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Ciminelli's downtown grocery store, high-rise moves forward

It's been more than two years since Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. was selected in February 2016 as the designated developer for a vacant parking lot on Ellicott Street.

The city-owned lot, sandwiched between the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and the bus terminal, had been identified by the Brown administration as ideal for a project to bring more residential units and an urban grocery store to downtown Buffalo.

Ciminelli didn't disappoint when it unveiled its proposal nine months later for a high-rise apartment tower, anchored by an Orchard Fresh grocery, a parking ramp and other features.

But nothing has happened since then, leading many observers to wonder if the deal for 201 Ellicott St. was still on.

Now, city officials say, that's about to change, as they are close to a final agreement with Ciminelli on the property sale that will enable the developer to move forward, although with a modified project. The goal is to get an agreement within three months.

"We have been going back and forth in terms of an offer on the table. We're in the ballpark," said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning. "They're anxious to get moving in the next month or two."

Ciminelli officials declined to comment.

The pending sale is one of more than a dozen real estate sales and projects that city officials have been working on, which have come together almost simultaneously. In all, the deals total more than $8 million in potential value.

Ciminelli's proposal called for an 18-story apartment, office and retail tower on the 2.5-acre lot, which is bounded by Ellicott, Oak, Eagle and Clinton streets. Plans included the grocery store, run by Williamsville-based Tops Markets, as well as 200 apartments and condominiums, three floors of office space, and other shops or restaurants.

Plans unveiled for 18-story apartment tower, city grocery

The project would also feature a public plaza, a community garden for residents, public art and an enormous display screen on the wall of the nearby bus terminal to show movies or sporting events to crowds. Additionally, there would be an 800-space parking ramp.

"We're close. We're very close," Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said. "We have a great feeling about how things are going."

But the multiple aspects of the project also created various layers of complexity that had to be worked out. And while there's still a focus on green space, housing and the retail grocery, other elements have changed.

"They went out two years ago with one concept," Mehaffy said. "It includes a lot of the same components, but it'll be a different look."

Beyond that, Tops has since filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization and, rather than opening more stores, it is asking the Bankruptcy Court for permission to close "a few" of its 169 stores as it restructures.

Ciminelli to unveil plans for downtown Buffalo grocery project

At issue for the past two years has been much more than just the price, Mehaffy said. City officials wanted to ensure that the grocery store would be part of the project, and they also wanted to analyze how much office space the downtown market could absorb without impacting other property owners.

And they put a premium on making sure that the project could accommodate a wider range of income levels, beyond market-rate prices.

"Affordability is a key element that we wanted to be part of the project," Mehaffy said. "We wanted to see a strong commitment to affordability in those 200 units."

But the bigger challenge has surrounded the parking ramp proposal, which "is yet to be determined," he said. That's because some form of city subsidy would be needed to support the cost, but government officials want to make sure they get the most bang for their buck. So that led to questions about where the funds should be spent in the downtown core.

Costly parking forces Ciminelli to adjust downtown tower

"We realized it was a larger question of where parking is located downtown," Mehaffy said. "The City of Buffalo is not in a position, nor would it want to be in a position, where it wants to build four parking ramps. So when we're expending our funds, we want to make sure it's in a location that maximizes the benefits for the entire downtown community."

Part of that discussion goes beyond just parking cars, he added. The Buffalo Urban Development Corp. and Buffalo Place are already conducting a study of structured and on-street parking availability, as well as how workers and residents get to downtown Buffalo. But officials also want to consider the impact of alternative means of transportation, such as ride-sharing, mass-transit and even autonomous vehicles.

"We are trying to make sure that that is taken into consideration in any decisions regarding major parking investments in the downtown area," Mehaffy said. "We are trying to understand what the future demand is going to be in the downtown and throughout the city of Buffalo."

Financing for the entire project is also a work in progress, with Ciminelli representatives meeting in New York City late last week to finalize one component. Mehaffy would not disclose details of any city funding yet, but confirmed that a PIF is one of the options that has been proposed.

Once a sale is finalized, Ciminelli would begin the process of submitting a site plan for municipal review, which includes working with the community to address any concerns, Mehaffy said. "But based upon the community engagement that Ciminelli has done to date, they tried to take into account a lot of what they heard from the public already, which is why portions of this project have been recast," he said.

He said officials hope to see a "shovel in the ground" in time for the next construction season one year from now.

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