For many years, the Downtown Buffalo lot at 201 Ellicott was dedicated to parking — hardly an anomaly in a city where nearly half its downtown had been converted into parking lots. But after a major city zoning change that eliminated minimum parking requirements for new developments and extensive community engagement about the lot’s future, it’s about to hold something completely new.
The under-construction affordable housing development will be anchored by a “mobility hub” to encourage people to walk, bike, take public transit, carshare or any other form of eco-friendly transportation.
“We’ve been able to develop a plan and put a strategy in place that could demonstrate a 40 percent reduction in the total number of car trips for this new building,” says Justin Booth, executive director of GObike Buffalo. “That includes establishing downtown’s first true mobility hub, which is almost complete.”
Plans to develop this lot date back to 2015, when the city released a request for qualifications for a developer. In 2016, Buffalo-based Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation presented a proposal for a grocery store — one of the highest priorities for nearby residents — alongside market-rate housing, office and on-site parking.
The next year, in 2017, Buffalo became the first U.S. city to stop requiring development projects to include a minimum amount of parking. The zoning change also required a “transportation demand management plan” for new developments over 5,000 square feet. “This was the first major project we took through this code and it really presented opportunities in how to provide [transportation demand management] strategies,” says Denise Juron-Borgese, the vice president of development and planning for Ciminelli.
The opportunity to reduce on-site parking was coupled with more extensive community engagement. In the fall of 2018, Ciminelli and the design firm CannonDesign kicked off community stakeholder workshops. Fresh food access was still a major need, as well as affordable housing. The team crafted guiding principles from those meetings: affordability (in both housing and food access), vibrancy and activation of the site, and finally a focus on health, wellness and mobility.
A mobility hub made sense not just because residents wanted to prioritize it, but because of the site’s proximity to multiple bus lines and two light rail stations. The concept wasn’t entirely foreign, either, as GObike Buffalo began piloting a transportation demand management program, including a mobility hub, with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in 2012.
There, GObike tested strategies like outreach and education alongside new programs and amenities to promote alternative transit modes. The Guaranteed Ride Home program, for example, provides employees who do not drive alone to work with a timely and inexpensive means of transportation in the event of a personal or family emergency. Carpool and rideshare matching programs were implemented to reduce single-driver car use. The medical campus also built a bicycle parking complex and resource center where visitors seek out personalized information about their transportation and parking options.
“You really need to understand people’s specific barriers to accessing the different mobility options available to them,” Booth explains. “A lot of times it was just a lack of understanding or education about the different services and mobility options, and sometimes it was just the lack of actual infrastructure to support them.” Since 2012, the percentage of employees driving alone to the campus dropped from 88 to 80 percent. The percentage of employees taking public transportation increased from 4 to 11 percent and the percentage of employees walking to work is up from 1 to 4 percent.
The comprehensive planning and outreach still ongoing at the campus will carry to 201 Ellicott. New tenants will receive orientation packets about the mobility hub and public transit options. They will also have access to a dedicated “transportation management coordinator” to devise personalized transit plans. (The staff person will also be available to employees of the fresh food market.) The Guaranteed Ride Home, carpool and rideshare matching programs will all be in place.
The building design even reflects the needs of the mobility hub. The city expanded the surrounding sidewalks to be more pedestrian friendly and accommodate a “pull up zone” for ride hailing services. Inside the building there will be secure, long term bicycle parking as well as a fix-it station.
There will be a public, sidewalk-facing display of mobility options available in the area, with info on bus arrivals and how to become a bike share member. The city will add adjacent bike lanes as well as a Reddy Bikeshare station with 10 new bikes, including e-bikes.
GObike will conduct annual surveys among tenants to understand how the mobility hub is impacting their commute. The organization will also implement a “trip-tracking program” to determine which mobility options are most effective. That information will help the organization craft awards and incentives for residents to keep using public and alternative transit.
Ciminelli also “unbundled” parking spots from tenant leases, meaning that parking is not guaranteed with each apartment. “These are the kinds of little policy changes that make a big difference,” Booth says. “We took a 400 space parking lot, and through Ciminelli’s efforts, they created 201 affordable housing units and a grocery store with only 26 parking spots.”
Braymiller Market is expected to open in a standalone building this summer, with the apartments and mobility hub opening inside a second building in late fall. 201 Ellicott will be among a growing cohort of downtown buildings with limited parking. A 2021 study analyzing the impact of Buffalo’s 2017 zoning change found that mixed-use developers “readily took advantage of the newfound possibility to include less off-street parking.” The 14 mixed-use projects tracked provided 53 percent less parking than previously required. Four projects built no parking at all.
“I think this project, once operating, can really set a new standard for how we can accomplish re-densifying our downtown, making it walkable, and not trying to justify further public investments in structured parking facilities, which will induce more demand for people to drive,” says Booth.
“We know this works in many other places and it can work in Buffalo,” Juron-Borgese says. “We are really excited that this can become a model not only for Buffalo and the wider western New York region, but more broadly.”
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.