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Buffalo Green Code: "Green Light" for Developers, Rough Road for Elmwood Village Residents

A recent editorial in the Buffalo News effusively praises the proposed “Buffalo Green Code.” According to the newspaper’s editorial staff, the draft development code “revamps building rules to emphasize neighborhood character,” and “promises to move Buffalo into the forefront of progressive, 21st century cities emphasizing accessible neighborhoods, environmental sustainability, mixed-use development and mass transit.”

There certainly are attractive elements of the Green Code—and it may actually prove beneficial for some sections of The Queen City. But, as presently written, it will be a disaster for the residents and visitors who appreciate the unique character of the Elmwood Village.

Mayor Brown and the consultants and City Hall staff assembling the various parts of the Green Code have spent years assuring city residents that a neighborhood’s “historic fabric”—building form and design, lot sizes, parks and streets - would provide “the foundation for future growth” and play an important factor in determining its future. The 2012 version of the code emphasized that, “planning for sustainable neighborhoods means preserving the character of neighborhoods while encouraging development consistent with the prevailing patterns.”

I’m not familiar enough with other Buffalo neighborhoods to have an opinion on whether the draft “Uniform Development Ordinance” [the formal name for the Buffalo Green Code] respects their historic fabric. But I spent years living in the Elmwood Village, and decades representing Elmwood Village residents fighting to preserve the character of their respective neighborhoods. Based on my personal and professional experience, I believe that the draft Green Code threatens to tear apart, not preserve, the fabric of a community that is so attractive and livable that it was recognized in 2007 by the American Planning Association as one of the ten “Great Neighborhoods in America.”

To appreciate the tangible threat the Green Code represents to the Elmwood Village, it helps to hear what an urban planning expert and former Director of Planning for the City of Rochester, Arthur J. Ientilucci, AICP, had to say last year while serving as a consultant to five Granger Place and Forest Ave. property owners fighting to preserve their neighborhood’s quality of life:

Elmwood Village is a thriving mixed use urban neighborhood with many amenities that are attractive to urban dwellers...A good deal of the Elmwood Village’s character is derived from the intermingling of small scale commercial uses and a variety of residential building styles affording a wide range of choice for its residents. The harmonious scale, older homes, and connectedness of buildings and uses throughout the area is a significant and attractive attribute. The district appears to have achieved a balance between residential and non-residential use both in terms of density, concentration and scale. This balance appears to have accrued from the residential character of the neighborhood, the scale of its non-residential structures in relation to nearby residential properties, and zoning code limitations on the intensity and scale of commercial use.

The factors that have nurtured the balance between residential and non-residential uses in the Elmwood Village—most notably, the limits in the intensity and scale of commercial uses that have been in place since the creation of the Elmwood Business zoning district in the late 1970s—will disappear if the Buffalo Green Code, as currently drafted, is enacted into law by the City’s Common Council. Its authors have decided not to “REINFORCE” the historic fabric of the Elmwood Village by highlighting and protecting the current harmony between residential and commercial uses in terms of density, concentration in scale. Instead, the Uniform Development Ordinance proposes to “TRANSITION” much of Elmwood Avenue to what it awkwardly calls the “N-2C Mixed-Use Center” zone, urban areas characterized by significant scale and high diversity of uses.

The inappropriateness of selecting “N-2C Mixed-Use” as the proposed designation for the Elmwood Village’s primary street is perhaps best demonstrated if one considers the current makeup of the two blocks of Elmwood Avenue extending from Potomac Ave. to Forest Ave.

Of the approximately 30 buildings on Elmwood between Potomac to Bird, two dozen were built a century or so ago as freestanding, residential structures with front lawns. Five of the remaining buildings were constructed for retail use on the first floor, with apartments or offices on the second. The block’s sole one-story structure was built in the 1960s for retail use. Not one of these buildings exceeds 2 1⁄2 stories in height.

The “form” of the buildings on the northernmost Elmwood Village block, running from Bird Ave. to Forest Ave., is similar. Only seven of approximately 30 structures were built for non-residential purposes, including a house of worship. Each of the remaining buildings was constructed for residential use, including 2- and 3-family residences, and two 8-unit apartment houses. As with its neighboring block, all of the buildings have fewer than three stories.

The current draft of the Green Code prohibits the construction of any type of residence—detached, attached, or stacked—on virtually all of Elmwood Avenue from Bryant St. to Forest Avenue unless the residential unit is located on an upper floor of what the proposed code calls a “commercial block” building, described as follows:

A commercial block is a structure of two or more stories designed to facilitate pedestrian-oriented retail or office uses on the ground floor, with upper floors typically designed for residential, hospitality, or employment uses.

A number of existing structures on Elmwood Avenue between Potomac and Forest fit the definition of a “commercial block,” such as JP Bullfeathers, the “Poster Art” and “We Never Close” buildings, and Mr. Goodbar. But each of these long-standing Elmwood Village fixtures is only two-stories in height, and complements the scale of nearby residential structures. In sharp contrast, the draft Green Code disregards the existing zoning limitations on the intensity and scale of commercial buildings, that is, a limitation of the size of a business outlet to 2,500 square feet on any one floor, and 5,000 square feet in any one building, as well as a maximum building height of 3 stories. In doing so, the proposed ordinance jeopardizes the existing harmony.

More specifically, the proposed Green Code would allow a “commercial block” building on Elmwood Avenue to be five stories tall and to cover 100% of the lot, whether or not it adjoins an existing residence. While the typical lot on Elmwood between Forest and Potomac avenues is approximately 30 to 40 feet wide, the draft Green Code would allow a commercial block building to be constructed on a lot as wide as 225 feet. Not only would such a structure dwarf nearby buildings—residential or commercial—it would lead to developers buying and demolishing seven or eight existing residential structures in order to build one monolithic building.

The following is an example of a building a property owner could construct AS OF RIGHT NOW in the Elmwood Village if the Common Council were to enact the Green Code as presently proposed: Given the fact that the lots on the east side of Elmwood Ave. between Bird and Forest are 140-feet deep, and a commercial block building can be five-stories in height and cover 100% of a lot up to 225 feet in width, a developer could demolish seven existing residential structures and construct a five-story building with a total square footage of approximately 157,500 square feet [that is, 225’ x 140’ x 5 = 157,500 sq. ft.].

To help grasp the scale of a 157,500-square-foot building, JP Bullfeathers has a total square footage of 6,441 square feet. Mr. Goodbar’s two-story structure totals 6,930 square feet. And, heading south several blocks on Elmwood Avenue, the Lexington Co-op supermarket totals a paltry 8,880 square feet.

But it is not only the scale of the structures that allowed under the draft Green Code that threatens the character of the Elmwood Village. It is also the diversity of uses that would be allowed under the Uniform development Ordinance.

Although I have met many a suburbanite who thinks of the Elmwood Village as “downtown,” it is my assumption that few, if any, Elmwood Village residents consider their neighborhood “downtown.” Despite that fact, under the proposed code, there would be virtually no distinction between the uses allowed in the “Downtown/Regional Hub” zone, and those permitted in the current designation for much of Elmwood Avenue, the “Mixed-Use Center” zone. With the exception of a correctional facility, college or university, halfway house, and emergency shelter, all of the 53 principal uses allowed in downtown Buffalo are permitted either as-of-right or with a special use permit in the “N-2C Mixed-Use Center” zone.

For all of these reasons, I believe the proposed Buffalo Green Code will be a disaster for anyone who values the character and historic fabric of the Elmwood Village. But don’t just take my word—after all, my detractors describe me as “anti-development” and an “obstructionist.” Consider what Rocco Termini, the prominent Buffalo developer, wrote in the Buffalo News “Another Voice” column on March 4, 2006, under the headline, “Proposed hotel doesn’t fit area’s urban fabric.” In response to a proposed four-story, 40,000-square-foot hotel/retail project slated for the southeast corner of Elmwood and Forest avenues, the recent recipient of Leadership Buffalo’s “Community Impact Award” expressed the following:

The controversy surrounding the construction of a hotel on the corner of Elmwood and Forest avenues is not about size; it’s about destroying the urban streetscape that has made Elmwood a successful pedestrian-friendly shopping area.

People come to Elmwood to walk around and visit all the quirky, offbeat shops...We, as a community, cannot lose the uniqueness of the Elmwood strip.

The supporters of the development suggest that the six buildings need to be demolished because they have been neglected by the owner over the last decade. As a policy, do we want to reward bad owners by allowing them to sell their property to eager developers?

We need to change the direction of the development community and do not just things that are easy, but what is right for the community. This is an opportunity to be proud of what we do.

The draft Buffalo Green Code, as currently written, would provide developers a virtual “Green Light” to unravel the historic fabric of the Elmwood Village. [By the way, I thank my friend Sandra Girage for providing the answer to the question that has been haunting me for years: What exactly does “green” stand for in the name “Buffalo Green Code”?] Unless the residents and friends of the Elmwood Village stand up and loudly demand a major change in the proposed code, the road ahead will be a rough one for this historic neighborhood.

- Art Giacalone, East Aurora

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