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Buffalo to seek developer who will include market at Ellicott Street site

City officials are hoping their bid to bring an urban grocery store and condominiums to downtown Buffalo will attract interest not only from local developers but also from national firms and stores as the administration works to fill a major gap in amenities for the growing population of downtown residents.

The city next month will be issuing a nationwide request for proposals to redevelop a 2.5-acre site at 201 Ellicott St., converting an empty parking lot into a mixed-use project that would include a grocery store, apartments or condominiums and a parking ramp.

The site, between Eagle and Clinton streets, occupies a central location in downtown Buffalo, sandwiched between the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library to the north and the Greyhound Bus Terminal to the south.

“We’re looking for amenities such as a grocery store to serve the growing population in the central business district and the near-downtown area,” said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, which oversees the city’s development efforts. “It’s a large site, and we’re expecting structured parking as well.”

Planning for the RFP follows last week’s State of the City address, in which Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown first aired his aspirations for a food market on the property across from the Hotel @ The Lafayette to serve the thousands of people who are starting to call downtown Buffalo home. That’s seen as one of the last big elements to creating a vibrant residential life in the central business district.

A year ago, Brown called for landlords and developers to create 1,300 new units of housing in downtown Buffalo by 2018. That was designed to meet both the increased desire for city living by young professionals and couples, as well as the growing need posed by having more businesses and jobs move downtown, including 5,000 more jobs at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus alone.

But with 1,000 new units already either under construction or moving through city approvals, the mayor has raised that goal to 2,000 units. “When we set that goal last year, we thought we were being aggressive, but apparently not,” Mehaffy said, in remarks Wednesday to the upstate chapter of the national trade group for commercial real estate developers. “It means there’s about 4,000 additional people living in the downtown area, who will want a place to pick up at least basic amenities.”

Wegmans is exploring a smaller, urban model with its newest store in Boston, but its stores are typically 120,000 to 130,000 square feet in size. “While we are incredibly excited about the growth happening in the city of Buffalo, we currently have no plans to open a downtown location of Wegmans,” said Michelle Mehaffy, a spokeswoman for the Rochester-based company and wife of Brendan Mehaffy.

Rather, any future store is more likely to be a specialized type of urban grocer, one of a newer breed of stores that is starting to crop up in big cities around the country, such as Heinen’s Fine Foods in Cleveland, Market Street Grocery in Pittsburgh or a new H-E-B in San Antonio, all of which are slated to open or start construction this year.

Brendan Mehaffy said the time frame for replying to the city’s request will likely be extended longer than normal “to make sure we give both the local community and the national community a chance to respond.”

“The concept might be a little bit new for some of the local chains, and then in terms of attracting national or people outside the city of Buffalo, more work needs to be done in terms of making sure they’re aware of the opportunity,” he said.

Besides a grocery, the city also wants to maximize the site’s potential for more housing. So far, most of the new residential units in the downtown area have been rental apartments, usually at market rates.

But now city officials are sensing more interest in condos, and they want developers to include them in the project.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people who are fine and happy with renting, but also a lot of people who want an ownership stake in where they live,” Mehaffy said. “That opportunity right now in the downtown area is limited, and we think there is a demand there.”

Finally, the project will eliminate a large surface parking lot, so the city wants to see a new parking structure on the site as well. Mehaffy said the city could build it as a public parking ramp, or it could be a “public-private partnership” with the developer.

“We still do have parking demand in the area and this will generate additional parking as well,” he said. “So as part of the urban objective, we’re taking a surface parking lot and putting mixed-use buildings on there and structured parking.”