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New planner, a native of Amherst, brings reform agenda to city

An Amherst native who left the region as a youngster is returning to become Buffalo's new planning chief.

One looming challenge that Michael R. Kimelberg will face involves revamping zoning codes, some of which haven't been overhauled in a half-century.

The urban designer, who has both public- and private-sector experience, will be a key player in the continuing efforts to improve a development process that critics have faulted for being fragmented.

While Mayor Byron W. Brown said he believes that some strides have already been made, he's convinced Kimelberg's experience in zoning code reform will be an asset.

"We are thrilled that we have been able to find and recruit a real A-list candidate," Brown said.

Kimelberg cited the importance of having development guidelines that are "clear, concise, predictable and fair."

"Everyone wins when we are designing buildings and public spaces that are developed within the embrace of a good plan," he said.

Brown said he offered Kimelberg the $79,000-a-year job after a search process that included input from leaders in the local business and academic arenas. Kimelberg spent seven years working for Seattle's Department of Planning and Development and was involved in neighborhood planning, drafting downtown design guidelines and other initiatives.

Kimelberg, 36, left government in 2003 to join the private sector. He served as a senior urban designer and planner for three firms in Seattle and Boston, working with dozens of communities on projects that ranged from streetscape improvements and transit centers to waterfront-redevelopment plans and several "green" projects in the Pacific Northwest that promoted sustainable building practices.

He promised to encourage "inclusive" planning.

"I often find that some of the best ideas come from engaging the community," he said. In his new role, Kimelberg will replace Drew Eszak, the city's acting director of planning. Brown administration officials said Eszak's 2008 appointment after the resignation of Timothy E. Wanamaker was always considered temporary.

A well-known local planner who talked with Kimelberg during the search process said he's impressed with the new director's "range of experience." Robert G. Shibley, a professor at the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning, believes that Kimelberg will be a key player in reforming city regulations.

"He brings a deep range of knowledge about zoning codes," Shibley said. "This is just the right thing at just the right time for Buffalo."

Kimelberg will report to Economic Development Commissioner Brian C. Reilly, who thinks the new planning chief's experience working with developers in all phases of projects will produce tangible results.

"It will really take our level of customer service and our speed to permitting to another level," Reilly said.


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