Grand Island is considering a bold move for a bedroom community: creating a village-like "core" to give islanders an "old-fashioned" future.
The aim is to make the one-mile radius around Town Hall into a "town center" that allows some higher-density housing and mixed residential/retail use that removes parking from out front of plazas, shops and restaurants and puts it in back, out of sight, so people can get out to shop, walk and talk with neighbors.
"Basically, we want to create a Main Street, like East Aurora's," said Town Supervisor Peter A. McMahon.
The effort started long before he was elected.
"In the early '90s, the town set up a long-range planning committee," said Town Engineer John Phillips. "I think the town center concept came out about 1992, and we began working on a comprehensive master plan about then, too. That was adopted in 1995, with two exceptions: Ferry Village and the town center components, because the Planning Board saw these were special and needed separate plans.
"One thing came out of a whole series of townwide meetings -- people wanted some sort of village-like center," the engineer added.
Ferry Village was adopted in 1998, and the town hopes to adopt the plan for the town center this year, McMahon said.
"Ferry Village, near the Bedell House, was unique and had been around a long time, so it was pretty easy to agree on the greater density of structures there," the supervisor
said. "But we really did not have an idea about the town center. We got that part of the master plan last spring, but (the Town Board) hasn't adopted it. We're waiting for the new Zoning Code proposals. It makes sense to adopt both of those at the same time."
Grand Island did not develop around a crossroads village or hamlet. Instead it grew inwards, from its shoreline.
When established 149 years ago, the island was a forest and farmland resource to feed and fuel the growing cities of Buffalo and Tonawanda.
"Ferry Village" was among the first settlements, so it was apt that it was one of first non-standard planning decisions the town took.
The "town center" anchored at Town Hall, where Whitehaven, Grand Island Boulevard and Baseline Road all meet, currently allows mixed use: There are apartments, private homes, businesses and even an amusement park within the center's proposed boundaries. None of that will change, McMahon said. But some uses may intensify to help create a village atmosphere, town officials said.
"That's one reason why we installed sidewalks a few years back. We don't want to discourage existing businesses. . . . but we want new business or residential use to build up to the sidewalks and put parking in back."
"That single change could radically alter the face of a community," said Daniel Spitzer, the attorney drafting the Zoning Code the town will vote on before year's end.
"Master plans give a community a vision," he said. "Zoning codes are the concrete steps that bring that vision to life."
The island's present Zoning Code is a "standard small-community model with separated residential, commercial and industrial districts," Spitzer said. "The only flexibility is in planned unit developments for larger tracts. Grand Island has one -- River Oaks -- which includes town houses and a golf course.
"Now they want to create a town center zone with seven sub-districts. Nothing will change in terms of land use, but one new zone will be created that encourages pedestrians and encourages mixed use: Apartments above retail stores, for example."
"Grand Island is taking a courageous step by trying to (use zoning to) re-create an era, trying for a better quality of life than the strip plaza and tracts of look-alike housing developments you see in most suburbs," Spitzer said.
Zoning is just one tool to achieve that, he said, and it can be easily overridden by "special use" permits or by later town governments.
Moreover, there are a lot of "ifs" connected to Grand Island's future, not least among them a Seneca Nation land claim yet to be settled in court.
But the town government is planning for a future shaped by coordinated development.
"If this concept works" Spitzer said, "you will see a real change. The town center will be more pedestrian-friendly, will make people want to get out of their cars and walk and talk with neighbors. That's something suburbia does not offer," said Spitzer, who grew up in Long Island's sprawling suburbs and now lives in Kenmore because of its village amenities.
"But zoning and planning won't change things overnight," he cautioned.
"If Grand Island adopts the town center concept, change will take a generation or more before one sees a difference," he aded.
New business or housing coming into that one-mile radius will conform to the vision, and the proposed Zoning Code could help protect them.
More than that, the master plan also speaks of four "hamlet" developments at crossroads in other parts of the island where a convenience store or gas station might someday serve residents nearer to their homes along the shoreline.