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Fighting fires in the Elmwood Village

Before cities had fire codes and professional firefighters, fighting fires was everyone’s job, and an “alarmingly” common occurrence. When the alarms went up, volunteers would rush to the scene to do the best they could. Often, by the time people could mobilize, there wasn’t much that could be done except keep the fire from spreading.

Thankfully, those days are behind us – in actuality. But metaphorically, they are still very much with us, with development issues flaring up frequently around the city, often in neighborhoods unprepared for them and ill-equipped to respond. In a city with no design or architectural review, where SEQR is handled seemingly perfunctorily when done at all, variances given without justification, and where most neighborhoods don’t even have master plans to guide development, development fire drills have become all too common.

Existing houses

The latest alarm sounded last month in the Elmwood Village, with the proposal by Ellicott Development to demolish two houses on West Delavan near Elmwood, to be replaced by infill houses with forward-facing garages opening onto the sidewalk. While it’s good that Ellicott is now ready to invest in those properties they acquired as a package deal along with the former gas station at the corner, demolitions of rehab-able houses is a worrisome trend in the Elmwood Village that needs to stop, not accelerate. And despite the ease with which variances have been obtained to date under Green Code, the garages were a fundamental violation of the walkable urbanism at the heart of the code. On top of that, at the same time, the developers were seeking a variance to create valet parking on a surface parking lot nearby on Elmwood.

Who would fight this fire? Would the Elmwood Village Association step up and point out the flaws in the proposed project? No. As we learned in an April article in the Buffalo News, the organization has adopted a “take no position on design issues” position. How about the councilman? No. Searching for a councilman with a solid track record of championing the community is a Diogenean task (more on that below).

They give the developers what they want and they tell the community you can go sue. I don’t know why they would be treating their residents that way in favor of a corporation. – Sean Ryan

For the second time in as many years, it took a state assemblyman to battle the flames. (See here for last year’s case.) In a press conference in front of the properties on July 17, Assemblyman Sean Ryan gave a speech that doubled as an urban planning lesson. Here are excerpts of his remarks, with a full transcript at the end of the article for your reference:

We have the new Green Code in place, and if developers would follow the rules it will help grow the community and the city of Buffalo. But if you don’t follow the rules, it may be good for your development but not for the surrounding community.

Once again, we have another project coming in front of the community that doesn’t follow the rules. So we’re here today to fight against the demolition and redevelopment plan for these buildings.

We need to move away from the idea that each project that comes before the City is juried like a beauty contest to see if we like it or not.

In particular, this project is against code because they are looking a putting a whole frontage of garages on here. Why don’t they go into the back yard, where garages are supposed to be? They can’t put the garages behind, because they already paved the backyards for a parking lot for their restaurant. The code simply says you have to put the garage behind the house. They don’t want to do that. But once again, they created this situation. They purchased houses with back yards, yards big enough for garages. It’s a completely self-created problem that should not be remedied by the zoning board.

We can’t let developers come in and start re-doing these neighborhoods in a non-residential flavor. Everyone who lives here moved into a residential neighborhood, and they should feel that they are protected by the zoning code that will maintain the residential flavor of their neighborhood. That’s what we’re here to fight against today.

So we need to continue to fight to maintain the character of our residential neighborhood. If this means standing against developers who come in with non-compliant plans, we plan to continue to stand against those developers.

Tom Fox

In addition, Ryan told WBEN, “They give the developers what they want and they tell the community you can go sue,” Assemblyman Ryan said. “I don’t know why they would be treating their residents that way in favor of a corporation.”

The evening after the press conference, I attended a small meeting that Ellicott Development held with the block clubs about the project. Concerns were raised about the apparent neglect of the houses, and Tom Fox from Ellicott admitted that because the houses were acquired in a package deal with the former gas station property on the corner, their focus had been on the new building, 905 Elmwood. To date, they haven’t done much with the houses except fix a hole in the roof of one, he said.

I asked Fox about a “Plan B” for the properties if they don’t get permission to demolish. That related to the hardship that a developer is expected to show to justify any variances: if you can’t proceed with this plan, what is the alternative, what will it cost, and what is the hardship? Fox didn’t have that information.

The meeting also included many of the same tired tropes often heard in preservation issues, including a display board full of pictures of trashed interiors – often shocking to the general public, but old hat for anyone who has worked on rehabbing old buildings – and suggestions that the alternative to the developer’s project could mean continuing to have an eyesore in the neighborhood. But really, who can blame the developers for doing that? In a city where the preservation community is fragmented, leadership-poor, and (seemingly) forever wedded to reactivity rather than proactivity, such tactics so often work that it’s not surprising to see them regularly used.

It’s to the credit of the block clubs that most residents weren’t having it, though. Some cross-examined Tom Fox as if they’d grown up watching Perry Mason. Only one expressed interest in the project, echoed by some business owners who may have been invited by the developers.

It seems the Elmwood neighborhood at large wasn’t having it, either. Although the April Buffalo News article stated the Elmwood Village Association isn’t currently taking positions on development issues, taking surveys is another matter. Under the leadership of Board Chair Gabe Schmidbauer and Executive Director Ashley Smith, the EVA made a savvy move: at their Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market, they polled neighbors about the project. At his press conference, Sean Ryan talked about the results:

Just over the weekend, the Elmwood Village Association took a neutral survey at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market. Thirty-five people responded to the survey, and all thirty-five said this is a bad plan and should not be allowed. Remember: developers can do what they want on their land if they stay within the rules. Although the thirty-five surveys represent a small sliver of the community, and they were collected in a short period of time, but I know if we held a public meeting tomorrow we’d get 100 people saying the same thing.

The day after the press conference and block club presentation, things did not go the developer’s way at City Hall: variances were denied for the development project and the surface parking lot.

This week, Ellicott’s Bill Paladino told me that they are still considering options for the properties.

Only You Can Prevent Development Fires

So, the fire is out. This fire, anyway – for now. What about the others, and the new ones yet to spring up? Isn’t there a better way to handle this? Several better ways, I’d say.

One thing that would help would be a master plan for the Elmwood Village and the commercial strip at its heart. This was pointed out by Developer Rocco Termini in the April Buffalo News article, and he’s right. But would a master planning effort be worthwhile if it could simply be disregarded by developers or the City? After all, Green Code isn’t really a master plan for any neighborhood. Projects that violate a master plan could still be allowable under Green Code and thus approved by City Hall. For a master plan to have teeth, the Planning Board, say, would need the authority to determine if a project is compatible with a reasonably done, Planning Board-approved master plan.

Another thing would be design (or architectural) review. That would improve the overall quality of what is built all over the city, not just in the Elmwood Village. It would provide a rational process and professional analysis of projects, instead of the “beauty contest” that Sean Ryan rightly derided in his press conference remarks.

We need to move away from the idea that each project that comes before the City is juried like a beauty contest to see if we like it or not. – Assemblyman Sean Ryan

Community Planning Assistance Center

We’re a long way from having a design review board in Buffalo, but the right organization to advocate for it would be Buffalo’s community design center. Oh wait: unlike Rochester, and many cities around the country, Buffalo doesn’t have one. We did once: in 1972, Architect Robert Traynam Coles started the Community Planning Assistance Center of Western New York, a community design center. It had an office on Main Street, next to the present Artspace. After a decade or so, it ran out of funding.

But why don’t we have one now? During the decade I’ve lived in Buffalo, I’ve heard at least a dozen conversations about starting a design center here. Since the organizer of the Rochester design center was a friend and neighbor, and I worked with the Rochester design center on a dozen projects, I’ve offered, to everyone who brings it up, to help organize one in Buffalo. I’ve heard maybe a dozen Buffalo architects and planners say they would love to be involved in a design center. On more than one occasion, groups from Buffalo have visited or met with the Rochester design center.

In a rebounding Buffalo, we don’t lack the resources to support a design center. In a city plagued with bad planning decisions, bad design, and incessant fire drills over ill-conceived development projects, we don’t lack the need for a design center. In a city full of graduates of SUNY’s architecture and planning school, we don’t lack the people. What’s missing is leadership.

A community development corporation (CDC) for the Elmwood Village would be another way – perhaps the best way, long term – for the community to establish more control of its own destiny. It would have “community” baked in from the beginning, so would never find itself hamstrung by the kind of identity crisis experienced by the Elmwood Village Association as described in the April Buffalo News article. A CDC could take the lead on creating a fine-grained master plan for the neighborhood, and partner with developers to incorporate mixed-income housing so that residents don’t get priced out of the neighborhood. The built-in “bilingualism” of CDCs (speaking “community” and “development”) makes them well-positioned to work out these issues without them becoming fires – it costs developers time and money to fight these battles, too – and to say to developers what Sean Ryan did at his press conference,

We want to be clear that if you want to be part of what we’ve spent decades building together, come in and join us. But don’t come in as a force that’s going to drop buildings into our neighborhood that aren’t compatible with our neighborhood and aren’t compatible with our zoning rules.

Finally, our residents and neighborhoods need better municipal representation. Why does it take a state assemblyman to stand up for the community on a local development issue? Why did it take a congressman to stand up for the community on the Outer Harbor issue? And don’t assume I’m pointing a finger at the second floor of City Hall. Buffalo’s common council currently has no women or openly gay members. Many members seem to have exceeded their shelf life. There is too much dead wood, too many seat moisteners. A friend who works for an elected city official recently said to me, “I’m retiring, so I can speak freely: every member of common council should have a primary opponent.”

So let’s put a stop to the fire drills by being about building a better community – both physically and metaphorically. There’s a role in that for everyone: residents, businesses, leaders – and developers.


Sean Ryan’s remarks at the July 17 press conference:

This proposal is far away from the fabric and character of the Elmwood Village.

We have the new Green Code in place, and if developers would follow the rules it will help grow the community and the city of Buffalo. But if you don’t follow the rules, it may be good for your development but not for the surrounding community.

Once again, we have another project coming in front of the community that doesn’t follow the rules. So we’re here today to fight against the demolition and redevelopment plan for these buildings.

The buildings being proposed here are not Green Code complaint. Only this time, it’s not just on Elmwood Avenue where the other sites have been, it’s creeping now into the residential neighborhood, and trying to bring a little more of the commercial into the residential. And that’s not a good fit.

We need to move away from the idea that each project that comes before the City is juried like a beauty contest to see if we like it or not. We have a set of zoning rules. Developers asked for a form-based code, where they can look at the code and figure out what they can build where. Well if you go to the code and see what you can build in this residential neighborhood, you’re not allowed to build what the developer is proposing.

When Ellicott Development bought these houses, they knew exactly what they are getting. They knew the condition the houses were in. These houses are in the same condition as hundreds of houses all around the west side and the city of Buffalo that are currently being rehabilitated. You often hear from developers that somehow a house that a few partners together are rehabilitating cannot be rehabilitated by the developer.

In particular, this project is against code because they are looking a putting a whole frontage of garages on here. Why don’t they go into the back yard, where garages are supposed to be? They can’t put the garages behind, because they already paved the backyards for a parking lot for their restaurant. The code simply says you have to put the garage behind the house. They don’t want to do that. But once again, they created this situation. They purchased houses with back yards, yards big enough for garages. It’s a completely self-created problem that should not be remedied by the zoning board.

We can’t let developers come in and start re-doing these neighborhoods in a non-residential flavor. Everyone who lives here moved into a residential neighborhood, and they should feel that they are protected by the zoning code that will maintain the residential flavor of their neighborhood. That’s what we’re here to fight against today.

We’re seeing more and more cases where developers are coming into the Elmwood Village and buying large chunks of property. Inevitably, they overpay, and then, somehow, act surprised that they can’t get a return for what they overpaid for. A developer who makes a bad financial decision to overpay for a property shouldn’t be remedied by changing the law for that developer. Because changing that law – the zoning rule – that negatively impacts the other people living in the neighborhood.

We want to be clear that if you want to be part of what we’ve spent decades building together, come in and join us. But don’t come in as a force that’s going to drop buildings into our neighborhood that aren’t compatible with our neighborhood and aren’t compatible with our zoning rules.

This means no wrecking ball for the properties in our neighborhood if you want to replace them with non-compliant, non-conforming properties.

In addition, Ellicott Development is applying for a private, surface parking lot across the street. Once again, surface parking lots aren’t allowed on Elmwood Avenue. Why aren’t they allowed? Because when the zoning code was written they made the decision that surface parking lots on Elmwood Avenue are not the highest and best use for the land there. Surface parking lots don’t increase the commercial interest and they don’t increase the vitality of the neighborhood. The zoning board recently denied permission for a parking lot on the exact same plot of land, but developers are back at it again. They shouldn’t be allowed now, just because a large, influential developer is making the request.

So we need to continue to fight to maintain the character of our residential neighborhood. If this means standing against developers who come in with non-compliant plans, we plan to continue to stand against those developers.

Just over the weekend, the Elmwood Village Association took a neutral survey at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market. Thirty-five people responded to the survey, and all thirty-five said this is a bad plan and should not be allowed. Remember: developers can do what they want on their land if they stay within the rules. Although the thirty-five surveys represent a small sliver of the community, and they were collected in a short period of time, but I know if we held a public meeting tomorrow we’d get 100 people saying the same thing.

I would just close by saying we need to understanding of why these rules were put in place. I explained why we put the surface parking lot rule in place, and the other variance they are looking for is to be able to put garages on the front. Garages on the front create contact points between pedestrians and cars. Sidewalks are supposed to be for pedestrians. But to put four-bay garages all along this frontage might be good for developer, but it’s not good for our walkable residential community.

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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