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Fewer free parking spots in Buffalo? Online petition fuels opposition

A downtown street parking plan approved this week by Buffalo lawmakers has gone over like finding a bright orange envelope under the windshield wiper.

The new plan includes:

• Increasing rates at parking meters, in some cases to as much as $2 an hour.

• The elimination of free street parking on evenings and Saturdays.

• And the addition of more meters.

Reba Allen, a 29-year-old who works at a downtown restaurant, posted a petition protesting the parking rate increases on change.org late Wednesday night. By midnight Sunday, it had logged more than 18,700 names.

Allen, who said she has never started a petition before, felt compelled to act after discussing the proposed plan with coworkers and friends.

"I thought about it, and I thought that I could find an alternative to my personal situation, or I can look at the bigger picture and try and do something about it," Allen recounted.

"At 10 p.m., I said, 'we're doing this,' " she said.

The petition hit 100 signatures that night. By Thursday night, it had 6,000. By Friday, it had surpassed 10,000.

"I'm not surprised, because people rally together here, so I knew it would get at least a little attention," Allen said. "And it's not a surprise because this is such a ludicrous suggestion for our lifestyle. We can't afford it and it can hurt a lot of people."

The changes affect street parking from Goodell Street to the KeyBank Center area, extend west to South Elmwood Avenue and east to Michigan Avenue.

City officials have said that the parking rate proposal would create more than 700 new "revenue-generating" parking spaces in the downtown core, and that the goal of the plan is to make on-street parking accessible to more people and to generate a new revenue stream.

When Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer spoke to the Common Council in a Finance Committee meeting on Dec. 18, he said that part of the plan was to give people an incentive to park farther away and walk to get to where they need to go.

"The days in the past where people could leave their house, come down and find reasonable or free parking by the front door are gone," Helfer said, "and that's a good thing."

That is one of the key issues for Allen. If downtown workers are forced to use lots or ramps, she said it could pose a safety issue, noting that she and many peers in the food service industry leave their jobs late at night with a lot of cash.

"A lot of the commenters on the petition are upset to lose the free nights and Saturday parking," she said. "We don’t mind paying for parking, and don’t mind paying more during the day. But we don’t want to be forced to lots and ramps that are far away from our job. There’s personal safety involved for some people."

Common Council President Darius C. Pridgen said the council voted to approve the new parking plan Wednesday – but with some safeguards in place.

He asked that Helfer return to the council in April with an update. He wants to see data on whether the plan is actually leading to more turnover in parking. He also wants to measure the impact on people who work after hours and on weekends downtown.

"If the goal is not being met and if we are losing people from coming to the City of Buffalo there needs to be changes to what the administration has presented to the council," Pridgen said Friday.

"I'm not afraid of change and I'm not afraid to change what has been changed if it is not meeting the goals."

Allen has been encouraged in seeing so many unfamiliar names commenting on the change.org post.

"Reading all the comments, I can’t keep up," she said. "They're almost all from people I’ve never met, which is the best part."

She also noted significant support from actors and theater workers. "The acting community really relies on the parking after 5 and on weekends – that's a group of people I hadn’t thought of at first. They don’t make a lot of money."

On Facebook, the petition was shared by DJ Ryan Kanowski, known as DJRanKan, who has more than 42,000 Facebook followers.

"The only thing you losers who are making these decisions are doing down there is making sure nobody wants to go downtown anymore," Kanowski wrote in his post. "And you’re making it harder for people to visit local downtown small businesses. Sign and share the petition. I did."

Former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant fumed about the parking changes on her Facebook page.

"Another two signs that gentrification has come to Buffalo. $2.00 per hour parking and having no free parking at the meters until 10 PM!" she wrote. "And, they had the nerve to approve free parking after 10 PM at the meters. Who needs free parking after 10 PM?"

Will the online petition turn into action? Allen said the Common Council's Jan. 2 meeting is an option.

"That would be an option, I suppose, getting together as a group and approaching them in that way," Allen said. "Or there has been talk of a protest downtown if that's what it came to."

Staff reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.

Higher rates, fewer free spaces, weekend charges proposed for downtown parking

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