Buffalo residents may not need a lawyer or architect any longer when putting on an addition or putting a sign up on a building.
The days of grappling with the city’s frustrating and hard to understand building rules and regulations could soon be coming to an end.
After nearly four years in the works, the proposed Green Code – released today in draft form for public review – comes with plainer language and user-friendly illustrations and graphics meant to reduce uncertainty. It can be found at www.buffalogreencode.com.
Want to know what changes can be made to a carriage house, for instance, or the size permitted for a commercial sign on the side of a building? The Green Code cross-references, with charts, by item and by geographic district to locate the information, often with visual aids.
“The Buffalo Green Code is rewriting Buffalo’s DNA. The frustrations people have felt will be certainly minimized in large measure from this new code,” Mayor Byron B. Brown said.
The Green Code replaces a mostly suburban zoning and land use model with modern, urban standards. If approved, Buffalo would move into the forefront of progressive, 21st century cities emphasizing accessible neighborhoods, environmental sustainability, mixed-use development and mass transit.
The mayor launched the Green Code in 2010 as an essential building block for the city to move forward, and it could become a signature achievement of his administration.
The painstaking effort to reform the zoning laws, overseen by Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, marks the first comprehensive revamping of the City Code since 1953 and the first substantial changes to land use planning since 1977. The 1,800 pages in the city’s current development regulations have been reduced to around 300, with much of the space taken up by illustrations and graphics.
“This is taking a framework that’s been broken, and which people have tried to patch and make work, and instituting a completely new process for development that reflects, we believe, what people have been telling us as we go out on the street,” Mehaffy said.
Along with transparent building standards, the streamlined approval process consolidates everything into a single document to expedite projects through City Hall, while making the process more predictable for homeowners, developers, investors and small-business owners.
The new code would, for instance, eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements. It calls for commercial buildings to be built up to the street, with parking hidden to the side or rear, and with plenty of windows at ground level to attract pedestrians.
Buffalo would join – and in some cases surpass – Denver, Miami and Cincinnati as the only cities with codes that prioritize neighborhood character over separation of uses.
“This is a pretty revolutionary process,” the mayor said. “If you think about something that governed development and the way things are built and how they’re built and where for over 60 years, this is a major undertaking. It will modernize the development process for the 21st century and guide the future development for the City of Buffalo for the next 20 years.”
The city’s proposed code is expected to be celebrated during the Congress for the New Urbanism’s national conference in Buffalo in early June.
“I really think this could be one of the best codes written in the country,” said Colin Scarff, a principal of Austin-based Code Studio, which worked with lead firm Camiros to develop the revised code.
The architects of the Green Code say the public has played an integral role throughout the process to create a user-friendly and accessible instruction manual since starting in September 2010. They point to more than 4,000 comments and numerous public meetings – including outreach to African-American, Hispanic, disabled and immigrant communities, as well as every Common Council district.
More public meetings and work groups are planned later this month. Then the final document is expected to go to the Council in July, with approval anticipated by the end of the year.
Howard Zemsky, a developer who is co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, said the Green Code promises to be an elixir for developers and others in the community clamoring for simpler zoning language and more certainty in the permit process.
“This is the way cities are updating their codes. They are more urban and pedestrian-friendly, they’re more flexible, they integrate the streetscape and the buildings, and they take into consideration the characteristics of the neighborhood. There’s less prioritization on the automobile,” Zemsky said. “It’s aesthetically better, because you end up with less sprawl and better integration of the streets, the buildings and the people. I think the new Buffalo needs a new code.”
Brown said the Green Code, beyond its obvious quality-of-life and environmental benefits, is an engine for economic development.
“Every single week now, there is a local, national or international business person that is here talking and looking at making investments in Buffalo,” he said. “This will make the process so much simpler, so much clearer, so much easier for someone to move a project forward. It will also give us a real competitive advantage going forward in the state and in our region,” Brown said.
“We’re projecting over 10,000 new jobs coming from the development we’re seeing, and this will encourage more of those people to want to live in the City of Buffalo, which is tremendously important to continuing to grow the population and the economic activity in the city.”