In light of several high-profile development projects in the Elmwood Village, the local satellite of the Urban Land Institute hosted a presentation on Wednesday night about how densification and transit-oriented development foster sustainable community growth. George Grasser, Executive Director of Partners for a Livable Western New York, moderated the panel, which consisted of Lisa Sturtevant, Senior Fellow at the Terwilliger Center for Housing, and Joe Minicozzi, Principal at Urban3, a real estate consulting company. Each speaker used statistics and anecdotes from communities across the country to argue that density increases both qualitative and quantitative measures of socially and economically sustainable neighborhood growth.
Sturtevant dispelled concerns that increased density leads to lower residential property values, increased traffic and crime, and strains local resources. She showed evidence that property values increase alongside factors such as an area’s “walkability” score and that density fosters both cost-efficient infrastructure and higher retail rents. Minicozzi presented results from his firm’s 2014 study of Buffalo, which found national trends resonating locally; taxes paid per acre are exponentially higher in urban, mixed-use areas like downtown and Elmwood Avenue versus retail-only corridors like Transit Road.* Arguing that it pays to build up what is working, he encouraged stakeholders to “look at the numbers” when making development decisions. Both speakers emphasized that neighborhoods and cities are always changing and that development should be responsive to market demand. While each advocated for smart new development, they also encouraged Buffalonians to utilize existing character and resources; Minicozzi, in particular, showed the benefits of adaptive reuse projects compared to demolition and rebuilding.
After the presentation, audience members posed questions highlighting two fundamental realities of any development project: first, that the quality of design is perhaps the most important factor in achieving desirable high density and infill development, and second, that various stakeholders in a community have different opinions about what changes are desirable. The speakers validated these concerns while offering a few points of consideration. Sturtevant opined that increased coordination among housing, commercial, and transportation entities at various levels of governance produces longer lasting, higher quality development results.
Minicozzi underscored the importance of well designed “background buildings” and suggested that architects have a responsibility to advocate for quality materials that not only look better but also last longer than cheaper alternatives. To offset the high upfront price, he suggested the possibility of an incentive for quality materials as an investment in “building permanency.”
Minicozzi was skeptical of building height or width limitations suggested by Elmwood Village residents seeking to restrict new building forms. He pointed to the variation and evolution of existing buildings and reiterated the need to “grow what is working.” Further, when asked why developers don’t look to other neighborhoods that need investment, Minicozzi explained that developers will not initiate the kind of projects proposed for the Elmwood Village in other Buffalo neighborhoods until those areas have the public infrastructure and other amenities to foster complete walkable neighborhoods.
As new investment continues in Buffalo’s neighborhoods, these issues are sure to remain at the forefront of community conversations for a long time to come. While it is difficult for presentations like this to offer concrete answers to the challenges of coordinating multiple stakeholders, hopefully they will encourage a more productive dialog about the development process in general and the specific projects that are reshaping our city neighborhoods.
*For more on the Urban3 study, see www.oneregionforward.org.