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Where the Buffalo Zone

eye on the news

Where the Buffalo Zone

An innovative zoning code overhaul could help revive the western New York city and is already inspiring copycats. January 5, 2017
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets

Two days after Christmas, the city council in Buffalo, New York, capped off a six-year reform effort by approving the Buffalo Green Code, the city’s first total zoning update in more than six decades and the first new land-use plan since the 1970s. Like many cities of the industrial Midwest and Northeast, Buffalo faces numerous challenges, many of which are outside the core mission of local government or are the kinds of things that mayors can’t actually do much about. One thing cities like Buffalo can do is put good local regulations in place, particularly when it comes to zoning. Unlike globalization, which localities can’t control, bad zoning is a self-inflicted wound.

Calling Buffalo’s zoning overhaul the Green Code suggests an environmental emphasis, and, in fact, the new rules contain plenty to please the environmentally minded urbanist. Zoning traditionally focuses on how a site will be used. Planners like to keep residential, commercial, and industrial neighborhoods separate from one another. The Green Code is a so-called “form-based code,” encouraging mixed uses. Buffalo will be only the third major city in the U.S. to adopt a citywide form-based code. The goal is to encourage development of buildings in a more traditional, Main Street style.

As an older city, Buffalo is already built like this in many areas. But past zoning choices have had lingering negative consequences. “Sixty years ago planners sought to replace the city with a suburban auto-dominated (dominated, not oriented) model,” says Brendan Mehaffey, Buffalo’s executive director of strategic planning. “Most of the city as built was non-conforming with the existing development. Through urban renewal and other programs, planners sought to replace the city’s built environment block-by-block.” 

Buffalo’s new zoning code rejects that mid-century policy in favor of urban infill that matches historic development. The Green Code hopes to promote walkability through street design. The new land-use plan also reflects the realities of deindustrialization and the preferences of today’s residents. As Mehaffey says, “Instead of imagining our waterfront for the production of steel, today we imagine it as a unique environmental resource that adds to the quality of life of residents.” The Green Code is notable for being dramatically simpler than the old code. According to the Buffalo News, the previous code ran 1,802 pages. The new code is only 338 pages—an 80 percent reduction.

The Green Code jettisons a traditional element of zoning: mandates for large amounts of parking. Buffalo has become the first major city to eliminate citywide parking minimums. For developments requiring a parking review, officials will take into account public transit and other means of access when determining exactly how many parking spaces are really needed. The code explicitly allows solar panels, urban agriculture, and other urban lifestyle choices that are popular now but weren’t on planners minds back in the 1950s. Buffalo’s shop owners will appreciate that the Green Code simplifies the city’s restrictive signage regulations.

The code appears to be not only something environmentalists will like, but also a step in a pro-market, pro-development direction. For some, this is cause for opposition. “The Green Code was meant to make life easier for developers,” one unhappy resident told the Buffalo News. A simpler code provides fewer opportunities for people to derail projects they don’t like.

The Green Code has cleared a major hurdle just by being passed. Now, it has to survive contact with reality and prove itself in practice. Buffalo zoning officials need to manage the transition from old code to new with care. Public uproar over high-profile problems in the early days is one danger; the inevitable accumulation of amendments and updates to the code is another. Some are already pushing to include a so-called inclusionary zoning provision. In a city with a vacant-housing problem, inclusionary zoning doesn’t have an obvious rationale.

Zoning is political kryptonite, so cities are loath to take it on. Buffalo has done something rare—and it’s being noticed. Somerville, Massachusetts, near Boston, has already used the Green Code as a model for its own zoning rewrite. Much of the credit belongs to Mayor Byron Brown, who stayed the course through a painstaking process that took six years and included 242 public meetings. This new code, once firmly established, will shape Buffalo for years and potentially decades to come.

Aaron M. Renn (@urbanophile) is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Photo by visitbuffaloniagara.com

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