Tops Markets won't be coming to downtown Buffalo after all. But Hamburg produce market operator Braymiller Market will.
In a major change in plans for a major Ellicott Street project, the small Southtowns market known for selling fresh produce and specialty food items is replacing the Williamsville-based grocery chain as the anchor retailer for a new $50 million construction project planned for Ellicott Street.
Braymiller owner Stuart Green plans to open a new store and wholesale operation as part of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.'s affordable housing development to be constructed between the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus station and the Central Library.
The new business – which will be owned and operated by Green, including its portion of the building – will provide "locally sourced" fresh fruits, vegetables and other perishable goods to a customer base that will include both individuals and businesses, such as restaurants. It will also offer freshly made soups, salads, meals, baked items and sandwiches in its deli. Seasonal plants will also be available for purchase.
"It’ll be a destination that we’re trying to create downtown, just like Braymiller Market has been for 78 years out in Hamburg," Green said. "We figure out what our customer want, and we give it to them."
Basic grocery items – such as paper products, cat food, detergent, toothpaste and toothbrushes, dry pastas, sauces, marinades, chips, crackers, canned vegetables, cereal, juice, soda and milk – will also be sold, although the options are more limited. But Green pledged that prices will be affordable. "We're not out there to market to the rich and famous. We’re out there to support the average guy," he said.
Still, that's a dramatic shift not only in size and scale of the tenant but also in the nature of the store that will be serving downtown Buffalo's growing resident population. Rather than a supermarket selling a broad array of off-the-shelf grocery products, the new store will focus more on fresh food, direct from the farm.
“This is the right fit at the right time for this downtown project,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, whose administration has pushed for a redevelopment on the site that would include a grocery. “This is another great day for economic development in the city of Buffalo.”
Officials announced the selection of Green as the store operator on Wednesday morning, with a community information session to be held Thursday evening from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Bank of America Building at Fountain Plaza, at Main and Huron streets. The new store might not use the Braymiller name.
“This is a much-anticipated addition to the downtown core, and an exciting one at that,” said Paul F. Ciminelli, president and CEO of Ciminelli Real Estate. "Not only is Braymiller Market a solid, long-standing Western New York business, it also brings a relationship-centric philosophy that makes it a perfect fit."
This is the latest iteration of Ciminelli's planned project, to be located on a city-owned parking lot at 201 Ellicott that takes up an entire block. The proposal has been in the works for three years, since the city named Ciminelli as designated developer of the 2.5-acre lot in February 2016 – a year after Brown first announced the effort and a request-for-proposals to redevelop the site.
Originally, the city wanted a developer to put up a market-rate residential building, with an enclosed parking ramp and an urban grocery store, to fill a major need in a growing area of the city that has been described as a "food desert."
With the support of the city, the developer courted Tops as the designated grocer – using its Orchard Fresh concept that offers a wider array of organic goods but has been limited to a single store in Orchard Park.
An early design – unveiled in late 2016 – featured an 18-story tower, with 200 apartments and condos, three floors of office space and 800 covered parking spaces. It also included other shops or restaurants, a public plaza, a community garden, a seasonal farmer's market, public art and even a giant outdoor display screen to show movies or sporting events to large crowds.
But the project has been continually delayed by changes in its scope, as well as by ongoing negotiations between Ciminelli and the city over the cost and potential incentives, among other factors. The parking ramp, in particular, has been a source of difficulty, because of the public subsidy that would be required and the city's insistence that the project be affordable for new residents. Ciminelli has since scrapped it.
Additionally, Ciminelli said market changes also affected the firm's decision, citing Douglas Jemal's redevelopment of the lower levels of One Seneca Tower complex to include 115 market-rate apartments, as well as other projects in the area.
Size also is a factor in the change. Major supermarkets typically build large stores that can be in the range of 100,000 square feet, while smaller grocery chains seek 40,000 to 50,000 square feet. Tops' own financial struggles – which led to bankruptcy before the retailer emerged with a restructured debt – threw the plans into further uncertainty, although Brown said that wasn't the deciding factor.
“We are very appreciative of Tops Markets interest in being involved with the 201 Ellicott project," said Matt Davison, a project spokesman for Ciminelli. "While the development process has evolved to include a different operator for the market component, Tops Markets’ initial involvement brought positive attention to the project and the opportunity to bring more fresh food offerings to downtown Buffalo.”
In October, Ciminelli released a new proposal, shifting the plan from higher-end retail and apartments with underground parking to fully affordable housing, limited parking and a fresh-food market.
The project now entails a 200,000-square-foot building, with a five-story portion along Ellicott and a seven-story component on Oak, and a main entrance at Ellicott and Clinton streets. It will feature 201 affordable one- and two-bedroom apartments of about 600 and 890 square feet, with rates starting at $660 and $790 per month, respectively.
"When I met with Paul, I thought he was going to give me a percentage of affordable housing," said Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen. "I never thought it was going to be 100 percent affordable housing."
That also pushes the total number of new apartments in downtown Buffalo over the 2,000 goal that Brown set a few years ago. "That is extremely significant for the downtown community," Brown said.
Meanwhile, city officials were pushing Ciminelli to consider a wider range of store operators beyond Tops. The developer learned of Green's new interest in expanding Braymiller to Buffalo, and recruited him to the Ellicott site.
"Green is a very talented and experienced businessperson. I was struck by his enthusiasm for this project, for what he brings to the table," Brown said. "They are a very customer-focused, customer-driven business, and that’s what we’re looking for in downtown Buffalo."
Founded in 1941 as a farm stand and located on Gowanda State Road, Braymiller was owned and operated by the DeCarlo family for over 52 years, since 1963. In late December 2015, Green purchased the business – where he once worked for a summer during high school in Hamburg in 1979, before going to Rochester Institute of Technology and starting a career that spanned photography, luxury car sales and then commercial insurance. He began exploring new locations for Braymiller in Buffalo a year ago.
"As we had started to look at this project, I would come down here at night, drive down here, look up in the buildings, see what lights are on, who’s walking around," Green explained. "The enthusiasm of downtown is really what brought us here."
The new store - which will occupy about 20,000 square feet, similar in size to the Lexington Co-op - will run the length of the Clinton Street side of the building, closest to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, at the corner of Ellicott. It will include a 1.5-story retail portion that is 50 percent larger than its current store in Hamburg, with a mezzanine level for dining, as well as an ice cream shop. The new store's "gritty" design will feature wood and radiant floor heat. The project will also include a "mobility hub," in conjunction with GObike Buffalo.
“We’re ready to locate in an underserved neighborhood and bring with us the highest-quality food and service," said Green, 58.
But the building will also be designed to support Braymiller's wholesale business, which is expected to generate 80 percent of the store's revenue. The wholesale business, which provides food to local restaurants, the Buffalo Zoo and other organizations, will have access to Oak Street.
It's expected to open in April 2021, pending approvals from the city Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Common Council, as well as completion of the construction project. Cleanup of the brownfield site is slated to begin later this year, followed by construction.
The market will employ 65 full- and part-time workers. In exchange for the city's assistance, Ciminelli and Green agreed to a "first-source" agreement to hire city residents first, as well as standard minority and women participation goals. Braymiller is also seeking limited sales and property tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, through Ciminelli.