Why the collapse of Wonder Falls might be a good thing

Vacant Rainbow Centre Mall in Niagara Falls. Summer 2019

Flock, you remember the “Wonder Falls” project, right? I spent a lot of time talking about it.

Well, it’s dead.

Officially, Uniland backed out due to the project being economically infeasible for the company.

At the same time, Empire State Development and USA Niagara stepped in with a new project.

This is actually a very complex case, oddly typical of Niagara Falls (one might get some Aquafalls vibes from this project scrapping). So, let’s break it all down.

The five-year drag.

Wonder Falls has been a bit quirky from the start. The project included an indoor waterpark, plus a tower hotel built into the side. This hotel was enough to warrant a series of studies by Uniland on the geographic stability of the land, as well as various other feasibility reports that the state is paying Uniland $129,000 for (think of it as a developer severance package).

Of course, Uniland showed signs of concern all the way back in 2017. In their update to Niagara Falls City Council, Uniland representatives declared that the project would take “a considerable amount of time.” I was at that City Council meeting, and a few red flags did fly up when they referred to Niagara Falls as an unproven market. However, I was easily distracted by their updated renderings:

“Looking at the renderings, this is not a project you expect in Niagara Falls. This is a glass goddess carved in aqua and stone. It’s beautiful: I’ll probably be dead by the time it’s built, but it’s beautiful. “

-Sheepie, 2017.

As time went on, an Uniland continued to voice concerns and pushing their “considerable amount of time” nondescript timeline, it became clear we weren’t going to be getting our glorious waterpark anytime soon.

This year marked that five-year anniversary of the start of the project (although it’s six since the RFP phase). As a result, there was increasing media pressure on Uniland and ESD for a timeline.

The Tax Plan

The final (but not only) nail in the coffin for Uniland was the Trump administration tax law changes. This allowed the federal government to tax state-issued money, which crushed whatever chance Uniland had at stabilizing the economics of this $150 million project.

The prime factor that was keeping Uniland from getting this project off the ground has always been funding. This was made clear in the 2017 Council meeting, and the issues finding developers in the “unproven market” that is Niagara Falls was the first thing repeated in any interview. With the new tax rules resulting in Uniland receiving even less spendable cash, this project was totally, utterly dead.

So Many Hotels

Another side factor in the plan collapse was the hotel aspect of Wonder Falls.

The Niagara in which Wonder Falls was pitched is not the Niagara we live in now. Five hotels have opened since 2014. One of these hotels, the Hyatt Place, literally uses the Rainbow Centre ramp as parking for their guests. Adding another hotel would supersaturate the downtown strip, which is never a great idea.

So now what?

Luckily, USA Niagara is already aiming for a much more logical plan.

The Rainbow Centre will be restructured, with the exterior made more inviting (no more concrete box of doom). The 200,000 available square feet of the former mall will be repurposed for mixed-use development.

The most interesting part of the new plan is a “pedestrian street” cutting through the mall between First and Rainbow. They’re literally punching a hole through the mall to create a pedestrian mall. You know, like the Rainbow Center Pedestrian Mall that Old Falls Street was turned into in the 1970s.

I am head over heels for this new project (even more so than Wonder Falls). One of the failures of Urban Renewal (at least from a residential perspective) was a focus on tourists at the cost of residents. While Old Falls Street might not have been as amazing as everyone remembers it (memory skews toward rose tint), it was aimed at residents. The Urban Renewal Rainbow Center project (not to be confused with the Rainbow Centre mall) almost entirely ignored residents.

Let’s be honest: taking the remnants of something that residents actually utilized and turning it into a high-end resort would have left just a little bit of a bitter aftertaste. I wouldn’t have gone to the waterpark. I don’t even like waterparks. Do you know what chlorine does to fleece?

Now, imagine you’re creating a smaller project that is easily doable, and is aimed at mixed-use (event space, apartments and retail). This kind of project includes tourists and residents. A public space downtown with good architecture and green space? BUILD. IT.

On top of this, New York State is footing the bill. There is no arguments over trying to find investors when the state promises to pay for it. This is our cut of the Buffalo Billion finally being utilized.

The only thing that would make this better is if one of the RFPs include construction of an indoor garden…a winter garden, if you will.

What do you think, flock? Is this new plan heading in the right direction? Let me know in the comments.

-Sheepie ❤

2 thoughts on “Why the collapse of Wonder Falls might be a good thing

  1. Ben says:

    I’m also very happy with this development. Cutting the building down to size and making it more human friendly is a great idea. It’s exciting to see the announcement of a project that is more likely to actually get done. This behemoth definitely needs some attention, and taking away this eyesore is going to do HUGE things for the city of Niagara Falls.

    Liked by 1 person

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