Downtown Buffalo still bustled when a group of retailers and bankers took over city parking operations in 1954.
A half-dozen major department stores called Buffalo home, shoppers crowded downtown sidewalks, and suburban malls were a distant threat.
Fifty years later, no department store remains downtown. Five mayors have come and gone. But Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, now dominated by downtown building owners and bankers, still runs Buffalo's parking operations.
BCAR, as the group is known, is a powerful private board that controls $100 million worth of city-owned parking ramps and takes in $7.6 million a year in parking fees.
It also controls 7,000 prime downtown parking spaces in seven ramps and two large surface lots, about a third of the public parking available. It's a major player in a shrinking downtown, where a study found that parking now takes up half the space.
So with BCAR's contract expiring this summer, members of Buffalo's Board of Parking, which in theory sets City Hall's parking agenda, decided to open parking to competitive bidding for the first time. They quickly came under attack.
Ellicott Development's Carl P. Paladino, a BCAR member, downtown's biggest landlord and owner of a half-dozen downtown parking lots, accused Parking Board members of meddling before the proposal was even released.
Then Brian C. Davis, the Ellicott District Common Council member, who is trying to use his Finance Committee to consolidate city parking, complained he wasn't consulted. He suggested someone leaked Paladino the bid proposals, a charge both the Parking Board and Paladino denied.
Then Parking Board members watched Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, under pressure from Paladino, yank their proposal before it was to become public Sept. 1. A modified version has since been sent to bidders.
Control of downtown parking is about more than just who collects the money or paints the stripes on spaces in Buffalo's ramps:
Should a cash-starved city, overseen by a state control board, even be in the parking business? Marine Buffalo Associates, which owns HSBC Center, and the Main Place Liberty Group want to buy the ramps under their buildings, promising millions of dollars to the city as well as millions more by putting the ramps on the tax rolls.
BCAR members include landlords whose businesses benefit from cheap city-owned parking and depend on it to fill their buildings. Some members own downtown parking lots themselves. Should they be in charge of city parking facilities?
Should BCAR continue to use parking revenues to subsidize below-market rates? Preservationists and some Common Council members say BCAR's artificially low rates discourage people from using mass transit or car pools. .
Would parking facilities in Buffalo cost taxpayers if BCAR is out of the picture or the city sells its ramps? Parking garages have never cost tax money for their construction or operation here, unlike Rochester and Syracuse. .
Would a new private operator have to charge sales tax for parking in city ramps? There is no sales tax now, thanks to a ruling BCAR won from the state tax commissioner. Will that ruling transfer if a profit-making company takes over the ramps, or will customers have to pay sales tax?
Would theatergoers have to pay $10 or more for event parking to owners of Theater District surface lots if BCAR loses the bid? After the city's recent $13.6 million expansion of the nearby Augspurger Ramp, BCAR undercut the private lot owners by lowering its charges there to $3 for event parking.
Criticism stuns board
The possible shake-up in who runs downtown parking comes from the city Parking Board, an obscure agency on the 18th floor of City Hall that almost seems ignored by the Masiello administration.
The board is led by its 93-year-old chairman, Henry Osinski, who was recently hospitalized with pneumonia. Its only employee is on long-term sick leave. Masiello has left three of the 11 board seats vacant. And its consultant, retired City Parking Director Thomas Gallagher, is paid $52,000 a year from parking revenues by BCAR, the group the Parking Board is supposed to oversee.
Volunteers on the Parking Board seemed stunned by the criticism they got in asking for bids.
"The Parking Board in 50 years has never bid out this parking management," board member Catherine T. Wettlaufer, a lawyer who formerly headed the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, told a Council Finance Committee meeting last month. "Having gone through this, I can see why."
But board members persisted. They met with Masiello, redrafted bid proposals and sent them out. They now have six parking companies, including BCAR, interested in bidding.
Buffalo currently receives $450,000 in parking revenues from the city-owned ramps at Women and Children's Hospital and Millard Fillmore Hospital. The $7.6 million in revenues from downtown parking is used to pay off bonds, run the ramps and fill a $5 million parking reserve.
Appeal to Masiello
Paladino, the influential developer who helped reorganize BCAR and has been involved with downtown parking for decades, went on a public tirade after he learned of the Parking Board's plans for bids. He accused board members of being ignorant about downtown parking.
Then he did something that got more immediate results. Paladino picked up the phone and called Masiello.
"I'll be honest with you, he did call me, absolutely," the mayor said. "And he raised some concerns. I have a responsibility to make sure we don't do something that harms the system instead of helps it."
Masiello said he yanked the bid request because he was not familiar enough with the proposal.
He then met with Osinski and members of the Parking Board, heard their concerns, conferred with city attorney Michael Risman, and two weeks ago, the Parking Board issued the new request for proposals. Risman denied the new proposal was skewed toward BCAR, saying it was aimed at attracting as many bidders as possible.
Paladino said tinkering with a parking operation that works makes no sense.
"This municipal system is a fabulous asset to our city," Paladino said.
Paladino expects BCAR to win the contract. To help, he persuaded its board last month to hire one of its members, Kevin J. Helfer, as executive director. Helfer is the former University District Council member who recently resigned as Erie County's director of social services.
Helfer's $80,000 salary comes out of parking revenues, as does the nearly $100,000 that BCAR last year paid in consulting fees to its attorney, Paul C. Weaver, and financial analyst, Philip C. Kadet.
Benefits of a sale
Patrick Hotung, the general manager of Main Place Liberty Group and a BCAR board member, went to the Oct. 20 meeting of potential bidders. But he admits his real purpose is buying the city ramp below his buildings.
"It means I'm back in the leasing game," said Hotung, pointing to a 41 percent vacancy rate in the Main Place and Liberty buildings he said is due to a lack of nearby parking. "Right now, I'm basically dead in the water here."
The city, he said, would make money by selling him the Main Place ramp.
"I offered them essentially $10.5 million," Hotung said. "Their own figures say over the next 15 years, they'll bring in $10 million, so I offered them a half million more."
He also said his buying the ramp would put it on the tax rolls and bring in another $5 million in property taxes over the next 15 years. The ramp then becomes his property under terms of its construction, with the result that parking could be restricted to his own tenants.
Paladino and Masiello say it's not in the city's interest to sell any of the city's ramps.
"This system has gone through the years as a sharing system,"Paladino said. "The older ramps are cash cows. If we had to charge at the Augspurger addition what it cost to build, we'd have to charge $150 a month."
Instead, the Augspurger Ramp's monthly rental is $62, subsidized by the older ramps. Main Place monthly fees are $73, and the HSBC ramp charges $93 a month.
Paladino said it makes sense to keep parking cheap to retain downtown businesses.
"We can talk about Toronto and New York City until we're blue in the face," he said. "This is Buffalo, N.Y. The mind-set here is that people don't like to pay for parking."
Paladino, whose companies control about 700 parking spaces in eight downtown lots, sees no conflict in running the city's parking ramps by serving on the BCAR board.
"We're the vested interests," he said of BCAR. "Nobody gets away with anything on our board."
Even so, after the recent controversy, the BCAR board approved the first conflict-of-interest policy in the group's 50-year history. Members now have to declare their interests and sit out discussions and votes on matters that directly affect them.