Fredrick Law Olmstead, widely considered one of the great American landscape architects, once described Buffalo, New York, as “the best planned city in America, if not the world.”
Olmstead, who designed Central Park for New York City in 1857, was invited to Buffalo in 1868 to design a park for the city and was immediately taken by the street system, a grid overlaid by a series of radial streets. Olmstead decided to add to this layout by designing a series of parks to be interspersed through Buffalo’s neighborhoods.
Subsequent developments in Buffalo might have Olmstead rolling in his grave.
In the 1950s, the scenic Humboldt Parkway, which linked two of Olmstead’s parks, was destroyed to make room for a sunken highway. In 1960, another highway severed the city, cutting Buffalo off from the Niagara River, one of its many historic waterfronts. In following decades, modern, pragmatic building practices chipped away at the city’s character.
New times, new zones
But perhaps Olmstead would find hope in zoning and building codes meant to return Buffalo to its once charismatic layout and appearance.
Getting final approval from Mayor Byron W. Brown in early 2017, the city’s new Green Code, more formally the Unified Development Ordinance, is the first major overhaul of Buffalo’s zoning laws since 1953.
As opposed to most city zoning that focuses on a building’s use instead of its appearance, Buffalo’s new laws require developers and construction companies to first take into account how a new building, renovation or development fits with its neighborhood.
These so-called form-based codes promote historic preservation and more walkable city neighborhoods by encouraging mixed-use developments and access to alternative forms of transportation, proponents say.
Or, as Buffalo’s Green Code website states, “It sets standards to ensure that adjacent buildings complement rather than conflict with each other.”
Buffalo’s Green Code took effect in early February, making Buffalo the third U.S. city, behind Denver and Miami, to have a form-based code on the books. While the local laws don’t impact developments that have already been approved, many developers have already taken steps to comply.
“We started hearing developers saying they were designing to the Green Code two years ago,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, during a press conference with local news stations. “They understood that the community had been so involved in the process that they wanted to follow the standards being created because they knew they had a lot of community input.”
That early adaption is evident in Larkinville, a neighborhood just east of Buffalo’s downtown.
Originally known as the Larkin District, the neighborhood was once the site of the Larkin Soap Company, a successful mail-order company that fell to ruin in the 1940s, leaving behind abandoned manufacturing facilities and warehouses.
In 2002, Larkin Development Group (LDG), a Buffalo-based developer, began restoring the historic buildings and converting them into office buildings and mixed-use developments. LDG also began developing Larkin Square, a public park in the center of the neighborhood, that today hosts festivals, food trucks and live music.
“[Larkinville] is so representative of what the city is looking for long term,” says Leslie Zemsky, senior partner for the Larkin Development Group. In October 2015, the city of Buffalo even chose Larkinville as the location from which to announce that the Buffalo Green Code had been submitted to the city council for approval.
Zemsky says the Green Code will ensure that more neighborhoods are revitalized and renovated instead of torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
“More has gone on in Buffalo in the last four or five years than has gone on in Buffalo in the last 30.” – Rocco Termini, president and owner of Signature Development
Rocco Termini, president and owner of Signature Development, a Buffalo-based developer that specializes in historic preservation projects, agrees that there’s never been a better time to be building in the City of Good Neighbors.
“More has gone on in Buffalo in the last four or five years than has gone on in Buffalo in the last 30,” he says. “We have a new inner harbor, a medical campus that is hiring thousands of people and we have historic preservation going on all over the city.”
In 2012, Termini spearheaded the restoration of the Hotel Lafayette, a historic building in Buffalo’s downtown, designed in the French Renaissance style. The hotel had been vacant for almost 30 years and was facing demolition.
Termini is looking forward to the Green Code bringing consistency to builders in Buffalo.
“Every time a developer goes into a neighborhood and wants to build [they often hear], ‘No, it’s too big, it’s too much, it’s too everything.’ The Green Code sets standards so that the neighborhood knows ahead of time what the conditions are and what we can build.”
Life-long Buffalonian Tony Maggiotto isn’t surprised by the new interest in Buffalo.
“People are recognizing the great bones that Buffalo has, which are the buildings, the infrastructure and the places where community was originally defined in your pocket neighborhoods,” he says. “And I think everybody recognizes the authenticity so they want to be close to it.”
As the executive director of the Elmwood Village Association, an advocacy group that seeks to preserve and protect the historic nature of the Elmwood Village, one of Buffalo’s most iconic neighborhoods, Maggiotto places high importance on this renewed investment in the past.
Elmwood Village was even named one of the Great Places in America by the American Planning Association, a non-profit representing urban planning professionals.
But while Maggiotto sees the benefits of more transparent zoning laws, he and many other residents of Elmwood Village are skeptical of how it will pan out, especially when developers start asking for variances.
The spirit of the Green Code is for the city to review each development on a case-by-case basis, he says. “But the concern for residents is once you get one variance in everybody gets to break that rule as well, and since the document is brand new [we’re wondering] what is going to be the first scuff.”
Only time will tell. But for better or for worse, the city of Buffalo is about to face major developments.
“The whole city psyche has changed, and everyone wants to be a part of the new Buffalo,” says Zemsky.