Why It Was Never Really About the Johnnie Ryan Building

Yesterday, we took a look at the Johnnie Ryan Building demolition fight that’s been going on for the last 3 months.

Of course, those that have a thorough understanding of Niagara Falls may realize that the fight was less about this:

and more about this:

So, let’s break down some Niagara Falls political history with that horrible phrase: “Urban Renewal”.

The Desolation of Niagara

Downtown Niagara Falls is…bare. There is a lot of open space in the city, and it’s been that way for over 50 years.

Much of the downtown was torn down as part of an urban renewal program in the 1960s. There are very few residents in the city who wouldn’t blame urban renewal for all the failures Niagara has ever seen. Specifically, they blame Mayor E. Dent Lackey, a white horse riding, fire-and-brimstone spewing former Methodist Minister.

Of course, urban renewal was actually pushed by the Federal and State governments, and Old Falls Street was already rapidly decaying (the New York Times called it a “seedy honky-tonk.”) Urban renewal eventually failed, but it took multiple global recessions, rust-belt syndrome, Love Canal, and a whole slew of other issues to cause this. Urban Renewal also did some good: think of the Convention Center, or the Wintergarden, or even the Festival of Lights.

With the downtown so bare, seeing another historic building demolished opens up the old wounds of Urban Renewal.

The City’s Record With Private Property

A running issue with Urban Renewal was the government taking private property for the development plans. We would run into a similar problem in the 1990s, with Mayor Jacob Palillo seizing large portions of property over back-taxes (this is how Niagara Falls Redevelopment eventually ended up with the Turtle).

With the City’s track record with intervening in private property matters less-than-stellar, it is understandable that the City Council wouldn’t want to dip their toes in the pool.

The Piccirillo Factor

Unfortunately, the actual discussion over historic preservation was skewed by politics since Seth Piccirillo, who was in charge of blocking the demolition, is running for mayor. When the Council voted to let the building be demolished, people threw it in Seth’s face (including one individual that took a drawing from my Mayoral Candidate post and used it without my permission to make fun of Seth). We must never forget that there is always a political skew to things.

Overall, there were a few camps on both sides of the demolition debate. On the side of saving the building, you have historic preservationists, anti-Urban Renewalists, and pro-Piccirillo voters. On the side of demolition you had people against government overreach, anti-Lackeyites, a few longstanding fatalists, and anti-Piccirillo voters.

Should the Building Have Been Saved?

Personally, my heart says yes, but my brain say it’s irrelevant. While I don’t believe landowners should be able to tear down perfectly stable properties for the sake of lowering their taxes (especially in a city where tax dollars are scarce), the Johnnie Ryan building does not really meet the criteria of a landmark. While it is significant, it’s not significant enough.

However, I feel like we should all heed Councilman Kennedy, who rightfully said this ordeal was a wake-up call. Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society needs to start processing more buildings around the city that they think deserve it, and give themselves enough time to get it through. There are definitely a few structures in danger of destruction that we have enough time to save (particularly a turtle-shaped one on Rainbow).

How do you feel about this whole ordeal? I’d really like to hear your opinion on the matter. Leave a comment, or shoot me an email. You can always tweet me @sheepieniagara, too (you know how much I love Twitter, flock). Let’s keep this conversation going, and see where it can take us.

-Sheepie ❤

4 thoughts on “Why It Was Never Really About the Johnnie Ryan Building

  1. Ben says:

    The building should have been saved. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And even if they put up a brand new Tim Hortons in that spot, the City of Niagara Falls is losing another piece of its history that it will never get back. We’re always looking at pictures of old buildings that used to stand in the downtowns of our cities and asking ourselves, “What were they thinking when they tore that down?” Yet, here we go again.


    • sheepieniagara says:

      I completely understand that sentiment, which is why I respected the fight to save it. Unfortunately, Historic Preservation took too long to get the commission going, and the lawsuit spooked the Council. That’s why it’s crucial we start landmarking important buildings now, so we don’t run into this situation again.


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