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By David Staba

When Carl Paladino bought, for lack of a better word, the United Office Building for $1 last fall, he vowed to restore the historic structure to its former glory.

Then again, the powerful developer says a lot of things.

Whether the topic is a Buffalo casino, the size of that city's Common Council or historic preservation efforts, the Buffalo News rarely hesitates to seek Paladino's opinion, and he seldom fails to oblige. In one remarkable story last fall, upstate New York's largest daily newspaper cast him as a spokesman for both Buffalo's business and African-American communities. In a photo caption, the News referred to Paladino as a "philosopher/king," leading his detractors to nickname him "King Carl."

As Niagara Falls teeters on the brink of re-inventing itself, particularly its downtown, following the opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino, Paladino's ownership of one of the area's few remaining landmark buildings makes him a noteworthy player here, as well.

Paladino's statements after acquiring the United Office Building echoed ones he made after buying the ancient Harbor Inn in Buffalo's Cobblestone District in the mid-1990s. To obtain the Harbor Inn, Paladino outbid Jerry Malloy, whose parents ran the tavern from 1975 until it closed 20 years later, and who wanted to highlight the building's heritage as part of the city's once-burgeoning waterfront.

Today, all that's left of the three-story triangular brick structure that stood at the corner of Ohio and Chicago streets for 134 years are chunks of bricks and wood. Late on a Friday afternoon in April, Paladino obtained a demolition permit from the city, even though Mayor Tony Masiello had recently announced new City Hall procedures allegedly designed to avoid just such quickie demolitions. By Monday, the Harbor Inn was a pile of rubble.

"You have to keep an eye on things, otherwise stuff like this happens," said Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture. "He's a very, very powerful man and he contributes to a lot of politicians, so he gets these Friday-afternoon permits and things."

After the demolition, Paladino cited high insurance costs and his inability to find a developer willing to restore the building as the reasons for razing the Harbor Inn, thereby raising a simple question -- how many developers does it take to finish a development?

Paladino's access to the Buffalo News is surpassed only by his clout at City Hall. At a press conference designed to defuse tensions between the city and the Seneca Nation after a Common Council resolution in favor of a non-Indian casino, Paladino told members of the media that the event was on hold while he finished work on a press release -- one printed on the mayor's letterhead.

Paladino is just one of a number of Buffalo developers whose business goals don't always coincide with the public interest, another preservation advocate said.

"I wouldn't single him out more than anyone else," said Scot Fisher, a member of the Preservation Coalition of Buffalo and Erie County's board of directors. "We're so desperate, and I'm sure Niagara Falls is in the same way, and the government is so desperate for something to happen, they're like kids in a candy shop when developers come around. They're like, 'Look, they're going to do something.' With the four-year election cycle, they need to show something happened when they were in office. They don't need to worry about what happens forty years from now."

The conflict is exacerbated when only one side of the story gets told.

"I run a business to make money, then I do other things that are for the community," said Fisher, who is president of Righteous Babe Records, which he co-founded with the label's headliner, Ani DiFranco. "I find it offensive that the Buffalo News can't see the difference between self-interest and community interest. Maybe it is good for a businessman to tear down an old building and build a new one, but how does this help the community?"

Then there's the Webb Building on Pearl Street near Seneca Avenue. Paladino bought the building after the Webb Company, which manufactured the canvas webbing and belting used to operate machinery in early-20th century factories, went out of business. Today, the five-story building sits vacant on the same block as the popular Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, most of its arched windows filled with plywood. One parking lot run by Paladino's Ellicott Parking subsidiary is next door to the Webb Building, with another across the street.

Several years ago, Paladino applied for permission to demolish the building. Since the Webb Building sits in the Joseph Ellicott Historic Preservation District, the city's preservation board had to consider the request. The board tabled the request, which remains in limbo.

Paladino argued that a wind storm had blown out many of the building's windows, with ensuing weather causing irrevocable damage inside. Tim Tielman, a longtime preservation advocate, accompanied members of the board on a tour of the Webb Building.

"I saw hammer marks on all the window frames and sashes stacked neatly next to each window," Tielman said. "And some of the windows were facing a building across an alley. That must have been some wind. Panes of glass blow in occasionally, but sashes don't. It was obviously deliberately done."

Demolition is nearly complete at the corner of Franklin and Huron streets, where the Hurst Building used to stand. Paladino, Paul Ciminelli and other developers successfully lobbied City Hall to ignore the city's massive budget deficit and spend $500,000 to buy the building, evict its tenants and knock it down, giving a neighboring city-owned parking ramp room to grow.

Preservationists and neighborhood advocates have regularly clashed with Paladino, including a battle over his proposed demolition of two historic houses in the Elmwood/Bryant neighborhood in order to expand the parking lot of a Rite-Aid drug store, a fight the developer eventually lost. Activists and developer have also worked together at times, such as Paladino's recent conversion of the fire-gutted University Club into 14 upscale apartments at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Allen Street -- across from a stone gas station preservationists stopped him from leveling a decade earlier.

Paladino was one of Buffalo's most vocal advocates for a Seneca-run casino, at least while the Statler Hotel on Delaware Avenue, with several of his properties nearby, was under serious consideration to house it. When the idea of a casino in vacant Memorial Auditorium was floated, Paladino said he still supported the concept, but issued a warning.

"We want a casino that is part of the fabric of the community, a contributing member. That means no smoke shops, no gas pumps," he told the Buffalo News. "I will not stand by idly if they don't live up to those terms. If the city won't stop them, I will."

While it's a bit amusing to speculate how such a threat went over at the headquarters of the Seneca Gaming Corp., such stick-shaking is nothing new.

In 1986, he sued Tielman for $30 million after claiming he was defamed in an article in Sharp Comix, a local publication consisting mainly of political cartoons, which was published by the activist. The suit was settled on the eve of a trial for $100.

"I guess he didn't want to go into the discovery phase," Tielman said. "We were licking our chops."

In his public utterances, Paladino has shown little use for anyone who doesn't agree with him. At a public hearing exploring the pros and cons of a Buffalo casino last year, Paladino -- speaking for the pros -- followed a series of anti-casino speakers, opening his remarks by disdainfully saying, "Democracy."

At another casino hearing, he called casino opponents "obstructionists" and was quoted by the Buffalo News as saying, "We look back over the past 10, 15 years and it's rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric. ... We talk ourselves into doing nothing."

As for the United Office Building, Paladino recently griped that the State Historic Preservation Office is slowing his renovation plans by insisting the building's windows be restored, rather than replaced.

"The United Office Building is the most conspicuous building in Niagara Falls, USA," Tielman said. "It's the type of building that Asian tourists and people from other countries don't have where they come from. It's a great building, and that's why it was landmarked.

"If it is a declared historic structure, there are a lot of tax advantages to that for a developer. So it's unfair for any developer to say, 'The state's forcing to me to do this or that,' because they're getting huge advantages as well."


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 10 2003