Falls council holds off on Johnnie Ryan building designation

James Neiss/Staff PhotographerThe old Johnnie Ryan building in the 800 block of Niagara Street is being considered for historic preservation status.

The Falls City Council has failed to act on a local landmark designation for the former Johnnie Ryan Beverages headquarters and bottling plant, after an attorney for the property’s owner warned members not to consider the recommendation.

“We’re not ready to move on anything in regard to (the Johnnie Ryan) building,” City Council Chairman Andrew Touma told a crowd in the council chambers at the beginning of Wednesday night’s regular city council meeting. 

Council Member William Kennedy said after the meeting that he had been prepared to ask for the recommendation from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to be added to the agenda, but said none of the other council members would support the action.

“The attorney for the owner called every member and asked them not to consider it tonight,” Kennedy said. “I was prepared to walk (the recommendation) on (the agenda), but I didn’t have the votes.”

The calls to the council members came from attorney James Roscetti, who represents the Ryan building’s owner MATC Inc. MATC has begun a proceeding in State Supreme Court seeking to force the city to issue a demolition permit for the property.

Johnnie Ryan Bottling Co. was founded in the Falls in 1935 by the Janik brothers (Stephen, Walter and John).

The Art Deco building, described as “an excellent example of Art Moderne commercial architecture” and one of only two remaining such buildings in the city, was constructed in 1946 to house the Janiks’ sales and bottling operations. It sits in the 800 block of Niagara Street, at the intersection of John B. Daly Boulevard.

Buffalo-based MATC had planned to tear the Ryan building down prior to March 1. That demolition was blocked when Falls Economic Development and Code Enforcement Director Seth Piccirillo refused to sign a permit for the work.

Piccirillo said he would not allow the demolition to go forward without letting the landmark designation process proceed.

City Council Member Kenny Tompkins said he thinks the city is trying to “close the barn door after the horse is out.”

“I think the city is at a big liability here,” Tompkins said. “I’d like to see the building stay up, but I think it’ll cost us too much.”

In its lawsuit, MATC is seeking potential damages if it’s not allowed to tear the Ryan building down. In its court filing, the company complains that the city’s refusal to issue a demolition permit means it will have to pay higher property taxes than it would otherwise owe on a vacant lot.

It also cites the expenses it incurred to remove asbestos from the building and cap-off utilities. 

Roscetti claims, in his court papers, that because his client filed for a demolition permit and conducted asbestos abatement, the city had no right to bar the building from being torn down.

“This city doesn’t have that discretion,” he said. “You pay the fee, they gotta give you the (demolition) permit. It’s a ministerial act.”

The preservation commission began weighing a landmark designation for the structure after neighbors and city officials expressed concern about plans for the building’s future when they noticed asbestos abatement crews working at the plant.

Matthew Moscati, identified in court papers as the president of MATC Inc., has declined to speak to reporters about what, if any, plans his company has for the property. At a Preservation Commission public hearing Tuesday, speakers said plans for the site could include a Tim Horton’s franchise.

The commission voted unanimously, after the hearing, to recommend that the city council designate the Ryan building as a local landmark. Commission members acted on a recommendation contained in an eight-page report, prepared after a previous public hearing and following a request from the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society, that analyzed whether the property was eligible for a landmark designation.

The report concluded that the Johnnie Ryan property was “associated with the life of ... a group of people ... significant in the ... local history” as well as an example of a distinctive architectural style and located in a “gateway of the Downtown Business District.”

The report recommending landmark status was circulated to all relevant city departments last week and the commission was told “no concerns” were raised about the recommendation.

The city council has to approve a landmark designation recommendation. If the council were to approve a landmark designation for the Johnnie Ryan building, the property owners would not be allowed to demolish the structure and would need to either redevelop or sell the property.

The council is now expected to debate the landmark recommendation at its next regular meeting on May 1. The MATC lawsuit is scheduled for a State Supreme Court hearing that morning.

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