The City of Buffalo’s landscape is changing faster than anyone might have imagined just a few short years ago, despite the city’s frustrating and antiquated zoning rules. Now, with the release of a draft of new regulations known as the Green Code, the city is streamlining the process of approving building permits to make it simpler and more predictable for homeowners, developers, investors and small-business owners.
As Mayor Byron W. Brown said, it is this new zoning code that will help shape and drive development in Buffalo for the next 20 to 25 years.
The mayor announced the launch of the Buffalo Green Code project in 2010. Buffalo last updated its zoning code in 1953. The long wait for a new code should be over soon – the final document is expected to go to the Council in July, with approval expected by the end of the year.
It replaces a mostly suburban zoning and land use model with modern urban standards and promises to move Buffalo into the forefront of progressive, 21st century cities emphasizing accessible neighborhoods, environmental sustainability, mixed-use development and mass transit.
The code’s transparent building standards make it easier for developers to work with it and the streamlined approval process consolidates everything into a single document to expedite projects through City Hall.
What is even more exciting is that Buffalo would join Denver, Miami and Cincinnati as the only cities with codes that prioritize neighborhood character over separation of uses.
The new code would, for instance, eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements. It calls for commercial buildings to be built up to the street, with parking hidden to the side or rear, and with plenty of windows at ground level to attract pedestrians.
Colin Scarff, a principal of Austin-based Code Studio, which worked with lead firm Camiros to develop the revised code, said he thinks this could be one of the most effective codes written in the country.
That will stand in stark contrast to what had become the norm in recent years. For developers, working with the city’s code has been a process chock full of confusion, conflict and delay. Now that is about to change.
Led by Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, the Green Code not only marks the first comprehensive revamping of the city codes since 1953, but the first substantial changes to land use planning since 1977.
Officials have tried to create a new zoning code that incorporates the views, ideas, thoughts and input of just about everyone. There has been outreach in every Common Council district, along with the business, African-American and Latino, immigrant, refugee and disabled communities. At this point there have been almost 5,000 comments, which also involve social media – Facebook, Twitter and a website.
If that’s not enough, a Citizen Advisory Committee of 60 people who helped create the extensive outreach will continue its role in upcoming meetings where the public will sit at the table. The city’s proposed code is expected to be celebrated during the Congress for the New Urbanisim’s national conference in Buffalo in early June.
The Green Code lacks the glamor of a new skyscraper, and the Brown administration deserves high praise for seeing it through. The effort is rewriting Buffalo’s development DNA to, as the mayor says, build a city that is healthier, wealthier and more beautiful for present and future generations.