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Buffalo moves away from suburban development model in new Green Code

Mayor Byron W. Brown stepped into the Common Council Chamber on Tuesday to a round of applause, following unanimous passage of the Unified Development Ordinance, better known as the Green Code.

It was only the mayor's third appearance there, and after a warm greeting from Council President Darius Pridgen, he basked in the glow of the first overhaul of Buffalo's zoning regulations since 1953, including the first comprehensive land use plan since 1977.

The mayor didn't take a bow alone. He applauded the Council members efforts, and asked about two dozen members of the Office of Strategic Planning staff – the department headed by Brendan R. Mehaffy that led the six-year effort – to stand and be recognized.

"This is a proud day," Brown said. "We are one of only a few municipalities in the country who have done what we have accomplished."

The changes in zoning and land use will affect the city in numerous ways, from promoting walkable neighborhoods, mixed-use developments and historic character to environmental sustainability and mass transit. The range of zoning regulations addressed includes density, building height, street design, land that can be developed on the Outer Harbor and use of solar panels.

[Related: Buffalo's zoning code steps into the 21st century]

"Buffalo is about to step into its own with this code," Pridgen said. "The last code was made to make Buffalo look like the suburbs. Now it will be made to look like Buffalo."

Buffalo joins Denver and Miami in undertaking a comprehensive, form-based code, moving the city away from a suburban model of development to one considered progressively urban. The Green Code's adoption also makes Buffalo the first city in the United States to eliminate minimum parking requirements citywide. A parking analysis will now be required for each project of more than 5,000 square feet, with other forms of transportation besides automobiles also considered.

"This is the development DNA of the City of Buffalo," Brown said. "It will say what can be built, how it can be built and where it can be built. This is a major milestone.

"We knew how important this was," Brown continued. "We are seeing significant economic development and job creation in the City of Buffalo. We knew this would take it to another level, protect and preserve our neighborhood, and create a framework for development in our city that would help to develop properties in a way that citizens want to see."

The final document incorporated University at Buffalo’s 20/20 Plan, SUNY at Buffalo State's master plan and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s most recent analysis of bus routes. Updates to planning documents for brownfields and vacant parcels also are included.

"This might be the thing from the Brown administration that will be its claim to fame," North District Council Member Joseph Golombek said.

"It was a herculean effort by the Brown administration and the Common Council," said former Mayor Anthony Masiello, who preceded Brown in office. "It was the absolute right thing. As we prepare for the new Buffalo, we have to get out of the old and into the new."

But Art Giacalone, an attorney who has led opposition to the Green Code, said he fears some changes in the new code will lessen opportunities for review and make it easier for developers to avoid public scrutiny.

"The Green Code was meant to make life easier for developers and take power away from residents and the Common Council, and it has succeeded in doing that," Giacalone said.

'"I'm not against development. I'm against development that has an adverse impact on existing neighborhoods and residents, without a fair chance to challenge what's being proposed, and the Green Code will do that in many instances."

The Green Code will officially be signed into law by the mayor next Tuesday. The portion that concerns commercial corridors, where development projects have been proposed, will take effect in 45 days, with the rest of the code becoming law 90 days after that.

Mehaffy said much staff training and updating of computer systems will be required during the transition period to adapt to the new changes.

Inclusionary zoning – requiring new residential developments to include affordable units for people of low or moderate income – is not part of the Green Code. But Council members said they hope to see a provision added in 2017.

Pridgen said the Council is awaiting a report on the issue from the Office of Strategic Planning, due in February.

"The majority of comments we heard in the Council hearings were about inclusionary zoning," Pridgen said. "There is a strong desire from Council members to have inclusionary zoning included in the Green Code."

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