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Tops Markets getting closer to opening a store in downtown Buffalo

Tops Markets is likely to bring a smaller, urban grocery to a downtown parking lot to cater to the influx of new residents in the city, bringing its hometown brand to the city core with more of a focus on fresh, prepared foods than traditional stores, its CEO said Tuesday.

The Williamsville-based grocery chain has not yet fully committed to the project at 201 Ellicott St., which is still in early planning stages by Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. City officials, who had previously announced the selection of Ciminelli, on Tuesday formally designated the firm as the exclusive developer of the site, which is supposed to include a grocery, parking ramp of 700 to 800 spaces, housing, office space and additional retail space. But the developer hasn’t finalized any details about the size, scale or shape of the complex.

Even so, the comments by Tops Chairman and CEO Frank Curci and his presence at a news conference alongside developer Paul Ciminelli and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown was the most significant confirmation yet of the company’s intended participation. Until now, the company expressed only general interest.

“This is our home, so if there’s going to be a supermarket in downtown Buffalo, we want it to be a Tops,” Curci said. “We’re really impressed by the development that’s going on, and we think there’s room for more, and we want it to be us.”

Curci said the new store, its eighth in the city, would probably range in size from 10,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet, with about 100 employees. That’s smaller than its sprawling suburban supermarkets and even smaller than its Niagara Street store, which has 50,000 square feet on five acres. It would be most similar to Tops’ Orchard Fresh specialty store in Orchard Park, which emphasizes freshly prepared foods and ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat meals.

That’s ideal for downtown Buffalo, and a natural fit with the apartments or condominiums that would be part of the larger project, as well as all the new residential buildings nearby, Curci said. “People who live in a more urban environment are usually in a rush. They want good, healthy, fresh options, and we’re able to satisfy that in that kind of a format,” he said. “It’ll fit in perfectly.”

But there’s “still a lot of work to do before we get to a grand opening.”

Brown announced his desire more than a year ago to see the 2.5-acre property bounded by Ellicott, Oak, Eagle and Clinton streets turned into a mixed-use development that could serve the growing population of downtown residents. He previously set a goal of building 2,000 more housing units in downtown Buffalo, and said Tuesday that developers are already 75 percent there – including Ciminelli’s Sinclair project that opens next week at 465 Washington St.

But officials and residents have all said a grocery is a necessary next step to support that growth. And Curci said it works the other way, too. “It takes residents to make a grocery store possible,” he said. “The critical mass is getting there.”

The Common Council will consider the designated-developer agreement on June 7. The site, sandwiched between the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus terminal, is now a 300-space parking lot. Ciminelli, which will buy the lot from the city at a price to be set, will pay $15,000 per month toward that purchase for the next few months to maintain development rights. Officials said construction on the entire project would start in spring 2017, and could take two years.

Meanwhile, Curci said Tops is still exploring the possibility of also opening a store at Gates Circle.