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Merchants of two minds on Elmwood trade-off; Strip's loss of largest parking lot will boost resident base but may slow suburban flow

The Elmwood Strip is about to lose its largest parking lot and that has some retailers worried.

At the same time, it could be adding the kind of density -- up to 24 upscale one- and two-bedroom apartments and four retail stores -- desired in urban commercial districts.

The Benchmark Group owns the lot at 766 Elmwood Ave., between Cleveland and Auburn avenues, and for years has allowed the public to park in its 42 spaces for free. But at a Zoning Board hearing this afternoon, Benchmark will seek a variance for the proposed $4 million mixed-use development. Approval from the city's Planning Board is also needed.

The project also calls for 24 tenant parking spaces accessed from an alley behind the building.

Retailers -- even on the same block -- have different opinions on what should happen.

"It's going to put more of a stress on parking. There is already no place to park around here, and I think it will definitely deter some people coming down from the suburbs," said Kelly A. LaMartina, who with her husband, Gary, owns and operates Everything Elmwood and Organic 3 Cafe.

Still, LaMartina doesn't begrudge Benchmark for developing the site, appreciating the public parking the company provided for the company's tenants across the street -- Spot Coffee, Blue Fin Asian Bistro and Blockbuster -- and other shoppers.

But Edward Pinkel, owner of Urban Threads, said he was excited by how the building will fill out the street and is expected to attract upscale residents.

"By [putting] the building there, it will give a vertical and linear sense back to the street, uniting this block with the next block down and making it a more consistent shopping destination," Pinkel said. "Also on the plus side are the higher-end apartments."

Common Council Member Michael J. LoCurto of the Delaware District supports the project, while the Elmwood Village Association isn't taking a position.

A parking study done several years ago confirmed that a long-term solution is needed, because demand outweighs supply in the popular shopping district, said Rebecca L. Gandour, interim executive director. But more than the project's loss of parking needs to be taken into account, she said.

"There are some good things coming out of the proposal as far as density and the addition of the residential units, including the more affluent demographic that's supposed to be targeted," Gandour said.

The association's design team is working with architect Karl Frizlen to ensure that design standards are upheld. Frizlen knows them well, because he helped develop them for Elmwood Village and has designed a mixed-use building at Elmwood and Bryant Street and apartments on West Utica Street, near Elmwood.

The proposed three-story brick and stucco building meets the sidewalk, with the retail stores on the lower floor.

Frizlen, who lives on nearby Ashland Avenue, said that he's sympathetic to the lack of parking but that it shouldn't be a reason not to do the project.

"It shouldn't hold up a significant development like this one, which will substantially improve the vitality of the community and of that particular block," Frizlen said.

LoCurto and Elmwood Village Association members have spoken with city officials about the need for more parking. One proposal gaining steam is to reduce alternate parking hours on nearby side streets, used for street cleaning and snowplowing, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The company decided after purchasing the lot about 10 years ago to let the public park on the lot until it developed the site, according to Martin J. DelleBovi, Benchmark Group's executive vice president and director of real estate. An empty medical building was knocked down several years ago, increasing the number of parking spaces.

The site is zoned for 12 apartments, but DelleBovi said the company needs double that number to make the project work economically. He said the company could go with fewer apartments but would require changes that it would prefer not to make.

"I think the desire is there by the city and the Elmwood district to have density, and I think we're addressing all the concerns that come with it," DelleBovi said. "I think the advantage of density in the neighborhood is to get more people living on the Strip, as opposed to just coming in, shopping and leaving."

Gregory P. Koessler, owner of GPK Development, which rents next door to Globe Market, East Meets West Yoga, Buffalo Fleece and Outerwear, and two apartment units, said that he's "pro-development" but concerned that the project could be too much for the space.

"I think new buildings are good in the city and good for Elmwood," Koessler said. "The real question is the density. Are 24 units going to help or hurt that area?"

Globe Market co-owner Lisa B. Hennig said she "prefers a smaller footprint." She is concerned about additional congesting truck traffic from more retail stores and fears the building's height could have an adverse effect on the courtyard in front of her restaurant.

DelleBovi said the company is concerned about the lack of public parking on and around Elmwood, even as it would be taking spaces away.

"I don't think our lot [as it is now] solves the parking issue or creates the parking issue," DelleBovi said. "There has been an ongoing debate about parking within the Elmwood district even with our lot there."

Another big change could be coming on the east side of the block.

DelleBovi said Benchmark has had discussions with three local and two national businesses to replace Blockbuster, which is operating under bankruptcy protection and is not expected to remain.

A restaurant chain that is said to have the inside track could pose a threat to Globe Market across the street, especially because it would inherit Blockbuster's parking lot.

The Elmwood Strip has been praised for its owner-occupied and locally owned stores. But the Elmwood Village Association's Gandour said that it doesn't take a stance on chain stores or discourage them from coming.

"It's really beyond the scope of the association to favor one business or the other," Gandour said.

Hennig, of Globe Market, said she was concerned about chain restaurants coming to Elmwood. So, too, is Everything Elmwood's LaMartina.

"We have a great little unique area here, and it would be nice to keep it local and owner-occupied," LaMartina said. "There are strip malls all over the United States, and I don't know that we need more chains along Elmwood."