By Carl Dennis
The recent debate about the propriety of the variances from the Green Code granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals can be sharpened by referring to the publication offered by the State of New York on the rules governing exceptions to the code.
The first question that the board must ask when an area variance is requested is, the publication stipulates, “whether the benefit sought by the applicant can be achieved by some method other than an area variance.”
In the case at hand, the project proposed by Chason Affinity, the board must ask why the developer, in order to meet the maximum width that the Green Code allows, can’t build three buildings (each 110 feet long) instead of one (315 feet long), and why it can’t be three stories high instead of four.
Chasson Affinity has offered no evidence showing that it couldn’t make money with such a plan. No doubt it can make even more money with a single large building, but maximizing profit cannot be a sufficient reason for asking for a variance.
The whole point of having a code is that the profit motive has to be asserted within the context of certain protections for the character of the neighborhood. Protecting neighborhoods – that surely was one of the stated central intentions of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, as it is of zoning and planning ordinances everywhere.
Nowhere in the Elmwood Village is there a building built to the sidewalk, on a street like Elmwood, that is even half as large.
The second question the board must ask, according to the state publication, is “whether the requested area variance is substantial. … The board should make a reasoned judgment as to whether the nonconformity being proposed is too great, as compared to the lawful dimensions allowed by the zoning law.”
As an example, the state publication cites a case when a variance was denied because it was shown that “construction would have exceeded the allowable lot coverage by 15 percent.” The width of the project at Elmwood and Forest avenues is not 15 percent larger than the size stipulated in the Green Code. It’s 265 percent larger.
If a variance of this size can be granted, the code means very little. The millions of dollars spent on its preparation and the thousands of people at over 200 meetings seem now to have gone for nothing.
Was it all merely a way to make the public believe that real protections were being put in place when in fact no significant protection was being contemplated?
Do we live in the new Buffalo that cherishes its neighborhoods or in the old Buffalo so desperate for development that any building, no matter how out of scale with its surroundings, is considered better than none?
Carl Dennis, a resident of the Elmwood Village for over 50 years, is a member of Preservation Niagara, the Campaign for Greater Buffalo and the Preservation Coalition.