After years of vacancy, United Office Building ready for business

(Ellicott Development Supervisor/Construction Manager Robert Nehin measures the width of the exterior wall on the roof of the United Office Building Thursday. The historic structure is being renovated into luxury suites, office space and a boutique hotel.)

(Ellicott Development Supervisor/Construction Manager Robert Nehin checks out the seventh floor of the United Office Building Thursday. USA Niagara will relocate its downtown offices within the next two weeks. DAN CAPPELLAZZO)

(Ellicott Development Supervisor/Construction Manager Robert Nehin speaks on the cell phone in an upper floor of the United Office Building as it is being renovated Thursday.)

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Standing 270 feet above ground on top of the second tallest building in Niagara Falls, Robert Nehin can’t help but think back to the roaring 1920s.

The city’s industry was thriving, population was increasing and a German architect was about to make history with designs for a 20-story art deco building overlooking the American falls.

In 1929, the United Office Building was opened on First Street and became the first of what was planned to be many dots in the city’s skyline.

Then came the depression.

By the time the mid-1960s hit, the Cataract City was starting its notorious decline in population, which was followed over the past four decades with factory closings and layoffs. Once considered a beacon for a better future, the vacant United Office Building now sits as a prime example of that descent.

That’s all about to change — and by April Fool’s Day no less.

“I never had a doubt I was going to complete the project,” said developer Carl Paladino who says he’s pumped $10 million over the past three years restoring the building back to its glory days. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to do business here for many, many reasons, but we were able to get past that.”

It’s been the job of Nehin and 40 other construction workers to back up Paladino’s words. In the past year, new windows, elevators and roof have been installed, the exterior brick cleaned and repaired and all of the building’s utilities have been brought in line.

And while it could be another year before Paladino’s entire vision is realized, the building is about to get its first business since 1984. USA Niagara Development Corp. is moving its offices onto the completely renovated seventh floor within the next two weeks, taking up approximately 3,000 square feet.

“It’s truly exciting to be the first tenant in the new United Office Building,” said USA Niagara President Christopher J. Schoepflin, adding the proposed mix of offices, luxury apartments and a boutique hotel is a great reuse of the building. “The building is a symbol for the City of Niagara Falls.”

A certificate of occupancy is expected within the upcoming week, Paladino said, and is the final step needed before USA Niagara moves from its current site inside the Seneca Office Building. Schoepflin also is confident the remaining hurdle will be completed soon, pointing out all “safety and health concerns” inside the office space have been addressed.

Paladino said it’s fitting USA Niagara will be the first tenants since it was the group’s purchase of the United Office Building from the city for $1 that led to its revival. Once taking ownership, USA Niagara selected First Street Group, an affiliate of Paladino’s Ellicott Development Co., as the developer in 2004.

USA Niagara’s board of directors will consider a motion today to turn the property over to Paladino now that the first phase of the project nears completion. In turn, the agency will pay rent of roughly $45,000 a year — $15 a square foot — for its new office space.

“They’ve helped make all this possible,” Paladino said of USA Niagara. “We’re happy to be working with them.”

Nehin was equally complimentary of Paladino, who he described as a fighter for the common guy and someone who managed to take a building bought for $1 and turn it into a $10 million investment.

“That’s really an amazing accomplishment,” said Nehin, who works as construction manager for Ellicott Development.

As USA Niagara officials get used to their new offices, heavy work will continue on the floors above. Phase one also includes plans to renovate floors eight through 18 into luxury apartments to be rented out starting at $1,000 a month. The expected completion date is April 1, Nehin said.

“I definitely think that’s a realistic goal,” he added. “We have work being done everywhere in the building.”

Paladino said the mix of two- and one-bedroom apartments will feature lofty ceilings, ceramic tile, wooden floors and numerous amenities such as a bathroom Jacuzzi. Floors 17 and 18 will be turned into a two-level apartment.

Though workers are confident the April 1 completion date for phase one will be met, missed deadlines and other delays have riddled the project for the past several years. Originally, officials were expecting a completion date of Jan. 2, 2006, which was later pushed back to June 30 of last year.

Most of the reasons for those delays, Paladino said, were due to difficult dealings with National Grid and the state’s Historic Preservation Office. As part of the historic landmark designation, the building’s lobby is being recreated into its original look from 1929.

Once the lobby and renovations of floors seven through 18 are completed as part of phase one, Paladino said plans will commence for turning the bottom six floors into a boutique hotel consisting of more than 30 rooms and a lounge and restaurant.

The United Office Building stood as the city’s tallest structure until the construction of the Seneca Niagara Casino’s 26-story hotel. Despite losing its top distinction, Nehin pointed out it remains a breathtaking piece of architecture.

“This building has an Aztec motif around the top that you just don’t see in this area,” he said. “This was really a pinnacle building — and it will be again.”