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Editorial: Green Code needs flexibility to advance projects that benefit Buffalo

The problem with the fight over Buffalo’s new Green Code is much the same as the one that bedevils the country’s national politics: The loud talkers at the extremes of debate seek to dominate, and need to be balanced by cooler heads.

That’s why, in presidential primaries, Republican candidates play to the far right and Democrats to the far left. That’s where the influence is in those elections. It’s also why, when it comes to the complicated question of land use, it would be no surprise if developers, with piles of money on the table, might seek to skirt the rules. And it’s why activists determined to freeze the city in amber might oppose any and all variances from a code that, to them, represents something like the 11th Commandment.

The Green Code is Buffalo’s comprehensive new master plan for land use in the city. It lays out what can be built where, defining such characteristics as what materials may be used, how long and high any structure can be and how far back from the street it must be set.

It’s not hard to understand the motivations of either side in the current confrontations and even to respect them. Builders made the architecture of this community and successful cities continually remake themselves. Case in point: The original Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan gave way to the Empire State Building. Change is inevitable and often beneficial.

Preservationists, meanwhile, understand the value of the past and the benefits of continuity. Case in point: Buffalo’s mother lode of spectacular architecture from the 19th and 20th centuries is helping to drive its revival.

It’s not that either side is staking out positions wholly disconnected from reality. It’s just that some people don’t look beyond their own focus and acknowledge legitimate and competing interests.

Thus far in the wrangling over the Green Code, it has mainly been the preservationists drawing lines in the sand. Some observers say developers are surely watching with bated breath to see how severely the code can be bent. It could be true but, thus far, those concerns are only hypothetical. Instead, developers – pushed by the preservationists, to be sure – are showing flexibility in their willingness to adjust their development plans.

The debate is over the definition of what satisfies the Green Code: What is a variance? How much deviation from “true north” does such an exemption allow? How much discretion do land-use officials have in granting or denying them?

In fact, some discretion is allowed and, given the complexities involved, is sensible. But zoning laws such as the Green Code are also governed by state law, according to land-use attorney Corey Auerbach of Barclay Damon LLP, and variances are a part of the package.

Buffalo Common Councilmember Joel Feroleto agrees. His district includes part of the Elmwood Village, which is ground zero for many of the most contentious battles over land use. “Some people have the erroneous belief and perception that the Green Code is an absolute law that cannot have deviations to it,” Feroleto told The News. “That is in direct conflict to what the state law says.”

It is perhaps unfortunate the some of the first projects out of the box are seeking what seem like significant variances. The Chason Affinity condominium project at Elmwood and Forest avenues has been significantly altered under community pressure, but still seeks an overall building length of 315 feet, nearly triple the Green Code’s maximum of 120 feet.

Owner Mark Chason argues he can’t trim more without rendering the building financially unfeasible. What he has proposed is nonetheless attractive, not out of place for its location and a far better use of land than the deteriorating structures that now occupy the space. The project also helps to build the population density that the Urban Land Institute preaches as crucial for urban success.

The code needs to be something more than a guideline and something less than a Bible. Its success will depend upon broad acceptance of what it means and what, by law, it must allow. To achieve that, other voices will have to balance those that insist on an unrealistic purity.

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