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PARKING REMAINS AT A PREMIUM <br> ALTHOUGH FALLS OFFICIALS HAVE BEGUN WORKING ON A PLAN, THE BATTLE OVER PARKING CONTINUES FOR LOCAL BUSINESSES, RESIDENTS AND POLICE

Rebecca Maj and her co-workers describe their struggle to find free street parking as a cat-and-mouse game with city traffic police.

The office where they work, Affiliated Computer Systems, is on Old Falls Street, which features a two-hour parking zone.

One of the secretaries near the windows used to watch for patrols bent on ticketing vehicles. After an officer would chalk tires, the workers would all go outside, rotate spaces, and go back into work. A short time would pass, and the game would start again.

For Maj and her colleagues, the effort was worth it.

"For the parking garage, it's 30 bucks every month," Maj said. "Granted, that's not a whole lot but I've only spent $200 on parking tickets this year, so I'm still ahead."

Parking in Niagara Falls has long been an adventure, one expected to continue as Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello, who came to office this year, looks to leave his imprint on the city landscape. The mayor aims to create a reasoned, comprehensive parking plan. He started the process Oct. 12, when his administration razed a crumbling city-owned parking structure on Third and Niagara streets to make way for 400 street-level parking spaces.

Anello said he'd rather build than destroy, but it's the best he can do for the city right now when it comes to parking.

Other immediate plans to address parking concerns include using the lot behind the Niagara Falls Conference Center for commercial or retail office space and parking.

Meanwhile USA Niagara Development is concluding plans with the state Department of Transportation for new street signage.

Parking meters also fit into plans of the nearly year-old administration. Lawsuits against the city, which are still pending, have delayed the installation of meters approved under previous Mayor Irene J. Elia. Still, the possibility is not dead.

"I have a plan in place right now and I've been working," Anello said during a recent interview. "There's no one, simple answer. We're working toward finding a solution."

That solution could come in the form of 24-hour parking meters on some streets surrounding the casino and 12-hour meters on other streets farther out, excluding the Third Street Entertainment District.

The cost would be the same as the last time the move was proposed: 25 cents for 15 minutes up to two hours.

Although the mayor's parking plan for the future is not on paper, he said he is going forward with the City Council to look at meters and residential parking permits, and expanding the state-run green trolleys that shuttle tourists to local state parks.

"It's something in the future we can look at if that's the direction we want to go in," said Councilman Lewis "Babe" Rotella. He said the Council has been too busy with budget meetings to work on the mayor's plan right now.

"I think it's going to be on the back burner for a while," Rotella said. "There are definitely things we can look into, privatizing the parking, getting investors in there."

Anello and other leaders know the situation is urgent.

"Our biggest problem in the future is going to be parking," the mayor said. "As businesses look to expand, businesses and residents have to learn to coexist."

A traffic and revitalization study commissioned by USA Niagara Development, the state's development office, makes many of the suggestions Anello said are part of his plans.

Using traffic and parking counts from the summer of 2003, the study calls the blocks around the casino the highest-need area for a uniform parking plan -- to include meters -- and suggests formation of a Parking Authority.

The point of the study, though, was not to simply suggest ways to fix downtown's parking problem, said Meredith Andreucci, president of USA Niagara Development.

"We emphasized . . . things we think the city should consider as it supports revitalization, growth and retention," Andreucci said. "As you are trying to keep businesses in the downtown area, you need to have a plan for the future."

While some business owners are supportive of the meters, others have said over and over that free parking is the key to their livelihood.

"A long, long time ago suburbs figured out if they put free parking in they could take business away from city," said local businessman Frank A. Amendola. "The city never figured out if they could put free parking in convenient (places) we can compete with the suburbs."

Some see the need for meters on streets directly surrounding the casino, but say expanding them out any farther should require a public hearing, said Frank Smith, co-owner of Third Street Liquors and a member of the recently dissolved Parking Meter Task Force. The task force was formed under the Elia administration.

When the casino was about to open and parking was at a premium downtown and interfering with business, Attorney Michael Gold -- who also was on the Parking Task Force -- told the City Council that meters would create more turnover of spaces.

Gold has run an elderlaw practice out of an office building on Third Street since 1982, long before a massive casino was built across the street and a state-backed conference center appeared next door.

"Problems will start to come back when the conference center is busy. The main problem with two-hour parking is officers have to chalk the tires," Gold said. "I would rather see meters because it would bring in revenue . . . and we need turnover."

One key Anello idea to address the problem may get support on all sides: the creation of a Parking Authority or some group solely responsible for continuing parking issues.

While support of meters runs cool in the community, more residents and business owners are likely to respond to the creation of such a parking planning group, Smith said.

"I would support all types of arrangements (such as a Parking Authority) if it was public knowledge, if we could see a written plan and could have public hearings to discuss it," he said. "We could either mount our challenges or accept them, but at least we can follow the democratic process."

Anello is moving forward with his plans despite the city's loss of a lawsuit filed by Amendola in 2003, during the Elia administration, which ended up blocking installation of parking meters because of differences between the advertised bid and the contract awarded by the city.

But city residents may not be invited to public hearings on future meter installation, said Anello. "We already had public hearings."

More hearings might be needed, however. Said state Supreme Court Judge Richard C. Klosch Sr., in his July 15, 2004, decision about the Amendola lawsuit: "The City may rebid the service. This Court hopes, however, a thorough and open discussion will precede any such action. Uncertainties should be resolved as to the location of meters; the costs to the City; anticipated revenues linked to a realistic analysis of meters to be actually installed; and the wisdom of providing such meters and its effect on local businesses."

Parking is just a piece of the larger economic puzzle the mayor and City Council must put together, Andreucci said.

"The bottom line is the city needs a comprehensive plan which involves stakeholders, and it needs to be executed."

Meanwhile, Maj and her co-workers will continue to keep their eyes peeled for traffic cops.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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