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Opponents of five-story building on Elmwood have ally in Buffalo's new code

Residents opposed to two five-story mixed-use developments proposed for the Elmwood District believe they have an ally:

The draft Green Code, which would be the first overhaul of the City Code in 63 years.

The document, which had its final scheduled public hearing before the Common Council on Tuesday, would limit buildings to three stories in mixed-use commercial corridors like Elmwood Avenue where rights of way are less than 80 feet. The current code allows five stories.

That's just one example of how the Green Code will affect the city in myriad ways -- from density, parking and signage to development on the Outer Harbor.

The Byron W. Brown administration, through an extensive public process, has updated zoning and development to make it more easily understandable to residents, business owners and developers.

On  Tuesday, most people who spoke about the Green Code in Council Chambers spoke in support, and its passage is expected before the end of December. The code would become effective 45 days after its approval.

"The Green Code is very progressive," said Bernice Radle, a member of the Buffalo Zoning Board.  "It's designed to produce walkable urban cities. Being a zoning board member, the Green Code will help fill a lot of the holes in our existing code, and create good development and a clear path for homeowners and developers to do good projects on their properties."

"It's time to have a new code," said Christine Krolewicz, who chairs the the Elmwood Village design committee. "There is so much development happening, and we really need to take all this energy and passion that has been put into the Green Code, and harness that towards the future of what our city is going to look like."

Still, a number of people raised concerns about the two five-story projects, one by Ciminelli Real Estate that would span two blocks north of Bidwell, and another by Chason Affinity Companies that would extend from Pano's restaurant north to Forest Avenue. The speakers wanted the Common Council to remove a grandfather clause that could allow projects already proposed to be approved without being subject to the new rules.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Niagara Council Member David Rivera also urged that the clause be stricken at a press event earlier in the day. The Brown administration was also working with the council to explore that possibility.

That's something the Elmwood district's Bill Wachob favors. "Five-story buildings would just destroy the ambiance of the Elmwood Village. You don't need many of those before you have lost the continuity of walking from small store to small store," he said.

Developer Mark Chason, who attended the hearing, said there was never an intent to rush the project through.

"Our goal was to move forward with the project as best we could," Chason said. "We were never trying to get under the wire. We did a full environmental review, which actually extended the review process by about four months, and it's not something we had to do. It's always been our intention to act in good faith to try and do a great project."

Jeff Birtch, Chason's chief executive officer, said the company's plans always called for getting two variances under the current code, or two under the Green Code.

Chuck Banas, an urban designer, said it was time to pass the Green Code, but he also advised against limiting heights to three stories.

"The existing code was intended to suburbanize the city, based on the same thinking that planned expressways along our waterfront, wiped out whole neighborhoods and turned downtown into a parking lot," Banas said. "The Green Code fixes all of the problems of the existing code, and we should certainly pass it as soon as we can."

Banas said four or five stories could be appropriate in some areas along Elmwood and other commercial strips.

"We need to take a more balanced approach, because as it stands now under the current draft, the only development option outside of downtown and the vast majority of the city are two and three stories, and that amounts to a one-size-fits-all, fear-based zone that violates principle of good planning and common sense," Banas said.

Unless more changes in the Green Code are called for, the hearing capped a process led by the Office of Strategic Planning and its executive director, Brendan Mehaffy, that began in April 2010.

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