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Let's see if we've got this right. Downtown's retailers, the few who have survived, are having a tough time competing with suburban malls and plazas. There's also a surplus of office space downtown. Periodically, even more becomes available when some business packs up and heads to the burbs to take advantage of the money-saving, free parking available in those sprawling office parks.

Now, an out-of-town consultant, who has no long-term stake in Buffalo, comes along, floating an idea that would drastically affect the cost of parking downtown. The Virginia-based consultant, Desman Associates, suggests it may be helpful to increase, by as much as 63 percent in some instances, the hourly rates in parking lots and ramps.

The firm also wonders if those bargain "early-bird" parking rates should be eliminated. It even has entertained the possibility of charging a fee for what is now a free park-and-ride shuttle.

What are we missing here? Since when do you try to attract more people by doing things that usually are guaranteed to keep people away?

Desman Associates and another outside consulting firm have been hired to determine whether more parking is needed in downtown Buffalo and, if so, where it is needed. Their preliminary ideas are contained in a confidential report that is circulating among downtown parking-lot executives and business leaders.

Everyone stresses that the study is in the beginning phase of what will be a multifaceted examination of downtown parking, and insiders are confident that any suggestions about raising rates will be scrapped. We hope so. But we can't help wonder why the consultant wasted time even considering such a bizarre scheme.

One Desman finding that points to an area where genuine creativity may be needed is that a reduction in downtown parking rates two years ago may have backfired to some extent. The consultant believes that the lower rates actually encouraged some workers, who had been parking in cheaper lots on the fringes of downtown, to move to lots and ramps closer to the heart of the business district. That deprives shoppers and other central business district customers of the most convenient parking for short-term visits.

If that is what has happened, what needs to be addressed is how to accommodate the parking needs of downtown workers without doing something, like raising rates, to make it even more difficult to compete with those acres and acres of free parking in suburbia.

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