City planning officials are taking their proposed new zoning Green Code on the road again this week, presenting it to businesses, property owners, developers and others, in at least three different meetings, in advance of releasing it to the public for comment next month.
At a forum Wednesday at the Buffalo Place offices, senior city planner John M. Fell and a consultant hired by the city laid out specifics of the first major revision to Buffalo’s zoning code in over 60 years.
Similar meetings were being planned for Wednesday evening and this morning, with participants specifically invited to participate. After their comments are incorporated into the working version, a public draft will be released in late January. Already, more than 3,000 people have been involved in the process.
“It’s critical that we get the development community, the people who build the buildings, in on this,” said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning.
The proposed new code, which the Common Council will consider for adoption in March, is intended to bring a modern approach to zoning and economic development by encouraging and reinforcing mixed-use and walkable communities throughout the city. It’s part of a larger project initiated by Mayor Byron W. Brown in 2010 that also includes the first citywide land-use plan in 30 years. A six-month grace period will follow adoption of the code.
“You’re going to find this code a lot more liberal than your current code,” Leslie S. Pollock, principal consultant at Camiros, the Chicago-based consulting firm that is working with the city, told participants at the Buffalo Place forum. “You’ll find the flexibilities in this code will work to your benefit.”
But the plan’s Achilles’ heel may be the subject of parking, which is already controversial in Buffalo because of stark differences of opinion on its pricing and availability in the city.
The new code does not currently allow new freestanding parking structures or lots in the downtown core, but encourages parking to be linked to other developments, such as retail or office buildings. Critics said that could reduce opportunities for shared parking and instead create too many private lots that aren’t fully used.
Planners acknowledged there could be problems. “We realize that’s an issue, and we will be addressing that,” Fell said. “That’s why we’re doing these working groups.”
More than two and a half years in the making, the code sets new rules on the “form, use and character of development in Buffalo” and “combines zoning, subdivision and public realm standards” into one easy-to-use document, according to a two-page summary sheet.
The code contains about 13 articles, dealing with variations between different neighborhood or district zones in the city and the types of buildings permitted in each zone. It also covers specific overall requirements for landscaping, building frontage, fences and walls, parking, signs, outdoor lighting, public safety, thoroughfares, and access for vehicles, bikes and pedestrians. Storm water management is included. And it addresses administration of the code, enforcement of the rules and the process for appeals.
Section 4 alone, which deals with the Neighborhood Zones and was the focus of Wednesday’s gathering, is 68 pages. “It’s hard to be brief about zoning,” Pollock joked.
Moreover, the code – known as a Unified Development Ordinance – deals not only with private development but also public investment into signs, parks and highways.
But state and federal developments are exempt, since their authority supersedes the city. “The usual policy is to plead,” Pollock said. “The federal government can do what it wants.”
Perhaps most importantly, the planners said the code needs to be a “living document” that can be amended when appropriate, instead of just granting variances. “We’ve passed out variances like Halloween candy in the past 50 years, so we’ll have to change the culture,” said Chris Hawley, a city urban planner.