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Two of downtown Buffalo’s prominent developers – and parking lot owners – sparred Wednesday over public parking in the city, highlighting a debate about whether artificially low-cost parking induces development or just encourages more people to drive rather than use public transportation.

Carl Paladino, founder and chairman of Ellicott Development Co., and Mark D. Croce, a restaurateur who also owns Statler City, argued across a long conference table at the monthly Buffalo Place board meeting about the city’s current parking policies.

They also attacked each other for conflicts of interest that they said exposed selfish intentions. Both own parking lots as well as multiple buildings with tenants who need parking. Paladino is the largest property owner in the city, while Croce owns parking lot operator Pay2Park.

Paladino said the city suffers from a shortage of parking spots and called for a board resolution to urge the city to build more parking ramps. He noted that it takes about three years to plan and build a new ramp.

“We need to impact City Hall and say we need more municipal parking,” he said. “We have to have safe, convenient downtown parking. We can’t seem to get City Hall motivated. We need more ramps.”

Croce immediately responded by saying the problem isn’t the access to parking but the low subsidized parking prices, particularly at ramps owned by the city but run by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, or BCAR, a nonprofit organization owned and operated by “downtown business interests” that acts under contract as an agent of the city to manage 10 major downtown public parking ramps and lots.

As a result of the cheap prices, everyone who works downtown drives and parks separately instead of carpooling or using public transportation, so the lots and ramps fill up. In turn, that affects not just downtown businesses and residents but also tourism.

“There are parking ramps scattered throughout the city. The problem is the prices,” Croce said.

“Because of the pricing and the subsidy, we’ve filled every parking spot because it’s too cheap.”

According to a report presented to the Buffalo Place board Wednesday, the lots on the edge of downtown were as much as half-empty, but those in the center of downtown were often 90 percent full or more.

Croce took special aim at BCAR; Paladino is a board member of the organization that has run the parking ramps since it was established in 1954. “BCAR is the biggest travesty to downtown development,” Croce said. “It’s not the city’s job to build more parking for developers... We can’t build a parking ramp on every corner.”

BCAR ramps charge between $60 and $97 for regular monthly permits and $1.50 to $2 per hour. Pay2Park, which operates 24 lots, charges about $75 to $120. Allpro Parking, with 24 lots and three ramps, charges $40 to $130. Ellicott Development has five lots and one ramp, and charges $110 to $130.

“It shouldn’t be the city’s responsibility to subsidize private building owners,” Croce said, noting that BCAR pays no taxes.

Croce said raising parking prices will encourage more people to use alternatives and will free up spaces for those who need them, while at the same time benefiting those private lot owners who stand to make more money.

Paladino returned fire, saying BCAR has “never used one city dollar” but has “always been self-sufficient,” even providing money for the city budget. “Buffalo Civic provides a service to all the taxpayers of downtown Buffalo,” he said. “Parking should not be a private business here. We have to compete with suburban [business] parks that give free parking as part of the rent. If we can do that and put more money into city coffers, the way to do that is through building more ramps.”

Croce said conventions would benefit from raising parking prices. With the parking ramps and many lots full during the day, Visit Buffalo Niagara is unable to attract or serve daytime conventions, he said. “How many conventions has [VBN President] Dottie [Gallagher-Cohen] lost because of that?” he asked.

Following the debate, Buffalo Place Chairman Keith Belanger opted to “dust off” a study from several years ago, get new input and try to find common ground – but at another time. “And thus, the reason we don’t have a particular position on this,” he joked.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com