As a lifelong suburbanite – I survived a childhood that included walking to school AND playing Jarts – and a longtime chronicler of suburban public meeting behavior – I have witnessed someone attempt to prove hardship as an argument for obtaining a zoning variance from residential to commercial – I have noticed a new strain of NIMBYism emerging.
NIMBY, as all who are ensconced in the suburban condition should already know, is an acronym for Not in My Back Yard, as in, “Walmart? Not In MY Back Yard!” (Cue the applause from people attending their first, and probably last, government meeting.)
This new strain is a particularly virulent one. It has spread across suburban borders to city streets, creating a new class of NIMBYists.
With apologies to Jerry Seinfeld, they are the anti-heightites. They’re not against the building, mind you; they just think it’s too tall.
We know this is a thing because it meets the “at least three examples is a trend” rule:
- The developers of the Canterbury Woods Retirement Community planned for Gates Circle don’t like a new zoning district for the neighborhood that would allow 10-story buildings. They were OK with six stories, but thought 10 was too tall.
- Residents who live near a proposed 10-story apartment complex at Main and East Ferry streets oppose it. They say the structure will cast a shadow on their yards because it will be too tall.
- The plan from developer Gerald Buchheit to turn the old Freezer Queen property in the Outer Harbor into a 23-story apartment tower drew opposition from people who cited issues with everything from historic preservation to wildlife endangerment. Also, they think it will be too tall.
Anti-heightites are relatively rare in suburbia, because tall buildings are relatively rare in suburbia. There have been exceptions in recent years – a couple of hotel projects in Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda come to mind – but when we lawn-edging types don’t like somebody’s building idea, we generally have to rely on objections over frontage and retention ponds and buffer zones and infrastructure and other words no one understands.
You can understand why anti-heightites are the way they are, especially in Buffalo. The tallest building we have, the 38-story One Seneca Tower, is now pretty much empty and it’s unlikely that any developer will figure out a way to fix it up and/or fill it up. But knocking it down is also unlikely.
Why? Because it’s too tall.
The anti-heightites do have a point. The world is full of ill-conceived tall buildings, and the planning mistakes of earlier generations sometimes became the high-rises that came to be warehouses for the poor. A little NIMBY when those ideas were being crafted might have been a good thing.
But there is a school of thought that we should embrace tall buildings, especially in urban settings. Tall buildings take up less land and therefore might be easier on natural resources. The beautiful view from the upper floors of tall buildings can’t be denied. Plus, when they are residential developments, they have the added benefit of bringing people together, as opposed to typical suburban developments whose main selling point often seems to be that you never have to see another human if you don’t want to.
The idea that this trend would emerge now in Buffalo actually can be seen as encouraging. After all, following generations of population decline, the anti-heightites are speaking out because developers want to build places for people to live IN Buffalo, as opposed to as far from it as possible. This is what progress looks like. More developments, and more NIMBY-themed opposition, are likely to follow.
If this keeps up, even Walmart might come calling eventually.
A word to the wise: If you go to that public hearing, be sure to ask about frontage. And then let me know what it is.