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Editorial: A grocery store is essential to downtown

A couple of years ago the public was tantalized by a proposal to build a downtown grocery store rising out of a vacant parking lot on Ellicott Street, along with a high-rise building with apartments, offices and real estate space. Then, nothing.

The silence became deafening, as downtown dwellers and workers wondered if the plan would ever come to fruition. In those moments, doubt begins to form. Will it ever happen? Was that meeting at the downtown Buffalo library just a dream?

Happily, it wasn’t. The project is moving forward. And whenever the first shovel hits the ground – next construction season one year from now – the award-winning “Queen City Hub” 2003 plan for revitalizing downtown will have reached another milestone.

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., was selected in February 2016 as the designated developer for the city-owned lot. The land is sandwiched between the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and the bus terminal. The developer proposed a high-rise apartment tower, anchored by an Orchard Fresh grocery, a parking ramp and other features.

Time went by without word. Downtown only grew hotter as a destination for millennials and empty nesters. They produced just the kind of critical mass that would create demand for services.

Now, let’s hope an agreement can be reached within three months. That is the goal and the head of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning offered an optimistic “We’re in the ballpark,” that sounds like it may happen.

The original proposal called for an 18-story apartment, office and retail tower on the 2.5-acre lot, bounded by Ellicott, Oak, Eagle and Clinton streets. The grocery store was to be run by Williamsville-based Tops Markets. The apartments and condominiums would top out at 200; three floors of office space, and other shops or restaurants would also be built.

There is more. The vision included a public plaza, a community garden for residents, public art and an “enormous” display screen on the wall of the nearby bus terminal to draw crowds by showing movies or sporting events. And there would be an 800-space parking ramp.

It all sounds great. But getting from here to there on a complex project takes time, during which the landscape changes.

For example, Tops has since filed for a Chapter 11, bankruptcy reorganization. Nevertheless, city officials remain determined to include a downtown grocery store.

Such an outlet would certainly hold potential as the downtown customer base grows. Officials also wanted to analyze the amount of office space the downtown market could absorb without harming other project developers. And this one is notable to housing advocates: City officials put high value on making sure the project could accommodate a range of income levels, beyond market-rate prices.

The parking ramp proposal remains a challenge because some form of city subsidy would be necessary to support the cost. City officials want to make sure its location maximizes the benefits for all of downtown. That makes sense. It is forward-thinking to consider ride-hailing, mass transit and autonomous vehicles.

The work-live-play concept remains part of the future landscape and, to succeed, requires a grocery store. That planning for it has become more active is an encouraging sign for downtown development.

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