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Editorial: Overly restrictive zoning regulations crimp density that helps a city thrive

More people and more activity are good for the city and the future vitality of its neighborhoods. The backlash against two five-story mixed-use development projects on Elmwood aims to limit new housing. Residents living in the Elmwood Village should be encouraging density, not discouraging it.

An expert with the Urban Land Institute noted that “vibrant and sustainable economic growth depends on high-quality mixed-use development.”

Public costs for infrastructure are lower for higher-density development and in general, the institure said, “higher-density development does not lead to lower single-family property values.” Other points: higher density does not automatically mean an increase in traffic and crime. In fact, one could make the argument that those spaces become safer with more people around.

Buffalo’s Elmwood Village already has a certain amount of density, with a lot of homes on small lots on residential streets. Those residents attract businesses, and those businesses attract visitors and new residents. It has the kind of positive reputation that struggling neighborhoods envy.

So why attempt to stunt further growth in the village? Some locations are ripe for the type of denser development that will contribute to that growth.

Two projects have drawn their share of criticism. One by Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. would span two blocks north of Bidwell Parkway; the other by Chason Affinity Companies would extend from Pano’s Restaurant on Elmwood north to Forest Avenue.

Opponents are using the proposed Green Code to make the case against the height of these two projects. The Green code – which has not yet taken effect – tightens height restrictions from the reasonable limit of five stories in an earlier draft of the code.

Under the latest draft of the code, buildings would be limited to three stories if the right of way is less than 80 feet, which includes Elmwood Avenue. While a 10-story or 15-story building would certainly be out of place, in some cases a three-story limit wastes an opportunity for the kind of growth that a city needs.

State law creates a process to seek a variance to zoning regulations. While the Green Code will allow for exceptions, developers of non-conforming projects, no matter how beneficial, will have to spend more time and money and undergo greater public scrutiny.

The process will hinder attempts to create density – the idea that adding people will help grocery stores, shops and restaurants to thrive, while increasing property tax revenue for the city.

Architects have a major role to play in creating density in buildings that are not completely out of character in a neighborhood. The Chason building is designed with setbacks on the upper floors that make it look like a three-story structure.

Steve Carmina, principal of Carmina Wood Morris PC and architect on the project, said: “People plant themselves in the height of the building, which is the root of the argument they make to say the building is bad. But the height is good. There’s smart density and there’s dumb density. This is good density.”

Developers should be held to a high standard, and community members are right to challenge architects to deliver quality designs that can win over the neighborhood and add value to the city.

It is disappointing when overly restrictive zoning regulations stand in the way of growth that the city needs. Developers with smart-growth ideas should be encouraged to follow the variance process.

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