Whether it’s motivated by a fondness for the young urban planners who have spent the majority of their professional lives working on the City’s Unified Development Ordinance, or political correctness, or a laser-like focus on only the issues they care most about, some of the Buffalonians I hold in the highest esteem preface any criticism of the proposed Green Code with the phrase, “The Green Code is 95% great, but…” I can’t help wondering: Really?
Please understand, I appreciate that there are general concepts in the Mayor’s proposed Unified Development Ordinance [UDO] that are attractive to most thinking Buffalonians – a walkable city, traffic calming measures, bicycle access and facilities, tree conservation, etc. To a great extent, these broader concepts focus on the public domain, providing guidance to city officials when they consider significant changes to Buffalo’s streetscapes and public property.
But these attractive principles are merely the frosting on an otherwise indigestible cake. The heart and soul of land use and zoning regulations – the issues that impact residents in their day-to-day lives – are the provisions addressing how private actors utilize private property, and how those uses impact the surrounding neighborhoods and community. As a resident and taxpayer, I believe that the function of a city is to preserve and enhance the quality of life of its residents, and that the role of commercial activities is to service the needs of residents (and, not vice versa). Zoning and land use law should empower residents to protect the peaceful enjoyment of their homes and neighborhoods, either directly through the public hearing process, or indirectly through their elected officials.
Unfortunately, the primary purpose of the proposed Green Code is not – and never has been – to enhance the ability of residents to control the character of their neighborhoods. To the contrary, the major function of the Green Code has been, from its inception, to make it easier for developers and commercial interests to do precisely what they want to do without any meaningful interference from either nearby residents and property owners, or from Common Council members wishing to serve their constituents. As Council President Pridgen enthusiastically proclaimed at the unveiling of the latest version of the Green Code last October: The green in Green Code stands for a “green light” for developers! You bet.
If not substantially amended by the Common Council, the proposed UDO (prepared by Mayor Byron Brown’s Office of Strategic Planning) will accomplish the pro-development goal of its authors, at the expense of the City’s residents and, ironically, the power of the Common Council members. As stated at page 39 of the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement [DGEIS]: “…[T]he UDO would significantly increase the amount of land available for as-of-right development.” In other words, under the Green Code as proposed, developers will be in a much stronger position to build what they want to build, where they want to build it, without the ability of residents – or the Common Council – to stop them.
The proposed UDO allows developers and commercial interests – not City residents and their elected Common Council members – to decide where new construction will occur by increasing not only the amount of land “available for as-of-right development,” but by greatly increasing the density of the projects permitted as-of-right. And here’s how: Although the UDO describes “a projected goal of approximately 30,000 new residents over a 20-year period,” [see DGEIS, p. 116], a “full build-out” of as-of-right projects under the UDO would create 156,979 additional residential units – which translates to over 300,000 new residents, ten times the targeted increase of 30,000 new Buffalonians. [See DGEIS page 39-40]
Given the fact that even the target population figure is unlikely (given the Queen City’s historical trend), developers will be able to cherry-pick the parcels and neighborhoods they consider most profitable (for example, Elmwood Village and adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus) and build over-sized structures out-of-character with the adjoining community, while the vast majority of the city’s neighborhoods see little, if any, new development.
So, I humbly ask anyone who thinks or is tempted to say that the proposed Green Code is “95% great” – especially my friends and allies – to reflect on the accuracy of such a claim. And, additionally, to ponder these questions and comments, presented in no particular order:
Number One. Have the authors of the Green Code ever explained why the UDO places emphasis on “building types” or “forms” as opposed to zoning’s traditional emphasis on “uses”? What are the benefits – to the existing residents of the City of Buffalo – of placing form over function, especially when, all too often, the allowed forms are much larger and denser than what currently exists in the surrounding neighborhood?
Number Two. Do the current residents of the City of Buffalo (not some hypothetical new wave of individuals rushing to embrace what our community has to offer) believe that their quality of life would be enhanced by the introduction of higher density, vertical development in their neighborhoods?
Number Three. Can we honestly say that the proposed Green Code reflects “public consensus” when the vast majority of information meetings and workshops conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning did not provide City residents (or, individual Common Council members) with detailed information on how the proposed new development ordinance would impact their own neighborhood, much less the block where they live?
Number Four. Isn’t it troubling that, after years of study and analysis, the Office of Strategic Planning has provided the Common Council and public with a DGEIS that fails to provide the assessment and information needed to determine which neighborhoods would experience a substantial change in character under the proposed UDO, or to measure the adverse impacts of such change? Are they hiding something from us? Are we really supposed to be satisfied with the statement, as expressed at page 74 of the DGEIS, “The land use maps and zoning analysis discussed … above, demonstrate that the BCDF will not radically change the community character in most areas of the City”?
Number Five. Is there a reason that Outer Harbor advocates, shocked by a proposed UDO and LWRP that place a “N-3E (Mixed-Use Edge)” district within a few hundred feet of Times Beach, or a land use plan that allows supposed “green space” to be covered by as much as 25% impervious surfaces (buildings and pavement), shouldn’t be suspicious of what lurks in the details of other parts of the proposed Green Code? Here’s but one example: Is it “great” for Buffalo’s residents that as currently proposed, a “Residential Campus” district (such as the low-income McCarley Gardens development adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and UB’s education campus) allows “by right” government offices, cultural facilities, and dormitories, and, by special use permit, professional offices, taverns, and restaurants? Do we want a zoning code that helps protect less affluent residents, or provides an incentive for private developers or powerful public institutions to displace the residents of a well-functioning residential campus?
Number Six. Is there a reason that historic preservation advocates, rightfully concerned that the proposed Green Code fails to protect the City’s most significant historic resources (despite claiming to be based on the existing historic fabric of Buffalo’s neighborhoods), shouldn’t also wonder what the impact of “neighborhood shops” will be on the residents of this City’s aging-but-cherished neighborhoods? Does it truly enhance a city’s walkability and quality of life to allow a tavern, resident, or retail shop in the middle of a residential block for the sole reason that the structure was built prior to 1953 and once had a non-residential occupant on its first floor?
Thank you for your consideration of these comments.
With All Due Respect,