Open letter to Buffalo’s Zoning Board of Appeals:
On March 18th you will be conducting a new public hearing (and, if I’m remembering correctly, your 5th meeting) regarding “The Lawrence” – the 133-unit, 4-to-5-story apartment complex proposed by Timothy LeBoeuf and Symphony Property Management. If approved, the facility would straddle Michigan Avenue and Maple Street, and constitute a significant encroachment into the traditional Fruit Belt neighborhood.
Anyone getting their information about this project solely from the Buffalo News might feel sympathy for the poor developer. After all, according to business reporter Jonathan D. Epstein, LeBoeuf has revised the project a number of times “in response to community feedback,” but just can’t make the opposition go away. But this one-sided perspective can’t hide the facts: The original proposal was so monstrously out-of-scale and character with the Maple Street side of the project that repeated tweaking of the dimensions, setbacks, and façade still leaves a proposed development grossly out of character with the adjoining Fruit Belt neighborhood, and out of compliance with the standards set forth in the Unified Development Ordinance (a/k/a “Buffalo Green Code”).
As you approach the March 18, 2020 public hearing, please keep the following comments in mind:
- Your primary obligation as Buffalo’s zoning board is to protect our city’s neighborhoods and the integrity of our zoning laws. In the words of our state’s highest court, a zoning board of appeals “is entrusted with safeguarding the character of the neighborhood in accordance with the zoning laws.” You are responsible, not for bailing out land speculators or misguided developers overly eager to profit off of land near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, but for preserving the character of the Fruit Belt neighborhood.
- The important issue is not the number of times the developer has altered its plans for “The Lawrence,” but the extent to which the current proposal remains jarringly out-of-compliance with the UDO/Green Code requirements (in particular, with Maple Street’s “N-2R” residential zoning status).
- And the standard to apply is not the developer’s manufactured and amorphous measuring stick – “more in line with the spirit” of the Green Code. The standard to be applied should be the lot width, density, yard requirements, and height limitations established by the Common Council for this residential district.
- The developer’s proverbial “lipstick-on-a-pig” masquerade will not fool the neighborhood residents. They will know and feel the palpable difference between what the zoning law calls for – several three-story residential structures separated by side yards and green space – and a single, four-story building, 254-feet wide, with two recessed sections, consuming what had been nine Maple Street parcels.
- Our state’s highest court has acknowledged multiple times that lot size and the architectural style of nearby homes are relevant factors when considering impacts on the character of a neighborhood. The Maple Street neighborhood consists almost exclusively of century-old, one- and two-family homes (with a smattering of 3-unit newer builds). None of these houses exceeds two stories in height. These traditional residences average less than 1,900 square feet in area, and sit on lots averaging 37 feet in width. In stark contrast, Mr. LeBoeuf’s development company, unconcerned that the Maple Street side of “The Lawrence” would dominate – but not invite in – its Fruit Belt neighbors, would shoehorn its proposed apartment complex into what had been 15 parcels of land.
- As you know, one of the five mandatory “balancing test” criteria you must consider when deciding whether to approve or deny area variances is whether the requested variance is “substantial.” In 2002, while affirming a zoning board’s denial of two lot size and lot width variances, our state’s highest court made the following declaration: “The area variances – of at least 60% – are undisputably substantial.”
- Given that 60% variances are characterized by our state’s highest court as “undisputably substantial,” how do you plan to describe – and what be the detriment to the neighborhood’s existing character – of the following requested variances for the Maple Street portion of “The Lawrence” proposal:
– A 205% variance from N-2R’s maximum-density-allowed standard (the proposed 64 units per acre vs. the 21 units per acre allowed under the Green Code)?
– A 333% variance from N-2R’s maximum-lot-width requirement (the proposed 260-foot wide lot, rather than the 60’ lot width allowed under Buffalo’s zoning law)? And,
– A 767% variance from N-2R’s minimum-total-side-yard requirement (a mere 6’ total of side yards – 3’ at each end – rather than 52-foot total required by the Green Code)?
- Please remember, as you perform your “balancing test” (measuring the benefit to the developer against the detriment to the neighborhood) that the “benefit” Mr. LeBoeuf is seeking from you is protection from a self-created difficulty: In 2017, Symphony Development, as speculators, bought just over an acre of land near the Medical Campus, spending approximately $1.7 million dollars for 15 parcels which were assessed at that time at around $4,000 apiece. They knew, or should have known, the limitations for the property established under the Green Code. Now, they are desperate and whining, insisting that they need this out-of-scale and out-of-character apartment complex in order to make what they consider an appropriate profit.
- By saying “Yes” to this developer, you will be incentivizing even more speculation and displacement throughout the Fruit Belt. Your duty is to protect the neighborhood, not bail out the developer.
I trust that you will do the right thing, acknowledge your obligation to safeguard the character of the Fruit Belt neighborhood, and deny the Maple Street variances.
With All Due Respect,