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Unlocking city's future depends on new code
Planning, development will be keys to overhaul

Brendan R. Mehaffy knows that the topic of updating outdated zoning ordinances and land-use plans can be a sure-fire way to elicit drowsiness and suppressed yawns.

Yet the city official overseeing this task is convinced that there may be nothing more important to Buffalo's future, particularly as the city eyes $1 billion in new development money promised by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Mehaffy, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning, said the community consensus that's emerging as it heads toward a November finish line will lay the foundation for the kind of livable city that Buffalonians want and the better business climate that developers and businesspeople have long clamored for.

This is the first time the City Code will be comprehensively revamped since 1953, and the first changes to land-use planning since 1977.

The two key changes will:

*Embrace a progressive urban planning model. The zoning changes will prioritize walkable neighborhoods, environmental sustainability, aesthetics and mass transit.

*Streamline the development process. Clear and transparent building standards and the consolidation of approval procedures into a single document will make it easier for developers to finish projects and reduce the prospect of lawsuits.

"We have a development framework that does not fit modern-day realities, and this will give Buffalo a tremendous competitive advantage," Mehaffy said.

The current City Code can be difficult to interpret because it has been amended so many times over the years, by different authors, that it no longer speaks with one voice, he said.

Mehaffy's boss, Mayor Byron W. Brown, has made transforming the decades-old zoning codes a top priority of his administration.

"We found we couldn't move as quickly or clearly as we would have liked from an economic-development standpoint, because the city's zoning was so out of date and did not really embrace 21st century zoning values -- the new urbanism of walkable, green communities and mass transit," Brown said.

"There also happened to be advocates and activists in the community who felt very strongly that this was a major problem in the city, so we decided to take it on."

A public forum at 6:30 today in Erie Community College's downtown auditorium comes on the heels of a new technical report marking the second phase of a carefully constructed process. There have been about 100 meetings, including nine in the community, with nine additional community meetings planned in June. For more information, visit www.buffalogreencode.com.

Mehaffy said he hopes that public engagement -- which included about 1,000 people at the earlier neighborhood workshops, as well as 2,500 comments -- will increase as the process picks up steam toward a hoped-for Common Council approval late this year.

This evening's gathering will include discussion of whether property owners should continue to be required to provide off-street parking spaces, and if a developer can forgo a Planning Board review with written agreement to key zoning guidelines.

"The zoning code will reflect the community's opinion," Mehaffy said.

If developers are doing what the community wants, he added, "they could go straight to the building permit stage. That can save the developer money and time going through the process, and even litigation that can follow, which alone can be a tremendous cost."

Developer Rocco R. Termini said that standardizing zoning codes would be a big help. "Anything consistent is a good thing," he said. "When it's not, you don't know what the rules are, and you have to fly by the seat of your pants. We need consistency."

Carl J. Montante Jr., vice president of marketing and strategic initiatives for Uniland Development Co., predicted that the revised code would be a boon to local development if it shortens the time for approving projects.

"Creating an efficient, nonpolitical process that provides developers the parameters within which their project will be approved, under an expedited time frame, should spur significantly more development investment," Montante said.

The city is working with Camiros, a planning consultant based in Chicago, and Boston-based Goody Clancy to help revamp codes that have failed to keep pace with the times.

Only two cities Buffalo's size or larger -- Denver and Miami -- have undertaken a complete code rewrite and replaced it with a "form-based" code, which addresses the appropriate form and scale of development, as opposed to use alone.

Leslie Pollock, principal consultant with Camiros, said the interest shown by Buffalonians has been an added motivation for the organization. "There is in many people in Buffalo a real commitment to the city, and that makes the work more interesting to us," Pollock said.

The 30-month, $2.1 million overhaul -- the state is reimbursing $740,000 -- also will officially move Buffalo away from a suburban, car-centered model that the city once pursued.

"We have a shot at leapfrogging past 50 years of inaction," said Howard A. Zemsky, who as co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council will have a major say in how the $1 billion from the state will be spent.

"Our sensibility of what makes a great city, and what distinguishes the city from the suburbs, has changed over time. Our code has to change to reflect our current aspirations and thinking about what makes a great city experience."

Anthony Armstrong, a self-described "zoning geek" who is chairman of a working group for the Western New York Environmental Alliance, said revamping the code lays the foundation for better development decisions, and ultimately a better quality of life.

"When you have a bad code, you get bad development. With the new code, it will make it easier for people to do the right thing," Armstrong said.

But he hopes something will be done to encourage existing building stock to be brought up to the newer standards.

"If you already have a barren-surface parking lot grandfathered in by existing code," he said, "is there a way to incentivize it to be better, in terms of the way it looks from the street and interacts with the environment?"

The new code will also cover waterfront plans, brownfield reclamation areas and guidance regarding preservation, while removing all or most of the outdated urban-renewal plans.

"We still want more people engaged in this process," Mehaffy said. "We're not trying to surprise anybody at the end of the day when we adopt this code."

News Staff Reporter Jane Kwiatkowski contributed to this report.

email: msommer@buffnews.com