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Parking spaces become more elusive as downtown Buffalo booms

Downtown development has brought a new concern: Could city parking spaces become even more elusive?

While still a common sight in Buffalo, open parking spaces are increasingly becoming harder to come by. The overall supply of spaces hasn’t changed much, but the downtown population has grown by 70 percent over the past 20 years, and the workforce there has swelled by 30 percent. That doesn’t include patrons drawn to new hotels, restaurants and events.

Meanwhile, entire lots are starting to disappear under the crunch of excavators, as developers eye the real estate for new projects. City officials, developers and experts see that growth as good for the city.

But it has prompted this question: Does downtown Buffalo have a parking shortage or too many surface lots?

A Buffalo News report last month noted  that 11 new buildings have been constructed on downtown parking lots in the past 10 years. While surface lots still account for 13 percent of downtown's total land, developers, planners and community leaders are discussing ways to address parking and transportation in the future.

For some, that means urging new development to better incorporate parking. For others, it means moving away from inexpensive parking options to encourage people to use public transportation.

And because parking lots are the lowest use for vacant land that can otherwise support apartments, offices, stores and restaurants, city leaders are encouraging development, after years of only dreaming about it.

“I think we all realize that parking, especially surface parking, is only a temporary use, and there’s always a better use, which is, naturally, development,” said Richard Serra, CEO of Allpro, a private parking lot operator that is partly owned by developer Paul Ciminelli. “We’d rather see things going up than see cars on an open space.”

Existing parking ramps in the city – some with artificially low rates subsidized by the city – are considered inadequate for today’s needs. And the expected loss of surface lots to development, without sufficient replacement, is creating concern that parking will become harder to find – and more expensive.

“The central business district has a parking problem right now. In many ways, it’s a nice problem to have, but it’s also a horrible problem to have,” said developer Jake Schneider.

Shortage hampering business

As downtown building projects continue, some developers are even warning of an anticipated mismatch of supply and demand that could eventually yield a gap of more than 1,100 spaces.

In turn, that could hamper efforts to lease apartments and office space, or prevent customers from getting to stores and restaurants, landlords and businesses say.

"It’s going to affect businesses downtown," said Rocco Termini, owner of Signature Development Buffalo. "You’re not going to lease any space in the office buildings in that vicinity because there is no parking."

That’s already happening to some degree. Keith Belanger, chairman of the Buffalo Place board and a senior vice president at M&T Bank Corp., said the Buffalo-based bank wants to bring more jobs downtown but has struggled to find a suitable location that has enough nearby parking.

"We're looking at options right now for some growth,” he said. “It's a huge, huge consideration."

And Schneider, who owns three downtown apartment projects and also has commercial space, says he struggles to lease units without parking.

“We are always faced with the question of, 'Where do we park?' ” he said. “Any commercial space that we have that is vacant is partly vacant due to the fact that parking is an issue.”

There are 22,840 publicly available parking spaces in downtown Buffalo – both paid and unpaid, according to data from Buffalo Place, the nonprofit group that promotes the central business district.

Many of those spaces, however, are on the periphery of downtown, such as near KeyBank Center and the Cobblestone District – not in the heart of the business district.

“There’s available parking, just not exactly where you’d want it,” said Samuel F. Iraci Jr., executive director of Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, the nonprofit that manages the city-owned ramps and lots.

At the same time, the downtown workforce is growing again. There are 1,100 businesses employing some 58,000 workers – up from 44,000 workers two decades ago, according to a Buffalo Place report. There are also more than 8,300 residents living downtown in 2,910 waterfront condominiums, loft or traditional apartments, and even some single-family homes – up from 1,695 residential units before 2000.

And there are 60 bars and restaurants, 50 stores, eight theaters, a cinema, architectural sites, Canalside, HarborCenter and KeyBank Center, not to mention the expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus immediately to the north.

“We’re at capacity in the core,” said Debra Chernoff, manager of planning for Buffalo Place, which tracks the availability of downtown parking and has been studying ways to make more parking available.

Public spaces disappearing

Developers also are concerned because two big ramps that now are publicly owned and charge below-market rates are shifting to private ownership – with higher rates –  over the next couple of years. The 1,029-space Main Place ramp, which is owned by the city and operated by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, will revert back in July 2019 to Patrick Hotung's Main Place Liberty Group. The 457-space ramp on Washington Street attached by sky bridge to One Seneca Tower will go to the tower's owner, Douglas Jemal, in 2021.

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., as designated developer for the city-owned parking lot at 201 Ellicott St., also is planning to construct a mixed-use building with an urban grocery and 200 apartments.

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

"I’ve been yelling about this for years. There’s been no replacement of municipal parking and no forward thinking," said Carl Paladino, chairman of Ellicott Development Co. "We’re in big trouble."

It’s the loss of that Ellicott-Oak lot that is really causing concern.

Ciminelli’s plan originally included an 800-space parking ramp that would have replaced the 375-space lot and doubled its capacity.

The long-delayed project has since been scaled back and the new version announced late last month – developed in conjunction with the city – now includes only enough parking for the store's needs.

That means no built-in spaces for the 200 new tenants. Instead, city officials and Ciminelli executives said, residents will be encouraged to use public transportation, ride-sharing, bicycles and other means of travel.

“There are plenty of spaces available if they’re willing to seek them out, take a longer walk or hop the transit rail to get to their office,” Serra said.

Adding to the pressure, the former AM&A's Department Store on Main Street is slated to open in 2020 as a 300-room Wyndham Hotel with two restaurants. Iskalo Development Corp. also is buying, renovating and leasing buildings around its Electric Tower, including Old Editions Book Shop on Huron Street and the Arc Erie County at 101 Oak St.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said the city is working on alternative ideas for the short term that will be unveiled shortly.

“We want to make intelligent decisions," Brown said. "We don’t want to have parking assets in five years, 10 years, that we have bonded for that are not needed in that period of time.”

A temporary problem?

No one is suggesting paving more land for parking lots. But some people are urging more ramps.

Several recent construction projects already include interior parking, including HarborCenter, Ellicott Development's 500 Pearl St. and Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.'s Conventus building.

“You’ve seen a lot more private development happen in the last 10 to 15 years, with the developers realizing they have to supply their own parking needs,” said hospitality developer Mark Croce, whose own recent proposal for a new convention center included 500 structured spaces.

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus replaced its 900-space Ellicott-Goodrich Garage with a ramp that doubled its capacity. Several developers are suggesting that the city’s 629-space Mohawk Ramp be rebuilt. And Termini urged Ciminelli to "go back to the drawing board" to restore a ramp to its project at 201 Ellicott St.

But Paul Ciminelli said the city made the decision to drop the ramp from the project because of the costs, and he's not eager for a reboot that would push back the project further.

Structured parking is also very expensive to build, at about $25,000 per space, according to Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps’ Iraci. And urban planners generally are now discouraging new construction of ramps, citing trends toward alternative transportation in the future.

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“It’s not in the best interests of anyone to consider building parking facilities, knowing that the need for parking spaces will be diminishing as time goes on,” Serra said. “You build it only in the necessity that there definitely is a shortfall.”

Discouraging driving

Developers and city officials tout the national trend toward “transit-oriented development,” in which new projects are constructed around bus and rail lines. The goal is to discourage the use of cars, reduce traffic, cut vehicle emissions, and encourage walkability.

That was the aim of Buffalo’s new Green Code, the zoning and land-use document that guides development in the city. It’s also been a big initiative on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where the employee count far outnumbers the available parking.

There’s also more effort to support bicycles, with dedicated travel lanes, and ride-sharing has been hailed as another option.

Advocates say the city, Erie County and Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps need to encourage this shift.

“The biggest deterrent to people riding public transportation is access to inexpensive or available parking,” said Douglas Funke, president of Citizens for Regional Transit, which wants the city and county to increase spending on public transit to extend Metro Rail and boost the frequency of buses. “Get rid of the parking, and people get out of their cars.”

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