BY MATT RICCHIAZZI
City Comptroller Mark Schroeder said if he is elected mayor in 2017, he will reverse the controversial new Hertel Avenue metered parking plan set to go in effect this fall.
“Every single business district has been put to sleep in this city, with a few exceptions, by suburban shopping malls. Hertel and Elmwood are the exceptions,” Schroeder said.
He said the new meter plan will give another edge to nearby suburban competition where convenient parking lots are the rule and there are no parking meters.
Hertel Ave., a quaint and picturesque street, whose brick two story architecture houses small and adjoining stores with apartments above, dates to the 1920’s. It is one of the city’s most vibrant streetscapes occupied by small, mostly successful, individually owned businesses.
In recent years, through the efforts of these small businesses, a critical eclectic mass of shops has emerged to create an experience which contrasts with the chain stores and big corporate offerings available in the suburbs and the large swaths of vacant building seen throughout most of the old business districts in this aging city, ranked as the 4th poorest in the nation.
The new Hertel Avenue meter plan was hatched by Mayor Byron Brown’s Administration and approved by the city council.
The plan includes more ‘Pay and Display’ meters which make parking enforcement easier, and impose a two hour limit. New meters will be placed at public lots at 1464 Hertel and 1511 Hertel. Pay-to-park hours will be extended to 9 pm (it is currently 5 pm) to capture revenue from the growth of a robust dinner crowd where dozens of restaurants – from casual to elegant – have made Hertel, suddenly, a trendy new dining and nightclub experience.
Schroeder attended the monthly meeting of the Hertel Avenue Business Association (HBA), a volunteer organization of business owners and residents, on Aug. 9, where he told Artvoice of his dissatisfaction with the new plan.
Dozens of local merchants, landlords, and homeowners also attended, voiced displeasure as they crowded into HBA offices at 1510 Hertel Avenue.
The HBA’s Board of Directors, Delaware District Councilman Joel Feroleto, and Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer came under fire from the business community and residents unhappy with the new plan.
Since the meter plan lies within his district and council members generally defer to the member whose district is affected, it was Feroleto who gets credit for casting the persuasive vote for approval by the Council.
The two hour meter limit was objected to by many, who argued that dinner, visits to salons, and shopping, can take more than two hours. Others blamed directors of the HBA, who, they claimed, misrepresented to city officials that rank and file of business owners wanted such a plan, which, they say, will deter business from Hertel Avenue.
Parking Commissioner Helfer defended Feroleto for his pivotal council vote, telling business owners that the two hour limit will force “turnovers” preventing people from hogging valuable parking spaces all day and overnight.
Helfer also referred to part of the new meter plan which includes the formation of a Hertel Avenue Parking Benefits District, where a fraction of the revenue from metered parking will go into a special fund which could be used for trash and recycling bins, lighting, benches, a sidewalk snow plow, public art or anything the board of directors of the Special Benefits District determines appropriate to enhance the streetscape.
Helfer told business owners, “We’re putting money in your bank account.”
Attendees at the meeting responded angrily, telling Helfer to stay out of the way of the Hertel Avenue revival that they — not the city — accomplished.
Technically speaking, however, Helfer was not accurate with his characterization of whose bank account the special district money would go into.
Only one member of the HBA will be on the five member board of directors that control the funds. The other four members will be Feroleto, Helfer, who works for the mayor, a representative from Public
Works, whose department head is appointed by the mayor, and someone from the mayor’s office, giving the mayor three out of five votes on the board.
The mayor will not need council approval to spend the money in the special fund as he sees fit.
As dozens of Hertel business owners and nearby residents attended the meeting, overflowing out the doors, the people most affected by the plan had a chance to speak.
The owner of a popular bar said, “The parking commissioner [Helfer] is pushing this, and it’s all a money grab. I’ve been in business for over 27 years, and we’ve never had a parking problem until the city created this one.”
Rebutting those accusing him of pushing the plan for more ticket revenue, Commissioner Helfer said, “if we want to enforce that two-hour limit, we could. We could issue thousands of tickets.”
However, city budget projections suggest that issuing tickets is a vital part of the plan. The City of Buffalo’s 2014 fiscal year accounted for $5.37 million in parking fines and $503,494 in traffic violations.
The adopted 2017 budget projects parking fine revenue of $6.6 million and traffic fines of $4.2 million, a spike of more than $1 million in fines and a $3.7 million hike in revenue generated from violations.
To achieve these numbers, it will require issuing literally thousands of tickets.
In addition to the $6.6 million in projected fines and violations in 2017, the same budget projects $2.54 million from parking meter fees, up from $1.78 million in 2014.
To achieve, sustain and enhance these gains, nighttime parking, if successful, may well be extended to midnights on weekends.
Several people in the audience asked Helfer why Hertel was being singled out, noting there are no parking meters in Mayor Brown’s home turf on the East Side.
Helfer said there is no demand for parking meters on the East Side.
People shouted, “see, it’s a money grab.”
Throughout the evening, people expressed their unhappiness.
“The plan is very bad for business and the community,” said Shirley Campagna, the owner of the former Mr. Tony’s. She has lived in the neighborhood since 1958 and worries that stricter parking regulations will force patrons and employees onto the side streets even further, impacting residential neighborhoods surrounding the Hertel business district.
Catherine Francis owns a building on Hertel Avenue and lived on Depew Avenue for over 22 years. She is disappointed in the lack of communication from the city and the HBA.
“The way this was done casts doubt on the integrity of the whole endeavor,” she said.
Greg Link, owner of the Cone 5 Gallery, has started a petition to reverse the plan.
“It’s an urban setting, it’s getting busier, but there is no parking problem,” he argues. “No one wants it fixed. We like it the way it is. To extend hours until 9pm is extreme.”
Another business leader, Vern Stein, thinks the root of the situation is “fundamental laziness,” as the reason that the city didn’t engage the neighborhood and the association didn’t engage with the business community.
“We’re going to start our own association.”
When asked to characterize the meeting, Councilman Feroleto said, “a lot of people had concerns and objections. I want to make sure there is a follow up meeting so everyone has a chance to speak.”
Yet Feroleto not only voted in favor of the plan, he also voted in favor of a waiver of the normal 45-day period required for public comment before the new meter plan was enacted. The 45 day rule is designed to give people who are affected by a plan a chance to speak.
Feroleto sees a metered Hertel as only the beginning. His district also includes the Elmwood business strip, and says that the city is conducting an Elmwood parking study to “improve” revenue enhanced parking there.
Once that study is completed, there could be changes on the Elmwood strip as well, Feroleto said.