so long as they are patronizing his business.
Parlato, who said he has spent $1 million on improvements, including current work on installing a restaurant and lounge on the first floor, believes timely action on his site plan would have been hampered by additional regulations that apply to the property because it is adjacent to Niagara Falls State Park.
"[The state] makes exceptions when they want, and it's a long, winding process, and the tourist season is two months long, so I was stuck with an economic problem," Parlato said.
"I either wait a year, or I strike a deal with a reasonable city administration that permits development."
Copyright © Frank Parlato Jr.