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Developers spar over parking, redevelopment measures

A discussion over reusing vacant space in Buffalo and a debate over downtown parking policy turned nasty at Buffalo Place's monthly meeting, as rival developers Carl Paladino and Mark Croce verbally sparred, and Paladino renewed his criticism of government grants to developers.

It is not the first public spat between Paladino, who owns Ellicott Development Co. and is the biggest landlord in Buffalo, and Croce, who bought the Statler Towers last year and is slowly redeveloping it.

The two have fought over public grants for redevelopment projects, particularly $5 million in city support to stabilize the Statler building. In general, Paladino is a harsh critic of what he calls unfair "public subsidies" that he says create an unlevel playing field.

In an otherwise routine board meeting Wednesday, the argument followed a presentation by University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning Dean Robert Shibley about the Buffalo Building Re-Use Project report.

The report found that downtown Buffalo has about 2 million square feet of vacant space, including 10 empty buildings. It urged the city to follow a disciplined strategy to improve and redevelop the area, coordinated by the Buffalo Urban Development Corp.

In particular, the report suggested taking the overabundance of vacant Class B and Class C office space and converting it to meet the growing demand for residential space. And it called for incentives for redevelopment, as well as investments in public infrastructure and amenities to make downtown more attractive for residents and retail use.

"It's done. We're moving forward. The resources seem to be in place," Shibley said.

That led to a debate over the merits or dangers of what Paladino terms "selective subsidies" for specific development projects, which he said creates an "unlevel playing field" for other developers who can't get the same assistance. But Shibley said the report focuses on using public money for infrastructure, leaving development to the private market.

Steve Fitzmaurice, chief operating officer of Seneca One Realty, owner of the One HSBC Center tower, also worried about "reshuffling the deck" if the effort just brings people into the city from the suburbs. About one-fourth of the housing demand downtown comes from people outside Erie and Niagara counties, but, he said, "we need to bring more people in from the outside and not just move them from the first-ring suburbs."

Discussion then turned to the availability of parking. Both Croce and developer David Sweet said the city needed a better parking structure and policy to meet the needs of residents and tenants, while supporting the financially strapped NFTA's mass-transit services. Sweet noted that there's a 2,300-car waiting list for Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps spots.

"We need a coordinated parking plan," Croce said. "We have an extraordinary amount of parking in the city, but it's not priced right."

That spurred Paladino to accuse Croce of a conflict of interest and "feathering your own nest" with higher parking rates, since he owns a number of parking properties, particularly near the Statler. Croce responded that Paladino does, too.

"I'm taking my private hat off when I'm doing my civic duty," Paladino said. "I'm perfectly happy breaking even on my parking. I'm trying to do what's best for the city."

That soon deteriorated into personal attacks, as they also denounced each other's business ethics and style.

The rest of the Buffalo Place board largely sat quietly, transfixed and perhaps even entertained by the debate. Board Chairman Keith Belanger, who said he agreed with elements of both arguments, considered gaveling the meeting back to order, but the argument eventually trailed off.

"What I hear is a lot of passion about downtown," Belanger said. "It just would be nice if we could channel it."