State plans to raze Falls Street Station building downtown

Nov. 20—It was once considered a piece of what some hoped would finally be a successful reimagining of downtown Niagara Falls.

After struggling from the outset just to open, the building known as Falls Street Station, located and the corner of Old Falls and First streets, transitioned through a series of operators and owners with varied levels of success and disappointment.

Having acquired the building from its most recent private owner — Lewiston businessman Joseph "Smokin Joe" Anderson — the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp., which oversees development projects in downtown Niagara Falls, is now moving forward with a new plan for the building.

It's going to tear it down to make way for two new structures, one featuring hotel rooms and retail and another offering apartments.

"The best thing it's ever been was when it was a call center," said USA Niagara's President Anthony Vilardo, referring to the days when Falls Street Station served as home to the customer service operation known as Teletech. "That's not how great downtowns are built."

Falls Street Station and a companion building, Falls Street Faire, were conceived in the late 1980s as part of a multi-million-dollar effort to spur more activity in downtown Niagara Falls. The original $30 million project envisioned Falls Street Station and Falls Street Faire as entertainment, retail and amusement complexes. Originally slated to open in 1998, the project encountered construction and financing delays before partially opening in late 1990.

In February 1991, the Station building welcomed the opening of Pleasuredome, a 25,000-square-foot sports bar and nightclub that, according to the Buffalo News, was billed as "mega-entertainment complex (catering to) all adult tastes from dancing to champagne to sports and beer." By the mid-1990s, the club had closed.

In 1997, it was announced that the Station building would be home to a Denver-based call center customer service company, Teletech. The opening brought with it the promise of hundreds of new jobs and garnered support from former Gov. George Pataki's administration and its efforts to spur activity downtown. By the mid-2000s, the company ceased operations at the Falls location and the building was later acquired by Anderson who, in 2013, reopened it as a large souvenir store called Smokin' Joe's Native Center.

In 2019, the state acquired the property from Anderson as part of a $14 million deal involving the acquisition of a total of 32 parcels that Anderson owned downtown and in the city's south end.

The project is part of what the state is calling its "strategic land acquisition program," which was created to assemble long-dormant properties near Niagara Falls State Park and to remove blight from the downtown area. The site, which covers about 1.8 acres, has an appraised value of $4 million, according to the state. Acquisition costs were covered under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Buffalo Billion redevelopment initiative, state officials said.

Last September, USA Niagara issued request for proposals, seeking ideas for the redevelopment of the property. Vilardo said the agency has identified a pair of developers for the project, with one interested in building a hotel and retail complex on part of the property and another with a plan for a separate building that would offer apartment space.

The Falls Street Station building is unique in that it was literally built around an historic downtown church. The station building wraps around First Presbyterian Church, a building that has been standing downtown for nearly 200 years, on three sides.

Vilardo said new construction on the Falls Street Faire property will be designed in deference to the church and in a way that will provide additional space between the church and the new buildings.

Vilardo said the state wants to protect the unique and important history of the church while working to create new spaces downtown that are more attractive to residents and visitors.

"I think it will, in many ways, be an addition by subtraction," Vilardo said.