An attorney for Niagara Falls Redevelopment had a simple request for the members of the Falls City Council Wednesday night.
"Eminent domain is premature. Please press pause," John Horn implored the council members as he spoke at a public hearing on a proposal for the city to seize 12 acres of South End property to build the proposed Centennial Park.
Horn explained to the council that NFR had a better plan for the properties on Falls Street and John B. Daly Boulevard, a proposed $1.48 billion data center.
"This is a public benefit," Horn said.
But the Falls' outside counsel for the Centennial Park project, Dan Spitzer, told the council that in the 25 years that NFR has held control of 140 acres of prime tourist district real estate they have "contributed diddly-squat to this community."
The sharp exchange, punctuated by equally flowery compliments between the two lawyers, highlighted the stakes involved in the Wednesday night hearing. If the City Council votes to move ahead with eminent domain proceedings on the NFR properties, the information presented at the hearing will be central to an expected court challenge.
Eminent domain refers to the right a government or its representative to take private property for public use, as long as the land owner is fairly compensated.
Spitzer told the council that moving forward to take NFR's properties under eminent domain was to "stop the underutilization of the properties."
"Is there a better example in Western New York of underutilized property (than NFR's 140 acres in the Falls)?" Spitzer asked. "Private capital has failed to meet the needs of the community."
Spitzer championed the Centennial Park project, telling the council, "We want to keep visitors longer that just seeing the falls. And we want them here year-round. (Centennial Park) will attract people.
He criticized a proposal from NFR for a different 20 acres of property in the South End for Centennial Park, contending that the developer didn't actually own all that property, saying it contained Niagara County's Department of Social Services Building, two churches and 30 privately owned homes. But Horn disputed that.
The NFR attorney said there were only 23 homes, not all them occupied, and that the church and the county building properties were not part of the offer to the city. He displayed a map that showed the county building and churches outside NFR's proposed property grant.
The map is different than one examined earlier by the Gazette and presented to the city by Edward Milstein, a member of the family that controls Milstein Properties. NFR is a subsidiary of Milstein Properties.
Milstein made NFR's original counter-offer for the Centennial Park project during an April 26 meeting with Mayor Robert Restaino.
When questioned about the differences in the maps, Horn told a reporter, "You know, I wasn't at that meeting. But I can assure you the map (presented to the council at the hearing) is correct."
Spitzer stressed to the council that potential state and federal funding for the Centennial Park project was dependent on the city first gaining "site control." He also suggested that NFR could move its data center project to the 20 acres it is proposing to give to the city.
"(They're) proposing a use which is not permitted (under the city's zoning code) at that site," Spitzer said "And they won't tell you why they don't want to put the date center (on the 20 acres) if that site is so great."
Restaino has suggested that the data center proposal is an attempt by NFR to increase the value of the land being sought for Centennial Park. NFR has valued that property at $45,000 an acre for property tax assessment purposes.
In his presentation, Horn told the Council that compensating NFR for the park site could cost "much more" than that.
Horn conceded that the city could take the NFR properties by eminent domain, "If their plan is truly a public benefit."
"That's just not the case here," he said.
NFR's proposal, in conjunction with Urbacon, a Toronto- based construction company, for the proposed park property, was unveiled just late Tuesday afternoon. A press release issued by a public relations firm representing NFR described the project as a “technology and data center campus in the heart of Niagara Falls, New York.”
The Milstein Properties subsidiary also said it would “donat(e) public amenities to the City of Niagara Falls, including land with potential use as a new park and events center, and $250,000 per year for 10 years for upkeep and maintenance.”
NFR said Urbacon would develop the project, which “will be home to approximately 600,000 square feet of high-security, technologically advanced data-center space, creating state-of-the-art data and IT jobs for area residents.”
Horn called a data center a better public benefit than the park proposal, "something that can be done better a few blocks away." He called the use of eminent domain "A pipe to bludgeon the other party (in a negotiation)."
The council adjourned the proceeding after hearing from several public speakers. No date was set to resume the hearing.