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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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