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Parking War Heats Up

Does downtown need additional parking?  A study completed in 2008 by national parking consultants Desman Associates says yes.  Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps (BCAR), operator of City-owned downtown ramps agrees, but not in the all of the locations suggested by the consultants. 

The idea of building additional ramps is being looked at by a subcommittee created by the Board of Parking.  The issue promises to set off a new round of fighting downtown.  Parking issues have pitted preservationists against downtown boosters, commercial property owners vs. Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, and developer against developer.  See this previous Buffalo Rising post for background on the debate. 

Few people would say Buffalo’s parking operations are managed intelligently.  BCAR points to full ramps as a sign of success.  Others say the ramps are full due to artificially low pricing.  Full ramps may hinder downtown growth.  The availability of nearby parking is one of the first questions firms ask when considering a downtown office location. 

Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA is discussing parking issues tomorrow night at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.  The timing couldn’t be better.  Shoup has written many books and articles on parking including The High Cost of Free Parking (Planners Press, 2005) which explains the theory and practice of parking management.

Shoup advocates for “performance parking pricing.”  He says the balance between demand and supply can be called the “Goldilocks principle” of parking prices: the price is too high if many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant.  When a few vacant spaces are available everywhere, the prices are just right.  After pricing is adjusted to produce an 85 percent occupancy rate, Shoup says, everyone will see that parking is readily available.  You want the spaces to be well used, but readily available.  Well used means almost full, but readily available means not quite full.

According to Shoup’s 85 percent occupancy goal, downtown’s ramps are too full.  In November 2009, BCAR-operated ramps were at 94 to 98 percent capacity on business days (table below).  Low parking rates are resulting in high occupancy and there are waiting lists for monthly parking passes.  Raise the rates and drivers who are price sensitive will look at alternatives. 

rampoccupancy.pngWhere will those parkers go?  Some will choose alternative commuting options such as biking, car-pooling or mass transit.  Others will find less convenient parking locations such as cheaper lots on the fringe of downtown.  That will open up and turn-over parking spaces while possibly negating the need to build new ramps.

Downtown parking issues are coming to a head again as a subcommittee of the Buffalo Parking Board is reviewing the results of the $94,000 Desman parking study

After assessing existing parking facilities and the impact development will have on the future supply and demand, the 104 page report says downtown will face a shortage of parking, particularly in the “government-office district” near Niagara Square.  It suggests up to four new parking ramps be constructed to provide an additional 2,600 spaces at West Mohawk Street and South Elmwood; Delaware and West Chippewa; West Huron and Franklin streets; and Ellicott and Oak streets.  Only the Ellicott/Oak site, a surface lot between the bus station and downtown library, is City-owned.

A Parking Board subcommittee is analyzing the Desman report and will be making recommendations to the City.  A prime focus of their work is to look into the need, location, cost and economic development impact of building additional ramps. 

Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps (BCAR) has its own recommendations.  Its three-part plan suggests building two or three new ramps, restarting a parking shuttle along Main Street while the ramps are being built, and implementing a series of rate increases at existing structures to help pay for the shuttle and debt service on the new ramps.

DSC_0815.JPGThe priority site for a new ramp according to BCAR is at the Ellicott/Oak surface lot (entry image and above).  Their preliminary plan is for a three floor underground parking structure to be built with “foundations that would support mixed use development or future parking expansion.”  Desman suggested a five-level above-ground parking ramp with 1,477 spaces at a cost of $28.55 million (2008 estimate), or $19,330/space. 

To assist with the redevelopment of the nearby Lafayette Hotel and AM&A’s buildings, sources say State funding may be sought to assist with construction of a ramp at the Ellicott/Oak site.  New Markets Tax Credits may be part of the funding mix.

BCAR also sees a role for itself in the Canal Side development.  It proposes a parking ramp integrated into mixed-use projects planned on the Donovan Building site or Webster Block.  According to BCAR, “This would create a natural shuttle via the rapid transit.”  $15 million in Federal funding allocated for ramps at Canal Side could be “freed up for other uses.” 

Though not suggested by the Desman study, BCAR suggests replacing the parking ramp at the corner of Washington and Mohawk streets.  The 57-year old, 609 space structure would be replaced with a 1,500 car facility that “could also include mixed uses.” 

To pay for the new ramps, BCAR suggests a two-step rate increase for its parking facilities spread over two years.  Changes would increase revenue in Year 1 by $460,000 and Year 2 by $920,000.  According to BCAR, “if we can build a new ramp for $15,000/spot and get it to capacity, the cost is neutral.  For every $5,000/spot increase, the net loss to the system is $286.50/spot.  Therefore if we build a 1,000 car ramp and it costs $20,000/spot instead of $15,000, the ramp would lose $286,500 in the first year.” 

Smart utilization of the City-owned parking facilities is a critical issue for downtown moving forward.  Parking affects both transportation and land use.  Current planning focuses on cars and not for economic development or people. 

A public discussion on formulating a long-range parking policy is overdue.


Written by WCPerspective


Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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  • Lego1981

    If we had a more reliable MASS TRANSIT SYSTEM, parking would’nt be as big of an issue as it is. Why doesn’t NFTA Fight for money to extend it’s Metro Rail? Instead, the only announcements we ever hear from them is “we got new buses”….whoppie doo. Extend the train to different areas of this city and suburbs and watch the demand for parking go down.

  • nyc

    A planning study by Desman will always conclude there is an urgent need for new parking ramps…because now you can hire Desman to design and build them!

  • burlapwax

    Agreed wholeheartedly, Lego.
    As long as the parking ramps go up in areas with existing surface lots though (not demolishing building stock for a parking garage) I’m not averse to that implementation, but any increase in capacity will serve to dissipate support for potential mass transit expansion.
    I would like to see some parking garages being built around here with dedicated surface-level retail space, but given the difficulty downtown has had in maintaining retail occupancy, that’s probably a pipe dream…

  • Chris

    I might be way out of line, but wouldn’t a city owned lot be able to be a revenue source? Would they consider using some of the extra funds from the budget to create a revenue generating entity?
    Maybe I’m just looking at it too simplistically.

  • SevenOneSix

    that ellicott/oak site could be nice if they had the whole first floor as retail/mixed use… could fill that entire block with business, markets, vendors and parking instead of what it is now…

  • nyc

    “The priority site for a new ramp according to BCAR is at the Ellicott/Oak surface lot (entry image and above). Their preliminary plan is for a three floor underground parking structure to be built with “foundations that would support mixed use development or future parking expansion.”

  • flyguy

    Sure! Build ramps! Build a ramp on the surface lot pictured above. As long as they are placed on top of existing surface parking lots and aren’t tearing into more buildings. There’s an overabundance of surface lots downtown. I’m all for vertical structures helping define a streetwall. Hell, cornfields out in farmville offer a stronger streetwall and are a heck of a lot more interesting than surface parking lots. The surface lot on Court Street across from the Convention Tower blows a huge hole in that street and makes it significantly less interesting. Here’s hoping the Court Street “Tower” goes up soon. A “tower” in Buffalo is certainly no tower in many other cities.

  • biniszkiewicz

    The most encouraging element of the discussion is the inclusion of mixed uses built into the ramps. For those ‘build it to the sidewalk’ and ‘first floor retail’ fans, this means you may get a parking ramp that doesn’t look for all the world like a ramp and may actually contribute to rather than detract from the street scape.
    Perhaps a more robust mass transit system would lessen the demand for parking, but a quick look at the occupancy statistics above shows irrefutable demand. At the ramp I at which I park (Mohawk/Washington), a majority of days it seems the parking is restricted to monthly passes only (no room for anyone else) and there is a waiting list for those monthly slots–you can’t just buy a monthly pass because it’s full). As long as the parking revenue pays for the ramp (I don’t favor subsidy), then build more! Especially if there is real urban sensitivity planned into the street scape with alternative uses for the first floor, a la retail-ish commercial space incorporated into the design, this should be supported by everyone.


    The unspoken subtext is that suburban office parks offer dedicated “free” parking which allows you to see the entry to the building. This will never be possible in downtown so there is the constant demand for more and more almost “free” parking downtown.
    Many feel that so called “free” parking should be a human right. It is too bad that America sets so much of its urban policy based on this mythical right

  • grad94

    i beg everyone on the parking board to attend shoup’s lecture. if devoting 50% of downtown real estate to parking isn’t enough, what is? let’s get out of the socialized parking racket and let market rates do the job.


    You will notice that in most new suburban development the building occupies far less that 50% of the land. Let’s not fool our selves. That is the ultimate goal for downtown.

  • whatever

    grad94, how would building a multi-story parking garage on an existing surface parking lot add to the 50% of downtown you say is now devoted to parking? Wouldn’t it simply make more use of that lot’s space (rather than adding to the space)?
    However, I agree with you and Bini in opposing use of govt $ for a parking garage. The private sector should be able to deal with this.
    If nobody uses their own $ to build more indoor parking downtown, and if that results in fewer businesses wanting to be DT because not enough customers want to follow WCP’s suggestion to “find less convenient parking locations such as cheaper lots on the fringe of downtown”, that’s ok too.

  • Destiny

    Lego is absolutely correct. There cannot be a discussion on downtown parking without a discussion on extending the light rail and mass transit.
    The two forms must complement each other and they arent even designed with one another in mind.
    Downtown must have access to ample parking otherwise downtown is a inconvenient place to be avoided rather than an expensive place (compared to free parking suburbs).
    Parking tickets downtown do not help to make downtown a welcoming experience.
    I support more downtown parking, particularly on the periphery and particularly on surface lots but we need a plan where this peripheral parking serves a parknride, hubnspoke system that feeds the convenience of downtown.

  • Matthew.Ricchiazzi

    Saying that more parking would help make Downtown more vibrant is like saying that loosening your belt will solve an obesity problem. It completely misses the point, and it makes the situation worse.

  • ReginaldQMerriweatherIV

    and Chris69/Christine is back

  • sin|ill

    EXACTLY! thank you.

  • grad94

    yes yes yes!
    it is not downtown’s job to be a mass automobile storage facility, it is to be an actual place.

  • nick

    I wouldn’t say parking in itself will make downtown more vibrant, as none of the single remedies for downtown will. That being the case, parking should be part of a comprehensive transportation plan for the city, it’s a matter of “doing parking properly.” Every city requires parking, some to more of a degree than others, but parking ramps with ground floor retail or mixed-use developments above the parking are good solutions to the parking problems while maintaining an urban density. Unfortunately right now, due to low property values, it’s more profitable to have surface parking without the investment/taxation of a parking ramp.
    I agree with whatever that I wouldn’t want subsidies put into parking garages, but I think as a comprehensive plan the incentive may be neccesary to influence the market. We disagree on utilizing public funding for this, but I see the ability to transform the built fabric of the core with a combo transportation plan and incentive, possibly for 10-year tax abatements on properties which meet the approved plan.

  • sbrof

    love the analogy.

  • Lego1981

    Did’nt the NFTA recently have a meeting? What was the status of this so called meeting? Are they going to demand money for Metro Rail Expansion? Or are they just going to replace a few more buses and call that progress?


    Or like going on a doughnut and bacon only diet

  • 2roadsdiverged

    Shoup’s premise is an interesting premise and one that is likely very appropriate in cities that have fewer challenges than those that Buffalo faces. I’m sure that this would definitely work in a vibrant city that doesn’t have to fight with its suburbs to attract business, or one located in a state with lower taxes, or one whose workforce is primarily within the city limits.
    I say leave it alone for now, put a ramp in on a surface lot if you must, but realize what is really at play here, and has been for some time.
    What has been happening for years is that all the suburbanites who work in the city, who are all too used to the enormous lots in the burbs, complain because it is not as convenient to park in the city as it is in suburbia.
    The city doesn’t have a Parking Problem. The City needs to focus on attracting young people and families into the city, through initiatives in the neighborhoods and schools, not parking initiatives and studies.
    If you attract the right people, they may be willing to use our joke of a mass transit system to get to work, which will help the NFTA to secure funding to expand, thereby eliminating the additional need for parking. With more young, educated and talented people living in the city, more employers may choose to locate here, and so the cycle upward begins.

  • grad94

    why should suburban preferences dictate downtown land use decisions? i don’t see [insert any suburb here] worrying that urbanites prefer walkability and that they should narrow their highways, reduce speed limits, rezone for mixed-use buildings, and install sidewalks to attract us.

  • Jean

    I especially like the phrase “price-sensitive,” which I suppose means poor, thrifty, or stingy. Certainly we taxpayers should not fund a parking ramp or any other such facility. I may have had to walk a few blocks, but I have always found parking downtown. People with diaabilites and those with very limited incomes may have a valid complaint, but the rest of us don’t.


    Who is fighting the other side of this war on parking? I feel like we are going after WMDs again.

  • Slobadan Melosivic

    The reason NFTA doesn’t get any money to build out mass transit rails in the city is because Byron Brown and Atoine (Plant Life) Thompson are too busy channeling it downstate and knocking down as many houses as they can.
    Thanks to all you wastes of life who voted these self-fulfilling morons into office. A more efficient way to spend my city tax money would to literally flush it down a toilet.

  • sonyactivision

    It would be fine to build new ramps downtown if they are designed as podiums for eventual high rise construction above, along with ground floor space for retail or whatever. Parking is a necessary evil if Buffalo is to renew itself but it has to be well-designed and engineered towards a day when transit projects can get funded and built.

  • sonyactivision

    [citation needed]

  • sonyactivision

    University Town Center.

  • informedone

    Anyone who has seriously examined the construction of retail space in a parking structure in this climate realizes it is very expensive due to existing Codes in the City of Buffalo.
    Ventilation, fire protection, etc…present serious costs associated with constructing retail space within a parking facility and they are often not very appealing spaces.
    Sustainable investment in transit options would prove more cost -effective and I agree with the ideas of satellite lots on the periphery of downtown as a solution.

  • brownteeth

    Ha! I was just wondering where Christine/Queencity was! If he/she had it their way light rail would extend to Australia.

  • brownteeth

    I don’t really understand all the fuss about parking DT. I have never had to park more than 1 block away from my destination even at the busiest of times. I think the solution is to stop being so lazy and walk an extra block. It might solve our obesity problem as well. Why are most solutions for parking so complicated? Keep it simple. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. If anything the plan should be about bringing more businesses DT and while doing that keep in mind the future nedd for parking. Except for a few “core” lots and ramps I never see a full one. To me worrying about parking is like worrying about winning the lottery because you don’t have enough space to store the cash. It’s just backwards.

  • suburban_hillbilly

    Demolish The Stalter and build a ramp.

  • Lego1981

    I agree!!! I’ve had arguments with my friends and family on parking and walking downtown. For example, when I went to the Sea Bar on Ellicott one day, got a parking space right out front, but after, they wanted to head over to Delaware and Chippewa (3-4 block away) and wanted to DRIVE over there on a FRIDAY NITE. I said, are you crazy, just leave the car here and walk over, it’s not that far. They refused, BUT when they go to Toronto and NYC, they don’t mind walking. I don’t understand people in this area sometimes.

  • grad94

    new build or retrofit?

  • sonyactivision

    Google it.

  • bernicebuffalove

    I completely agree with you! I have never had an issue, even on a saturday night. People are just lazy and dont want to walk a couple blocks.

  • grad94

    funny, i met a transplant to buffalo who thought that the new federal courthouse on niagara square was a ramp. gee, how could they have possibly gotten that idea?

  • suburban_hillbilly

    Haha. It does look like one. I’m not one to spout off about building design but I do think that court house is bizarre.

  • Buffalonian4life

    This is one of the major issues keeping suburbanites and people away from cities in general… Time to build a few more downtown. It’s very difficult to find adequate parking anywhere close to where you are heading on business days. Extending of the metro rail would help tremendously.