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LOCKPORT POISED TO OK MAJOR DOWNTOWN PROJECT

This city's first major downtown construction project in almost a quarter-century is expected to be approved this week.

For $1, David L. Ulrich will buy the vacant lot on Main Street in the heart of downtown and an adjacent city-owned parking lot off Walnut Street.

The parking area, officially Lot 3, is popularly called the Farmers Market parking lot because of a steel awning erected by the city in the 1980s to cover the open-air market. At the time, then-Mayor Raymond C. Betsch said the market would be moved when something was built on the South Block.

More than 15 years later, it's almost time for that to happen.

The city Planning Board approved the site plan for the Main Street side last month. Tuesday, the board will take action on the plan for the Walnut Street side.

Wednesday, the Common Council will hold a public hearing on the sale of the site to Ulrich and then vote on the deal.

Ulrich's plans to erect two rows of buildings -- envisioned as retail, restaurant and office space -- along Main and Walnut streets. The cost has been estimated at $4 million, a figure Ulrich hasn't confirmed, and the city is going to invest $950,000 in the project.

Between the rows of buildings, which will feature a 19th century brick architectural look, there will be a parking lot and Heritage Park, a circular public space that is to be paved with time capsules. Ulrich hopes residents will bury mementos in the time capsules for future opening. The city will continue to own the center portion, Mayor Michael W. Tucker said.

An arch in the midst of the Main Street side will allow pedestrian access, while vehicles will enter on what is now Heritage Court, a side street off Locust Street.

The loss of 211 parking spaces at the Farmers Market lot irks some other landlords who complain that customers and employees will have to park someplace else.

But Ulrich has said his plan won't leave downtown any worse off for parking than it is, even though his proposal for a new location for a farmers market has caused more complaints.

He plans to lease from the city a corner of another municipal parking lot at Walnut and Elm streets.

"I am incorporating the market into our urban renewal plan," Ulrich said.

The new building there would be enclosed, and Ulrich said at a recent meeting with downtown business owners that his new market would be "professionally managed."

"Look at how successful Niagara County Produce is," Ulrich said, referring to the popular Transit Road store on the Erie County side of Tonawanda Creek. "You know there's something to buy, not (like the Lockport market) 'Did anybody show up today?' . . . You don't know if there's going to be one farmer or five."

"When we originally built it, we had hoped for more participation," city Community Development Director William J. Evert acknowledged.

"I am trying to get people to come downtown. People say they can't buy produce downtown," Ulrich said.

The new market would occupy what now are 30 to 40 parking spaces, but Ulrich said the current market under the steel awning takes up at least that much, so in his view, it's a wash.

Ulrich also said not all the parking in Lot 3 will be lost, that about 80 spaces will remain behind the row of new buildings along Walnut Street. On the South Block itself, roughly 75 spaces will be installed behind the buildings and on either side of Heritage Park. Ulrich figures the overall impact will be a loss of 10 parking spaces.

But the impact is seen as far greater by Thomas and Kim Milani, whose family owns a building that includes SubDelicious, a longtime downtown fixture. Its customers park in the lot Ulrich wants for the new farmers market. It includes two other storefronts, now vacant, where Thomas Milani wants to open a restaurant.

He called Ulrich's farmers market plan "retail suicide."

At a meeting Monday in City Hall, Ulrich promised the Milanis that the parking lot they use will have "open parking" and will not be off-limits to people not connected with Ulrich businesses.

Next door to the Milani building is the former Niagara Frontier Mall, which now houses Victory Christian School. The landlord is Elmer A. Granchelli, the former South Block owner.

The city sued Granchelli for breach of contract after he failed to erect a building on the vacant lot. After nearly a decade of litigation, the city won title to the land and $500,000 in damages.

The money was put into an escrow account and will be used for Ulrich's project, along with $250,000 from the city's "bed tax" on hotel and motel bills and some $200,000 in state aid.

Kelli Alaimo, Granchelli's second-in-command, said her boss' hopes of keeping tenants in some of the buildings he owns around the South Block area depend in large part on maintaining parking.

There are currently 196 spaces in the Victory Christian lot. On the south side of Walnut Street, 123 spaces are available. The city also owns a parking ramp at Main and Pine containing 280 spaces.

Some consider it dangerous.

"Our company pays for 80 permits in the ramp. Women won't park there," Alaimo said at the Oct. 26 forum.

"It's a much-maligned ramp," Ulrich countered. "Nobody realizes it's been fixed up by the city over the years." He said his employees park there.

Alaimo said 70 to 80 employees of Granchelli tenants park in the farmers market lot.

William Scirto, a jeweler and landlord who's been in business downtown for 56 years, wondered why there should be a parking problem when "we have half a dozen decent stores."

Ulrich said the publicity about the parking issue could hurt his efforts to line up tenants for his dozen new buildings. "We are putting a negative spin on a positive project. Downtown Lockport has been a disaster area for 25 years, and we are our own worst enemy."

Jayne Lloyd, owner of the women's clothing store Jayne & Company, said her store doesn't have any parking at all. "People seem to find a place to park," Lloyd said. "We deal with what we have."

All the hassles over parking are thin covers for hostility between some of the downtown landlords, in the view of former alderman and candy wholesaler Jacob Kern Jr. Speaking at a City Hall session last week, Kern said there is no parking problem downtown, where the city owns more than 1,000 parking spaces.

"We have no customers, so you don't have to worry," Kern said sarcastically to the business owners. "You're all worrying about the parking? Nevermind. Get some customers here. We've got a great opportunity. The (Lockport) mall is stagnant. If we get going, we could have half those people here. We have the people who are supposed to be our leaders jealous of each other."

Thomas Milani was skeptical of the impact of Ulrich's plan. "Is this the savior of downtown? I don't think so," he said.

"Is the status quo the savior?" Ulrich replied.

"I don't think there's a parking problem," the mayor said. "If there's a problem, we're committed to fixing it."

Ulrich did have some supporters, including George Fritz, owner of Mills Jewelers on Main Street. He said when he started at the store in 1972, "There were more businesses in downtown Lockport than there are now at Walden Galleria.

"We are at the dawn of the most exciting time in Lockport since Urban Renewal devastated everything," Fritz said. "It's Lockport mentality to find something negative in anything that's positive. This is last-chance time for the South Block. There's no one else waiting in line."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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