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Event parking a pricey affair; Charges soar at lots around arena, theaters

If you're parking downtown for a big show or sporting event, you may already be aware of it. The parking space price spike.

Buffalo Sabres and Bandits fans know all about it. It's not uncommon to drive by privately owned parking lots near HSBC Arena a couple of hours before a Sabres game and see spots advertised for $10.

Cruise by a short time later, and the same lot has hiked the price to $15. Then $20.

"The price is sometimes flipping by the minute," lamented City Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer. "These parking lot owners are living by the law of supply and demand. And I understand that law. But, wow."

Over in the Theater District, many patrons have complained about sky-high parking at privately owned lots on evenings when Shea's Performing Arts Center stages events. One woman who didn't give her name grumbled about $20 parking fees at a lot behind Shea's on Pearl Street during "Sesame Street Live" shows earlier this month. Similar prices appeared this week when "Young Frankenstein" opened.

And back at the arena, when it has hosted concerts, people driving to events have reported seeing spots commanding up to $50.

"Terrible. Terrible," Dan Lock, of Buffalo, said about parking lot fees being charged for some events. "It's highway robbery, actually."

Sarah and Rob Holzman, of Cheektowaga, have season tickets to Buffalo Bandits games, and they believe that $20 parking charges are out of line.

"You're spending all that money on season tickets, especially if you're taking the family out," Sarah Holzman said. "I'll walk the extra distance for cheaper parking."

Doug Lewis, of the City of Tonawanda, said exorbitant parking fees coupled with traffic snarls spurred him to use Metro Rail when he attends Sabres games. He drives to the park-and-ride lot off Main Street near the University at Buffalo South Campus. He and his son then hop aboard Metro Rail.

"It takes a bit longer, but it puts us right there, and we go walking into the arena," said Lewis.

Numerous motorists lamented that several years ago, it was easy to find $5 parking within a block of some events. Not anymore.

"It's just ridiculous," said Sarah Holzman.

Helfer hears their cries. Other than calls about illegally parked cars and meter problems, complaints about sky-high parking rates on event nights are the most common calls his office receives.

The most glaring example, Helfer said, occurred a few months ago when some parking lots charged up to $60 per day for spots during the World Junior Hockey Championship. When Mayor Byron W. Brown asked the state attorney general to investigate alleged price-gouging, lot owners lowered their prices.

But the day after any special event in the downtown district, City Hall receives calls from miffed motorists who object to lot owners charging $15 or $20 to park for a few hours. Helfer confirmed that rates on some concert nights have approached $50.

For the past month, city officials have been quietly doing their homework, hoping to find legal tools that would give them the power to better regulate rates. "Our Law Department has done its research. Nowhere have they found anything that would let us cap rates on private lots," Helfer said.

In the coming weeks, the city -- perhaps for the first time -- will attempt to go head-to-head with private parking lots as it launches an aggressive marketing blitz to encourage motorists to save money by parking in city-owned ramps, lots and at curbside spaces.

Scores of motorists already do so, Helfer conceded.

"Many people don't have a clue that they can park for a couple bucks -- even on hockey nights -- or for free," he said. "We have to start better promoting the alternatives."

For example, Geraldine M. Kaczmarz, Helfer's senior administrative assistant, is convinced that many patrons of downtown events have no idea that the Augspurger Ramp at Pearl and Chippewa streets offers $2 parking on hockey nights and is free on weekends. Kaczmarz noted that Metro Rail runs frequent trains on days when the Sabres are playing at home.

On nights when there are Shea's events, the ramp only charges $5. "The Augspurger is only a block from the Theater District," Kaczmarz said, noting that patrons can save up to $15 by taking a walk that can be completed in a just a few minutes.

Other options the city will be marketing include:

Encouraging motorists to look for curbside spots -- free after 5 p.m.

Providing cost comparisons of parking fees. A new feature will be launched on the city's website that will list fees by tiers at various downtown facilities, from the "pricey to the free" spaces, Helfer said.

Rates at the ramps range from being free on weekends to a maximum of $8 at the HSBC Tower facility on hockey nights. Parking at the other city venues on event nights is $5.

Continuing to work closely with NFTA officials to promote public transit.

What do owners of private parking lots have to say about the city's plan to try to capture a bigger share of event parking?

"All the marketing in the world won't change habits," said Mark D. Croce, whose Skydeck Corp. operates parking lots near HSBC Arena and the Theater District. "This is a convenience-based business, and people pay for convenience."

Croce pointed out that while some of his lots charge $20, others charge only $5 -- including some lots that are frequented by patrons in the Chippewa Entertainment District.

"There are different price options for people. It's all about location and demand," he said.

James T. Sandoro owns some downtown lots that are not too far from HSBC Arena. He said he charges $10 on nights the Sabres are playing at home.

Sandoro doesn't think the city should offer free or deeply discounted parking in ramps on event days. He also thinks the city should install special meters that could be programmed for events, meters that would charge $5 to $8. He said some streets not far from the arena are not metered but are used for parking.

"We built the arena to bring in commerce, not to give a free pass," Sandoro said. "Is this free parking a political thing -- 'Oh, look at what good guys we are! Here's some free parking.' "

Both Sandoro and Croce insisted that the city should not try to affect the market by offering free or deeply discounted parking. "Who are they to give away a city asset?" Sandoro asked.

Croce, who is a commissioner at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said he would love to see more people use public transit to come downtown. But he said he doesn't believe the city should be "trying to compete with the private sector" for parking business.

Many motorists disagree. Cheektowaga resident Julianne Goodman, who attends downtown events a couple of times a month, believes the city would benefit in the long run if there was more affordable parking.

"You would get more people coming down here and spending even more money if they didn't have to worry about how far away they would have to park from an event," Goodman said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com