– HISTORIC FABRIC OF ELMWOOD VILLAGE THREATENED BY DRAFT CODE –
A recent editorial in the Buffalo News praises the proposed “Buffalo Green Code.” Reading more like a press release than a thoughtful opinion piece, the newspaper’s editorial staff proclaims that 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.”
The editorial reflects what Mayor Brown, out-of-town consultants and City Hall staff have been telling city residents for years: a neighborhood’s “historic fabric” – that is, building form and design, lot sizes, parks and streets – will provide “the foundation for future growth” and play an important factor in determining a neighborhood’s future. In fact, 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.”
Nice words. But residents and others who appreciate the unique character of the Elmwood Village should not take too much comfort in them. A close reading of the current draft of the “Uniform Development Ordinance” [the formal name for the Buffalo Green Code] reveals that the Brown Administration’s plans, if not drastically changed, will be disastrous for this attractive and livable community 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 City’s past role in nurturing 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 is awkwardly called 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 can be seen by taking a close look at the current makeup of the two blocks of Elmwood Avenue extending from Potomac Ave. to Forest Ave.
There are approximately 30 buildings on Elmwood between Potomac and Bird. Not one of these buildings exceeds 2 1/2 stories in height. Two dozen or eighty percent of these structures were built a century ago as detached residential buildings. They are all separated from the public right-of-way by front lawns. Here are three examples:
Five of the remaining buildings were constructed for retail use on the first floor, with apartments or offices on the second. A small one-story retail structure was built in the 1960s.
The “form” [to borrow a term from the Green Code] of the buildings on the northernmost Elmwood Village block, running from Bird Avenue to Forest Avenue, is similar to the Potomac-to-Bird block. All of the buildings have fewer than three stories. Only seven of the approximately 30 structures were built for non-residential purposes, and one of those is a house of worship.
Each of the remaining buildings was constructed for residential use, and has a substantial setback from the public sidewalk and street. They include one-family, two-family, and three-family residences, as well as two eight-unit apartment houses.
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. There is an exception: residential units may be located on the second floor or higher in 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.” Article 3 – Neighborhood Zones – of the proposed code provides this illustration of a 3-story version of the “commercial block” form:
A number of existing structures on Elmwood Avenue between Potomac and Forest fit the definition of a “commercial block,” including, for example, the “Poster Art” building on the southeast corner of Elmwood & Bird, and Mr. Goodbar (pictured above). But each of these long-standing Elmwood Village fixtures is only two-stories in height, and complements the scale of the neighborhood’s residential structures.
In sharp contrast, the draft Green Code removes the existing zoning limitations on the intensity and scale of commercial building. Currently, the maximum building height is three stories. Of equal or greater significance, the existing zoning ordinance limits the size of a business outlet to 2,500 square feet on any one floor, and 5,000 square feet total in any one building. The local business community has been fighting for years – with the assistance of the Elmwood Village Association – to eliminate the square-footage restrictions. The proposed ordinance grants their wish and, in doing so, jeopardizes the appreciable balance that now exists between residential and commercial uses in the Elmwood Village.
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 the parcel adjoins existing residences. 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.
If the Common Council were to enact the Green Code as presently proposed, a building in excess of 150,000-square-feet could be construct in the Elmwood Village AS OF RIGHT – that is, without the need for a zoning amendment or variance.
For example: The lots on the east side of Elmwood Ave. between Bird and Forest are 140-feet deep. Under the draft Green Code, a “commercial block” building is allowed to be five-stories in height, situated on a parcel as wide as 225 feet, and cover up to 100% of the lot. The proposed ordinance also eliminates ALL minimum off-street parking requirements for commercial buildings. With these rules in place, a building could be 225 feet wide, 140 feet deep, and five stories high. That translates to 157,500 square feet of commercial space [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 a few blocks on Elmwood Avenue, the Lexington Co-op supermarket totals 8,880 square feet. In other words, the hypothetical commercial block building described above would be MORE THAN 17 TIMES LARGER THAN THE LEXINGTON-COOP BUILDING.
Allowing such mammoth structures on Elmwood Avenue would obliterate the “balance between residential and non- residential use both in terms of density, concentration and scale” that Rochester’s former zoning director, Art Ientilucci, perceives as an essential aspect of the Elmwood Village’s character.
And it is not only the scale of the structures allowed under the draft Green Code that threatens the fabric of the Elmwood Village. It is also the diversity of uses that would be allowed under the Uniform Development Ordinance (in what appears to be a concerted effort by the proposed code’s authors to expand the traditional “downtown” area outwards).
While many a suburbanite may think of the Elmwood Village as “downtown Buffalo,” few, if any, Elmwood Village residents would accept that characterization. Nonetheless, under the draft code, not only would density on Elmwood Avenue be substantially increased, there would be little distinction between the uses allowed in the “N-1D Downtown/Regional Hub” zone, and those permitted in the “N-2C Mixed-Use Center” zone, the proposed designation for much of Elmwood Avenue. 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 would be permitted in the N-2C zone either as-of-right or with a special use permit. That includes hotels, government offices, indoor amusement facilities (undefined), and dormitories (without the current limitation of being located within ½ mile of the institution it would serve). [The May 2014 draft Green Code lists the “principal uses” for each of the 23 zones and districts at page 1 and page 2 of “TABLE 6A”.]
For all of these reasons, the proposed Buffalo Green Code will be a disaster for residents and visitors who value the character and historic fabric of the Elmwood Village. But don’t rely solely on the word of a semi-retired land use and environmental lawyer who is often referred to by his detractors as “anti-development” and an “obstructionist.” Also consider what Rocco Termini, the prominent Buffalo developer, wrote in a March 4, 2006 op-ed piece in the Buffalo News entitled, “Proposed hotel doesn’t fit area’s urban fabric.” Responding to a planned four-story, 40,000-square-foot hotel/retail project slated for the southeast corner of Elmwood and Forest, Mr. Termini, 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. Your written comments on the draft Green Code should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or sent by the U.S.P.S. to: Attn: Buffalo Green Code, Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, 920 City Hall, Buffalo NY 14202.
With All Due Respect,
P.S. A version of this posting was published in the May 22, 2014 edition of the ArtVoice Weekly at http://artvoice.com/issues/v13n21/letters_to_artvoice.