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This one is Illegal Too.

I did a short “Favorite Buildings” story on this building at the south east corner of Lexington and Ashland in the Elmwood Village.  Here is some of what I wrote then:
As wonderful as this building is, it is likely that it could not be built today. What is certain is that people would complain that it was too big, that it would increase traffic, that it would not “blend in” with the surrounding wood frame houses, or that the commercial storefronts were in conflict with the residential streets (among other arguments). We have heard all these complaints with the unveiling of the recent Elmwood hotel proposal. These types of arguments are often based on emotional self interest with little in the form of objective analysis. Our cities were originally built with a jumble of uses, building types, and people in close proximity. 

This diversity is what we cherish in our cities and yet today our urge is to separate and sterilize. We think that we don’t want messiness and inconvenience of any type. What we end up with is blandness. We lose the very quality that we think we are saving. Let us hope that we don’t sterilize ourselves out of the opportunity for new and contemporary buildings which may contribute to our city streets in the way that this one does.
This is a beautiful building that people would fight to save if it was threatened with demolition.  It is filled with wonderful stores and restaurants that the neighborhood loves. The building’s numerous residents add to the economic and social vitality of the neighborhood and the building is a physically beautiful presence on the corner. It is a cherished building in the neighborhood and a great example of why people are attracted to the Elmwood Village.  Unfortunately if a similar building was proposed to be built today in a similar location people would come out of the woodwork to oppose it.  They would do so based on irrational fears and misinformation about lack of parking, traffic congestion, the large size of the building, the density of construction, and lack of open space.  They would also be afraid of the mix of uses which we have been brainwashed into believing is bad.   
Of course this building is a perfect example of why all these fears ARE irrational.  The building does not cause traffic congestion.  It is on a quiet and very pleasant corner with little traffic because so many people walk who frequent its businesses and live in its apartments. If anything causes traffic to increase in the area it is the parking lot for the restaurant across the street.  Parking is tight in the area (but not impossible to find) but that has more to do with the alternate side parking regulations than anything else. The density of residential units feeds local business and adds vitality and the building is in no way oppressive in its size.  Its bright open storefronts are a delight to walk by and they add interest and a sense of safety to the street.  But even though people love this building, and see that this form of building works wonderfully, they would oppose it if it was proposed today. Not only that, so would the law.  This beautiful treasure of a building does not meet the city zoning code (see part 1).
The building sits on an 11,144 sq. ft. lot with 21 apartment units and 4,555 sq. ft. of retail about 1/4 of which is restaurant space. The code requires 1,250 sq. ft. of lot area per residential unit in C1 zone, resulting in a required lot area of 26,250 sq. ft., meaning the lot size for the same size building would have to be increased by 136%. You will also have to provide parking for at least 44 cars, or 7,040 sq. ft., or 63% of the lot area.  The bay windows will have to go too since they hang over the Right of Way. (The building might be too tall as well. I could not confirm that.)  To build anything like this building today and meet code you will essentially need to tear down 6 to 7 adjoining buildings. This open space and a giant parking lot would pretty much ruin the quality of the building and neighborhood that people like. Notice that this block has 2 other large buildings on it in addition to several houses.  In order to accommodate those buildings all of the houses would have to be removed according to code. 
As I noted the Elmwood Village and all its dense urban charms are not allowed without special permission.  That means that an enlightened developer who wanted to build in a way that followed the set patterns of density and mix of uses that make Elmwood so attractive would need special permission.  He or she would need to ask for special permission to build in a way which emulates the things people like about Elmwood – the things that make it one of the most popular places to live. 
Asking special permission from the City Council means staging public meetings at which a small number of well meaning people and others with special interest will trot out the NIMBY commandments – Thou shalt not build taller than what I think is good,  thou shalt not mix uses, thou shalt not build more residential units than I think is appropriate, thou shall provide lots and lots of parking.  I am all for public involvement. Lord knows Buffalo is prone to massive blunders without it.  But the public must become better informed and they must not be steered in the wrong direction by an antiquated zoning code.  Make sure you make it to every Green Code meeting you can and express yourself loudly and firmly in favor of a new code that is not watered down by irrational carmegeddon fears.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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