Buffalo feels out its newly-minted Green Code
It’s been three months since Buffalo, New York’s, new zoning code, known as the Green Code, was signed into law, and so far the city seems pleased with the results.
“It really provides a tool for the city of Buffalo to move forward and recognize our assets, which are our wonderful buildings, our walkability and our density,” says Paul McDonnell, chair of Buffalo’s Historic Preservation Board.
As a form-based code, the Green Code promotes walkable mixed-use neighborhoods by requiring that every new development matches the aesthetic of the neighborhood around it. The new code also eliminates minimum parking requirements and sets a three-floor building limit.
“We’re already seeing in some very important neighborhoods, especially in the Elmwood Village, that developers are modifying their design to meet the Green Code,” says McDonnell.
“When we talk about the [city’s] renaissance, yes, it’s new people moving in, but it’s also people recognizing the assets of the city … Buffalo is back on the map.”
The Elmwood Village, located on the north side of Buffalo, is a vibrant residential community and one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. For the past year, residents have been butting heads with developer, Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., over the company’s proposed two-building, mixed-use project along the Bidwell Parkway. Residents were worried the large five-story, modern complex clashed with the historic aesthetic of their neighborhood.
When the Green Code went into effect in January 2017, Ciminelli withdrew its plans for one of the five-story buildings, and scaled down the remaining building to four stories. Although the project will still require a variance to the three-floor minimum, Donnell says the Ciminelli development is proof of how the winds are changing.
“When we talk about the [city’s] renaissance, yes, it’s new people moving in, but it’s also people recognizing the assets of the city,” he says. “Buffalo is back on the map.”
The sprawling past
While historic preservation is certainly part of the Green Code’s agenda, its true mission is to preserve the traditional urbanism of Buffalo’s neighborhoods, says John Fell, senior planner with the office of strategic planning, and project manager for the Green Code.
“We wanted to reinforce what people loved about Buffalo, which wasn’t happening under the old zoning code,” he says.
Written in 1953, the city’s previous zoning code was designed when Buffalo, like so many cities across the United States, was caught up in the auto craze. As a result, city planners encouraged suburbanization by separating land use between residential, retail, industrial and artisanal.
“You now had longer distances [between] where people lived and where they needed to go to meet their daily needs,” Fell says.
Instead of the traditional neighborhood centers characterized by mixed-use buildings and windowed store fronts, cities were building strip malls and store fronts that open onto bare parking lots.
In the 1990s, Buffalo began developing the comprehensive plan to overhaul the city’s old zoning code, eventually laying out a master plan in 2006 to revitalize the city in a document called The Queen City in the 21st Century.
“We then went out and did a thorough inventory of our neighborhoods and the types of buildings in those neighborhoods. We measured them based off all that work and codified those into standards,” Fell says.
During this time, the city also held 242 meetings throughout Buffalo to hear the input of citizens who were concerned about how the new code would address building height and access to parking.
“We really listened to what the community said at every step of the way. That’s one of the reasons we had so many meetings, because we would come up with a draft and we would get 99 percent of it right, but there was always those little things people were paying attention to,” says Fell. “It’s all part of the democratic process.”
Balancing protection with progress
With the Green Code in place, the next question is how the city will react to variances.
For instance, the variances requested for Ciminelli Real Estate development in the Elmwood Village has already caused an outcry from local groups.
Some residents of the Elmwood Village say the new development is the equivalent of dropping “a cruise ship” in the middle of their historic neighborhood, and if the city approves the project they are breaking the spirit of the Green Code.
In Cold Springs, a vacant neighborhood just east of the Elmwood Village, developers Nicholas Sinatra and David Pawlick are requesting a variance for a mixed-income apartment complex on Jefferson Avenue that is twice the width allowed under the Green Code. Once again, people are concerned this would set an unfair precedent, diminishing the effectiveness of the new code.
But the Office of Strategic Planning says the Jefferson Avenue project should be considered a “Green Code win,” because at the end of the day, not every neighborhood has the draw of the Elmwood Village.
“In parts of the city where there isn’t much market value, when development has happened it has always been poor and doesn’t complement our traditional development patterns,” Fell says.
Fell says the Jefferson project not only upholds the Green Code standards (built to the street, mixed-use, ample transparency, etc.), but is bringing superior development to a neighborhood in serious need.
The Office of Strategic Planning also notes that from an urbanism standpoint the quality of the Jefferson proposal was substantially greater than anything the city had seen under the previous code. In their eyes, that alone makes the Green Code a victory.