More than a decade ago, the Elmwood Village Association (then Forever Elmwood) spearheaded the development of the city’s first set of guidelines for neighborhood building design. Passed into law in 2009, the Elmwood Village Design Standards (EVDS) provide a form-based framework to encourage quality, context-sensitive growth of Elmwood Village’s commercial and mixed-use building stock. These standards, the brainchild of passionate, engaged residents and developed through widespread community consultation, set the stage for a city-wide rewrite of Buffalo’s more than 60-year-old code.
Buffalo’s draft Green Code is a tremendous win for the residents of our city. At a time when we are facing growth pressures that we haven’t seen in decades, the city’s unified development ordinance will allow us to harness that growth so that it strengthens our great communities and helps establish our next great places of tomorrow. It’s not yet perfect, but on the whole, the Green Code will be massive improvement over the existing flawed, inconsistent and dated zoning regulations governing the physical change to our community.
The last re-write of the City’s zoning code was 1953. Buffalo was at the height of its industrial prowess; its population more than double what it is today. The city was bustling and vibrant. It was also a place filled with dirty, loud, noxious uses. Homes abutted smokestack factories that dumped waste into backyards. Federal priorities included removal of heavily populated ethnic conclaves and replacing neighborhoods with superhighways. Residents, by and large, were fleeing to the more spacious suburbs where they could separate work from commerce from home-life.
It was a different time, with different concerns and different priorities. 1953 required a very different set of rules for how Buffalo should grow and change. Our city’s zoning regulations reflect an industrial era in which the separation of uses was seen as most critical to protect the quality of life. However, unintended consequences of the code include the gradual, systematic elimination of the city’s fundamental provision for community. The shops that once provided for the daily needs of people were required to locate a car-ride away. Deconcentration of residents degraded support for community anchors like churches and schools. Buildings that were lost were illegal to reconstruct, encouraging growing pockets of asphalt and an outward migration of the built environment.
To be clear, Buffalo’s zoning code was not the reason for the city’s decline. But it was the fundamental law that ensured that every important piece of our city that we lost could never be returned. It’s why the preservation movement has become essential. Not only were we losing the heritage we once had, our zoning promised that the life and vibrancy once associated with those heritage buildings was also lost forever.
In 2007, the Elmwood Village was designated one of America’s Ten Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association. This designation cited the neighborhood’s ongoing evolution as an eclectically built, mixed-use, walkable neighborhood. The award directly cites the impacts of planning efforts from the development of Olmsted’s park and parkway system to the establishment of the design standards that appropriately guide the growth and densification of the neighborhood.
The Green Code, at its outset, seeks to reestablish a framework in which we can begin to rebuild our entire city for people and for life.
The Elmwood Village Association, through its design committee, was provided the opportunity to reengage with the code and assist the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning in drafting was has become known as the Green Code. As our organization, along with many, many others, continues to work with the City, we felt the need to outline the tremendous step forward the code takes in establishing a better framework for Buffalo’s growth.
- The code protects and in some cases amends the Elmwood Village Design Standards. The EVDS, though not perfect, have successfully codified the form of appropriate development within the Elmwood Village. Regulations within the standards are by-and-large incorporated into the Green Code and improved upon where practical application has not worked as expected.
- The code provides more opportunity for mixed-use neighborhoods; a core component to supporting healthy, active lifestyles where residents can walk to work, retail and services that they need on a daily basis. This is critical on our commercial thoroughfares, but also important to selectively allow appropriate businesses, as defined in the code, that can be integrated into residential areas. The draft code limits retail on residential streets only to buildings previously constructed to house such uses, consistent with the heritage of our neighborhoods.
- The code provides the ability for our city to grow smart, through infill development and appropriate densification. We are at less than 50% of our population when the current code was established. If we are going to have a healthy, vibrant city where residents have lifestyles to choose from, can attain what they need from local businesses, have access daily amenities, are provided with robust mobility options (pedestrian, bicycle, transit & car), quite simply, we need to have more people. By allowing lot sizes consistent with our existing, historic building stock, eliminating parking requirements, we can once again legally construct the urban infill buildings that once made our city great, while providing for a population that is poised to grow.
- Change is good for a city. By instituting standards for building design, the Green Code recognizes that change is inevitable, establishing a new development paradigm that is focused on encouraging positive physical change rather than a sole focus on restricting what we might fear. Cities need the ability to evolve and meet the ever-current needs of daily life and business while protecting the fundamental character and vibrancy of our neighborhoods.
Most places like the Elmwood Village, are not in an end state, but look forward to continued evolution. Great places are built over time, through multiple eras of growth. Part of Elmwood’s character is its eclectic building stock which has gradually grown from a primarily residential neighborhood to a mixed use, walkable place.
- The Green Code provides a development law that is far more user-friendly and clearly depicts a predictable process with a defined set of rules that everyone can follow. This is critical for all stakeholders in the process. The present code is unclear, conflicting and permits an application process that is inconsistently enforced. This does not work for anyone. Green Code does well to provide a framework for: citizens who want to understand what to expect for their neighborhood and how to be involved in the process, developers who look to construct an appropriate project for the neighborhood, on time and on budget, and for the city, who needs a code that can be clearly and consistently enforced. A great example is the code’s simple, 2-page use chart where a reader can immediately identify their district and exactly which uses are allowed, prohibited or only allowed by special use permit.
The process has raised a number of hot-button issues discussed in the community. The Elmwood Village Association, along with the city, has engaged residents specifically on these items to assist in drafting the code. Echoing comments published in the Association’s newsletter last month and can be found at www.elmwoodvillage.org, here is our take on a few of these issues the City has gotten right and a few more that the Elmwood Village is requesting the city amend in the draft code before it goes to council.
Issues the draft Green Code has got it right for Elmwood:
- Building Height
Buildings on Elmwood should be a minimum of two stories and a maximum of five stories. Buildings taller than five stories should be subject to more rigorous design considerations and require a variance. This is consistent with EVDS and reflects the general range of building scales existing along Elmwood Ave.
- Retail Scale
First floor retail spaces should be limited to a maximum size of 10,000 square feet. No limit should be placed on additional floors. This recommendation is a departure from the Design Standards, which set a maximum square footage of 2,500 on the first floor and 5,000 overall. The restrictive nature of the existing 2,500 sq. ft. first floor maximum has led to inconsistent enforcement and does not accurately reflect the current business mix on Elmwood. A survey conducted by the City at the 2013 Elmwood Village public meeting showed that people were generally comfortable with a business size of 9,000 – 10,000 square feet; this is much smaller than a big box store (the average Walgreens is 15,000 square feet; Wegman’s on Amherst St. is 88,000). We hope that a larger maximum first floor square footage will provide for a regulation that can be consistently enforced while allowing current business to grow and infill on Elmwood Avenue.
The Green Code will be the first zoning code in the country to completely eliminate minimum parking standards. We fully support this; minimum parking standards make suburban-style surface lots a requirement and would have prevented many of Elmwood’s existing great buildings from being constructed. The elimination of minimum parking standards does not mean that new buildings will not provide any parking at all; rather, it leaves it to the market to determine what parking, if any, is needed. This change must be complemented by city-led initiatives that address on- and off- street parking needs in a comprehensive, neighborhood-wide manner. Delaware District Council Member Michael LoCurto has allocated $26,500 to study parking in the Elmwood Village this year.
Items the we are requesting be amended before council:
- Building Width
EVA recommends a maximum building width of 150’. The proposed 225’ maximum width in the draft code exceeds a typically acceptable building scale for Elmwood Avenue. A 150’ standard would be the approximate width of five average storefronts. All buildings will be subject to vertical articulation requirements that break up the façade into separate storefront bays to maintain the rhythm of the street. Note that the current standards do not restrict building widths at all.
- Building Materials
The quality of construction materials along Elmwood is critical to maintaining the long-term character of the street. The draft Green Code permits several materials in an N-2C district presently prohibited in the Elmwood Village Design Standards. The Code should be amended to prohibit all materials currently prohibited in the design standards including restrictions on EIFS & other inappropriate materials. This prohibition should extend to all building surfaces that are visible from the public right-of-way.
Finally, the Green Code will not be an improvement without effective and consistent enforcement of each regulation providing a predictable process for residents, businesses and developers, alike. It is essential for successful redevelopment and new development that all applicable City Hall staff, including Planning Board and Zoning Board, have a clear, concise understanding of how to implement the Green Code consistently throughout the City. With the adoption of the Green Code, many existing properties will become nonconforming, further emphasizing the need for a transparent approval process.
The Green Code needs to be adopted by the City of Buffalo sooner rather than later. This code is a monumental step forward from our current, outdated ordinance. It is going to be an imperfect document. We are going to find out that some elements work differently in practice than they were envisioned. This is no different than the Elmwood Village Design Standards. But there is no question that it is going to be a vast improvement.
Green Code represents what citizens are clamoring for in their city: mixed-use, walkability, an ability to grow, quality urban design, vibrancy. During a nearly four-year process, Green Code staff have implemented the most exhaustive public outreach program that Buffalo has ever seen on a project. Input has included city-wide public forums, neighborhood-centric meetings, chapter-oriented working groups, individual consultation as well as meetings with every community organization that has requested one. Staff has made available all of the draft materials as they are prepared, including the proposed land-use plan, on request. The city should be commended on its exhaustive and publicly-open process and should seek to match this level of excellence on all projects.
* Dan Leonard is Vice President of the Elmwood Village Association and Chair of the EVA Design Committee.