The last time Buffalo’s zoning codes were modified – in the 1950s – the delineation of neighborhoods was clearly and specifically defined. It was “residential here, manufacturing there, commercial over there” with the idea that never shall they meet. It was a process that served the city well for the time. But as the face of Buffalo changed and city planners looked to the 21st century, it was clear the outdated zoning codes needed to be revisited.
A 20-year comprehensive “Queen City in the 21st Century” plan aimed to use Smart Growth strategies to reinvigorate the city was created by the Office of Strategic Planning in 2006. Through its four fundamental principles – fix the basics; build on assets; implement smart growth; and embrace sustainability – the multifaceted plan would guide and sustain the city well into the future. The plan stresses the importance of adopting a form-based land use and zoning code that will encourage reinvestment and reinforce traditional city neighborhoods that are walkable and mixed-use in nature.
Redefining how the City of Buffalo uses its land for future growth
The Buffalo Green Code Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is a development strategy that builds on the award-winning Queen City in the 21st Century plan by translating its principles into a Land Use Plan aimed to guide the city’s physical development over the next 20 years.
The Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning oversaw development of the Green Code, with a Citizen’s Advisory Committee appointed by Mayor Byron Brown to assist with public participation and a Technical Advisory Committee to provide input on technical issues. A consultant team also assisted in preparation of the Green Code. The effort was a deliberate community-driven process designed to accurately reflect the value of its residents, resulting in a UDO that was unanimously approved by the Common Council and including more than 100 suggestions from the public from 20 public meetings, two public hearings, and hundreds of submitted written comments. It became effective citywide in April 2017.
“The idea behind the Green Code is to redefine how the city uses its land to encourage growth and sustainability,” says Nadine Marrero, AICP, Director of Planning in the City’s Office of Strategic Planning. “The old code was an outdated, unequal mishmash that didn’t keep up with the times. Mayor Brown and the Office of Strategic Planning wanted to ensure we updated regulations to reinforce mixed-use neighborhoods, with a focus on design and how citizens use their neighborhoods.”
So, what does this all mean for entrepreneurs who wish to invest in the city?
The Green Code allows for more mixed-used neighborhoods that provide opportunities for small entrepreneurs to be in commercial or even residential areas. It is a more transparent, uniformed process with greater clarity and predictability that will provide for more adaptive use of structures and present more opportunity for those wishing to do business in the City of Buffalo.
“Say, for example, someone wants to open a coffee roaster within the city,” says Marrero. “How do you go about it? What area do you choose? The UDO now clearly defines the best areas for specific businesses and what the approval process will look like. It also virtually eliminates the need to have an attorney interpret the process, thereby saving time and money.
“With the new Green Code, entrepreneurs can now get a lot more creative in their ideas for reuse,” Marrero continued. “Because now it’s easier to turn an old church listed on the National Register into, say, an arts gallery. As regulators, we are trying to allow for more of this, both to prevent buildings and neighborhoods from deteriorating and to allow for more income sources for building owners as we recreate neighborhoods. We want entrepreneurs to come up with creative, innovative ideas that serve their needs and goals, but still allow us to address the needs and desires of the community. The Green Code will help tremendously with that.”
From the entrepreneurs’ point of view
Mike Anderson, AIA, LEED, AP, and principal at Abstract Architecture, PC, was already very much interested in the concept of smart design and adaptive reuse when the call came for citizens to get involved in the development of the Green Code. He was a board member of the Elmwood Village Association and a city resident whose business is focused on redevelopment within city limits.
“I’ve done projects in the city for years,” says Anderson. “The old code was pretty standard, but the city was quickly moving past it. It was time to update.” He believes the Green Code is much more progressive and will allow for many positive changes by making it much easier to do smart development and growth. “Buffalo is changing rapidly from a suburban-centric focus back to a city-centric focus and embracing all those things a good, vibrant city needs to continue that growth. The Green Code will be an asset toward that goal, for the city, its businesses, and residents.”
Anderson is in the process of renovating his building on Broadway in the city of Buffalo, and so is experiencing the Green Code firsthand. So far, he’s found it to be faster and easier to navigate. “This project would have still been possible under the old code, but it would have been a lot more cumbersome, time consuming, and probably more expensive.”
Chris Siano agrees that the new Green Code has helped streamline the process for entrepreneurs. The UB-educated architect and his attorney brother, Matt, have been investing in the city for years, both with new builds and renovations primarily on Buffalo’s West Side, through their company, HES Properties. “The Green Code is much more well-written and easier to understand, with more explicit examples that make the process proceed more quickly and with fewer delays,” says Siano. “Clearly, the city is trying to do everything possible to help and encourage people like my brother and me do business in the city. And it’s working.”
Siano says that under the old code, his recent project on Grant Street (the Siano Building at 363 Grant St.) would have been limited to a one-story commercial building with six apartments. The Green Code, however, allowed him and his brother to build more densely on the lot, with 11 apartments and retail space in a brand-new, three-story, 12,600-square-foot building, which made it more financially feasible for them. “I firmly believe this will lead to a better-built, more sustainable environment that will be good for business in Buffalo,” says Siano.
Getting the word out to those who can benefit
Jonathon Ling is a Business Development Officer with PathStone, a nonprofit community development and human services organization that provides small business loans. He, too, agrees the Green Code will provide opportunities for those wishing to make money and regenerate neighborhoods.
“We need more businesses in concentrated areas to create vibrant neighborhoods, and there are plenty of opportunities for that in the city of Buffalo,” says Ling. “Buffalonians need to be aware of the Green Code and how it can help them create income and cash flow through mixed use development. I think this is great for Buffalo!”
For more information on Buffalo’s Green Code, visit www.buffalogreencode.com.