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GIVE DOWNTOWN A CHANCE TO BE A NEIGHBORHOOD

If the puzzle of redeveloping downtown seems like a chicken-and-egg question of whether people or retail or must come first, then answering it brings to mind another maxim: You have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

In this case, the "eggs" are overly restrictive state building codes. The state is only trying to protect its citizens, but some of the rules that are perfectly suited to new construction and most neighborhoods can virtually close out the kind of renewal that brings back a district of older buildings.

They make it far too expensive for developers to convert some of downtown Buffalo's many vacant spaces into the affordable housing that could attract residents. Those residents, in turn, would attract the businesses needed to make downtown a bustling activity center again.

Already, as Brian Meyer's story in Sunday's Viewpoints section made clear, developers are putting residential units in sites like the Arcade Apartments and the Root Building. City planners are talking with others and looking for ways to redevelop other prime locations, like the now-vacant L.L. Berger Building.

But the pace of this budding conversion could be significantly quickened if developers weren't stymied by state codes that unrealistically hold renovated apartment buildings to the same standards as newly built ones.

Those requirements -- which mandate such features as elevators, dual stairways and natural lighting and ventilation -- add huge costs that can sink a redevelopment project, particularly in small buildings where that cost can't be spread over a large number of rental units. It's important to remember, too, that downtown living is most likely to attract younger people who can't pay high rents.

A Masiello administration task force pointed to several possible changes that could be applied to a special downtown district:

Mandates for natural light might be loosened to account for the conversion of apartments to include some rooms deep within the interior of large buildings -- such as Berger's.

In low-rise buildings of three stories or less, only one stairway -- not two separate ones -- might be required as long as the building also has sprinklers and each apartment has windows that could provide another escape route.

More generally, the code could include a provision modeled on other codes in use around the nation that consider a building's overall safety features. Those models assign each building a cumulative score based on such factors as whether it has sprinklers and the quality of materials.

The state code might allow for some exceptions to handicapped-access rules requiring elevators in a limited number of cases where the only alternative is letting a building sit vacant -- and of no use to anyone.

Safety and fairness must remain guiding principles. But in Buffalo's downtown, there must also be room to allow for the sensible redevelopment of vacant buildings. It's being done in New York City, which has a thriving loft district because it's not covered by the state code. It's also being done in special districts in other states.

Buffalo Place Inc. officials plan to bring in a consultant who's worked on such changes elsewhere in the country. They're also trying to get a State Senate committee that has held hearings on the matter to schedule one in Buffalo.

Most importantly, they may hire an expert and prepare a model law that the mayor and Common Council can put before the State Legislature this session.

If and when they do, the state should listen and then act.

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