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Buffalo looking for a developer to bring grocery, condos to Ellicott Street property

Grocery stores are a tell-tale sign for re-emerging downtowns.

It happened in Cleveland’s Warehouse District, Rochester’s east end and Pittsburgh’s newly opened Market Street Grocery.

Now, Buffalo is counting on the same thing happening.

Mayor Byron W. Brown announced Friday that the city is seeking a developer to open a full-service grocery store at 201 Ellicott St.

The mayor’s plan also calls for residences, commercial businesses and a parking ramp on the site, now a city-owned parking lot.

“Our goal, quite simply, is to take what is a surface parking lot and turn it into a major development in downtown Buffalo,” Brown said.

“We are very confident this will be an exciting process,” the mayor added, calling the site “one of the hottest parcels” in the region.

Already, potential developers have shown more interest in the Ellicott Street site than they did at a similar time for the Webster Block, which became Terry Pegula’s $200 million HarborCenter, the mayor said.

Top’s Markets, Western New York’s largest supermarket chain, said in February it was considering opening an urban grocery store downtown. Spokeswoman Katie McKenna on Friday reiterated the company’s interest.

“Tops is excited about the progress that’s happening right now in the city, and very much wants to continue to be a part of Buffalo’s resurgence. At the right time, and in the right location Tops would absolutely consider an additional downtown store,” McKenna said.

And two downtown developers applauded the city’s action Friday.

“I absolutely love it. It will do more to help foster the growth of downtown residential living, which is important for the growth of the city, and also for our company, since we have a number of downtown units,” Nick Sinatra said.

“My enthusiasm goes up with different operators. If it’s more of a specialty grocer, like a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, my enthusiasm will be off the charts. But if it’s a run-of-the-mill operator, then I won’t be as excited, and I don’t think others will as well, either,” Sinatra said.

“Whoever came up with the idea had a real vision for what’s going on,” said Rocco Termini, who has developed more than a half-dozen downtown lofts, and Hotel @ the Lafayette. “It shows things downtown are turning around. Five years ago, nobody would have even given it a thought.”

Healthy downtowns

In downtown Cleveland, Constantino’s Market was credited with sparking a section of the city’s rebirth when it opened 10 years ago in the Warehouse District.

The full-service store, which skews upscale and is located on the lower floor of a brick building with condominiums and apartments above, nearly doubled in size five years ago to 12,000 square feet.

“I think it’s partly because of Constantino’s that more people have moved downtown, and continue to do so,” said Patrick Leigh, the store manager.

“A lot of people starting professional careers want to be able to live and work downtown and not have to get in a car and drive 45 minutes in traffic if they don’t have to.”

Last year, a second, larger grocery store opened downtown to meet the growing demand.

Rochester got its only downtown supermarket nine months ago, near the Eastman School of Music. The market offers a variety of foods, from organic products to more conventional offerings.

Colleen Griffin-Underhill, a Buffalo native who is general manager of the 20,000-square-foot Hart’s Local Grocers, said a food store was needed.

“It’s been fantastic. There is so much happening downtown, with so many more opportunities for people to live in the city than there used to be,” Griffin-Underhill said. “They can walk here, they can bike here, and on top of it are the people who work here and can stop in on their way home.”

No guarantees

The preference for a supermarket in downtown Buffalo doesn’t guarantee there will be one.

If developer submissions only call for developing housing, for example – which the city considers a pressing need – that could be the end result, one official said.

But downtown’s growth follows a pattern, said Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Development.

“Residential first, then retail will follow, then grocery, and that takes it to another level,” he said.

The Ellicott Street site is perfectly positioned for walkable residential living as well as a supermarket, Mehaffy said.

“Look at the location of this site. Someone will be able to walk out of their residence and enjoy all the amenities of the Theatre District, including the AMC Theatre that’s coming."

The 2.5-acre lot, bordered by Ellicott, Clinton, Eagle and Oak streets, is just east of the restored Hotel @ the Lafayette, and across from the new Warehouse Lofts.

Both buildings reflect the rapid changes occurring downtown that are driving demand for a supermarket. Within a three-block radius are the Central Library, Lafayette Square, Main Street, Greyhound Bus Terminal, Coca-Cola Field and Erie Community College.

“There is the Chippewa District, and all the restaurants opening up in and around the 500 block,” Mehaffy said.

“Then, on the other side, they’ll be able to enjoy the activities at Canalside and the waterfront and the marina, all without having to move their car,” he said.

“Then when they have to get in their car, they have the 33, the 190 and the Peace Bridge all within a minute’s drive.”

Expanding population

The city is trying to keep ahead of the downtown demand for housing and retail it believes is coming due to the many projects – from SolarCity and IBM to the Medical Campus’ expansion and growing number of startup companies that are all in the pipeline, Mehaffy said.

At least 14,000 people live within a mile of the Ellicott Street site, from residents in the numerous converted industrial buildings of recent years, to people living in the near East Side and in the Marine Drive apartments, Mehaffy said.

Another 2,000 residential units – about 4,000 people – are expected to open in three years.

Mehaffy expects the 57,000 people who work downtown to be potential customers of a downtown supermarket.

In addition, the more than 12,000-person workforce at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – a short Metro Rail ride away – is expected to increase by 5,000 in 2018.

The supermarket and residential living, the mayor said, will help lure these new job holders downtown and spur development there.

Thomas Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, which works on regional economic development, thinks so. A downtown supermarket is the kind of quality-of-life component employers and workforce recruiters want to know about, he said.

“One of the first questions I hear is what it’s like to live downtown, and what’s anticipated over the next five to 10 years,” Kucharski said. “They know folks they’re recruiting want to live in the city.”

The request for proposals is being sent to over 100 developers locally, statewide and nationally. Respondents must register interest by June 17, and submit proposals by July 29.