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Buffalo Place wants city to develop after-hours parking permit system

When theater patrons, diners and even overnight guests head to downtown Buffalo to enjoy an evening, they often find it’s hard to find on-street parking near their destination.

That’s because the spaces in front of the theaters, restaurants and hotels are already taken – by people working at those places.

It has become a growing and frustrating problem for downtown business owners and landlords, especially with the growth in evening and weekend activity that’s drawing more customers to their doorsteps at all hours.

So they turned to Buffalo Place for some help.

Now, after more than a year of research and considering options, the nonprofit downtown business improvement district wants parking garage operator Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps to work with the city to develop a new after-hours parking permit system. The goal is to get hospitality workers and residents in downtown Buffalo to park in designated ramps and lots at night, rather than taking up on-street spaces used by patrons of hotels, restaurants and stores.

Specifically, Buffalo Place is urging Buffalo Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer to create an annual “off-peak” parking permit that would be valid at the 11 BCAR ramps and lots except Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Such a permit would be designed for downtown employees and the growing number of people living in the urban core, who now often park on the streets and prevent diners, shoppers and hotel guests from getting convenient spaces.

“We have many more employees that work after business hours, in hotels and restaurants, in customer service, in startups in the city,” said architect and downtown resident Steven J. Carmina, a member of the board who heads its Downtown Living committee. “They’re utilizing on-street parking, and maybe even parking illegally and taking up space that could be used for patrons.”

Instead, Buffalo Place urged the city to institute new regulations and pricing to discourage much of the on-street parking, except for patrons, and encourage others to use existing parking lots and ramps.

Restaurants are even willing to pay $325 or $350 a year for their employees to use such “structured” parking, because the street parking is so valuable, Carmina said.

“People are willing to pay,” he said. “It’s worth more for their customers to be able to park in front.”

The proposal comes as Buffalo undergoes significant changes attracting more people into the central business district in evenings and weekends, with more hotels, restaurants, retailers and residential apartments, as well as businesses that don’t just operate during traditional hours.

Downtown Buffalo is currently home to more than 1,100 businesses and 58,000 workers, as well as 8,300 residents, more than 60 restaurants and more than 50 stores, according to Buffalo Place.

And more than 1,000 new apartments have been developed downtown in recent years – with Mayor Byron W. Brown calling for another 1,000 by 2018. And a “significant” number of new restaurants and businesses are opening within the next year, Buffalo Place noted.

Meanwhile, the downtown workforce is growing, with new businesses and an estimated 5,000 additional workers who are expected to be on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus by 2017.

Where downtown Buffalo used to be active predominantly during the workday and then closed for the night and weekends, it’s moving increasingly – albeit slowly – toward becoming a 24-hour residential, hospitality and entertainment district.

“Our downtown has changed,” said Buffalo Place Chairman Keith M. Belanger. “Our downtown is no longer a place where people drive in at 8 and leave at 5. There’s a lot of entertainment now and people living there.”

There are 33,731 downtown parking spaces in ramps and lots, with 21,151 occupied, according to a fall 2014 study by Buffalo Place.

In the retail core area, near Main Place Mall, as many as 90 percent of the parking spaces are taken at peak times.

And it will only get worse as cars return to Main Street. “We haven’t had Main Street for 30 years,” Carmina said. “When we open up Main Street, we’re going to be creating many, many parking opportunities, and we want those intrinsically tied to residents and not overnight workers.”

Buffalo Place noted that parking ramps currently have a lot of empty spaces after 4 p.m. and through the night that could be used. The new system could keep existing rates at ramps, but in a more formalized manner, and could raise on-street rates. Carmina noted that the city’s parking ramps are typically free after 5 p.m. right now, but other options could include an overnight parking pass. Restaurants are also looking for more patron parking, so the new system could also include two hours of free parking for customers of downtown eateries, Carmina said.

Similar concepts have been tested in other cities that have experienced such changes, such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Tampa, and Belanger said he’s not aware of anyone opposed to the concept.

Such a system would likely require BCAR and Common Council approval, Carmina said. Officials also would have to work out the specifics on pricing, but BCAR has tested its equipment for possible changes, and it could be implemented within two to three months if approved, said Samuel F. Iraci, BCAR executive director.

“This would be a baby step, to try to address the needs of downtown as it changes,” Belanger said. “I’m very comfortable with what we’re proposing here. It seems very logical.”