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New Green Code promotes urbanism in Buffalo’s neighborhoods and business districts

The type of sign permitted outside a business.

The height of a fence allowed around a single-family residence, and the cut of a driveway.

Where parking is allowed for a chain drugstore.

These and many other seemingly mundane zoning decisions are the building blocks of neighborhoods, commercial districts and other areas where people live, shop, work and play. In Buffalo, though, interpreting the zoning requirements contained in a 1,802-page document often proved frustrating for homeowners and developers, resulting in uncertainty and often time-consuming and costly delays.

Now, the 62-year-old City Code is getting a dramatic overhaul.

The Brown administration on Thursday will present to the Common Council a new code – and this one runs just 322 pages, with plainer language and easy-to-understand graphics.

“It’s the DNA for the entire city,” said Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Planning.

Called the Green Code – its formal name is the Unified Development Ordinance – the document was written to bring direction, uniformity, clarity and simplicity to zoning and land planning for the city’s 94,000 parcels in 24 neighborhoods, districts and corridors.

“Every square inch of this city is addressed by what we are putting in front of the Council,” Mehaffy said.

By making building standards and approval procedures transparent to developers and the public, the Green Code is expected to make it easier for projects to be completed on time, and reduce the prospect of contentious disagreements and costly delays.

Work on the proposed code started in April 2010. The document builds on the city’s comprehensive plan passed in 2006 and represents a seismic shift in the city’s direction. It moves city planning from a suburban model of development to one that’s progressively urban in its approach to green and smart-growth principles.

“I think what we see represents a cultural change, even within the development community,” Mehaffy said. “Thirty, forty years ago, the zoning code and land use plans were really written to do away with the city we know today. It was, ‘How to do we make us the suburbs?’ Now, the approach, even within the development community, is urbanism is good.”

The new code prioritizes accessible neighborhoods, mixed developments, environmental sustainability, historic character and mass transit. Among its supporters is Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who heads Empire State Development.

“This is going to realize an identify for the city that citizens have been fighting to establish for some time,” Mehaffy said. “We also get development the community can support because they have been as involved in this process. That is a big part of this.”

The revision is a long time coming for a zoning plan that still technically allows asbestos factories on the Outer Harbor and housing in Delaware Park.

When the last comprehensive update occurred in 1953, the first Chevrolet Corvette came off a Flint, Mich., assembly line, Jonas Salk unveiled the polio vaccine and color television sets began to replace black-and-white TVs.

The Green Code would also overhaul the city’s land use plans for the first time since 1977. It incorporates the University at Buffalo’s 20/20 Plan, Buffalo State College’s Master Plan and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s most-recent analysis of bus routes. Updates to planning documents for brownfields, vacant parcels and the waterfront also add to the project’s complexity.

Two planning consultants – Camiros, based in Chicago, and Goody Clancy, from Boston, played key roles.

“The impact of this new zoning ordinance will be seen in more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, in buildings that fit our historic city patterns and in a more common-sense approach to the process for those who build and live within our city,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “It will also revolutionize the way Buffalo does business.”

The Green Code puts Buffalo in the forefront of municipalities its size or larger, joining Denver, Miami and Cincinnati to create a “form-based” code, referring to the appropriate form and scale of development, besides use alone.

“The Buffalo Green Code will set the gold standard for smart growth planning and upstate urban revitalization throughout the State, and possibly the nation,” said Paul Beyer, the state’s director of smart growth in the Department of State. “Buffalo’s re-birth just got a huge boost from Mayor Brown’s Green Code.”

Over 5,000 people attended early meetings, planners said. And the staff has met with over 1,100 people and held dozens of meetings since the draft was introduced 18 months ago. Participants have included neighborhood block clubs, preservationists, developers and business leaders. Meetings have been held with senior citizens, people with physical disabilities and representatives from African-American and Latino communities.

“I hope all parties would say we did absolutely everything we could to bring everybody to the table and hear their voice, and make sure it was reflected in this document,” Mehaffy said. “At the end of the day the community input is defining the good development.”

John Fell, the project manager, said particular attention was paid to maintaining the character of neighborhoods.

The review process within the Common Council, which includes other opportunities for public input, is expected to extend into spring, with final approval likely by June.