Buffalo 'Green Code' to Replace City's 60-Year-Old UDO

City Starts from Scratch to Completely Replace Unified Code

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Chris Hawley is a city planner in the mayor’s office of strategic planning in Buffalo, N.Y.

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Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 4:00 pm

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Two years in the making, Buffalo’s new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) – dubbed the Buffalo Green Code – is about to be unveiled.

In a bold and daunting initiative, the city decided in 2010 to completely scrap its 60-year-old development code and rebuild it from the ground up, using a New Urbanism model steeped in smart-growth development principles, green infrastructure, clean energy and sustainability best practices.

Working with consulting company Camiros, Ltd., urban design company Goody Clancy and more than 5,000 citizens over the past two years, the city has refined the draft ordinance that officials hope to adopt by the end of the year.

Chris Hawley, a city planner in Mayor Byron Brown’s Office of Strategic Planning, said Buffalo’s existing code, adopted in 1953 at the onset of the “urban renewal” craze, has become grossly outdated as the city’s goals and objectives have changed over the years.

Hawley gave a presentation on the Green Code project at the Building Energy 13 conference hosted by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) recently in Boston.

While big-box stores on huge lots without pedestrian access are perfectly legal in Buffalo, and even encouraged under existing code, Hawley said sidewalk dining at neighborhood restaurants is technically against the law, requiring a zoning variance to allow what most people find desirable in today’s urban landscape.

So, on Earth Day of 2010, Mayor Brown announced the launch of the Buffalo Green Code project, an ambitious plan to completely scrap and re-write the city’s land use plan and UDO.

Although not as densely populated as it was prior to urban renewal, Buffalo still has 6,400 people per square mile, which Hawley pointed out is denser than Portland, Ore. It also has about the same transit and walk-to-work rates as Portland – 13 and 6 percent, respectively. With a population of 261,000, Buffalo is the smallest city in the nation with a metro rail system, and as a result, 30 percent of its population is car-free, Hawley said.

“In Buffalo, it’s possible to live without a car. I might be a living example of that, because I’ve never learned how to drive one,” he said.

In 2006, a special task force developed Buffalo’s comprehensive plan. But, in it the authors of the plan said, “Without a companion zoning ordinance the comprehensive plan will lack the enforceability that will make it credible and achievable.” That spurred leaders to begin laying the foundation for the Green Code project, which Hawley said will use the New Urbanism model of mixed-use neighborhoods surrounded by districts such as college campuses and industrial parks, and the transportation corridors that connect them.

“Walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods is the foundation,” Hawley said. “Sprawl is, in fact, the legally required outcome under our current zoning code, and under the new code, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods will be the default development option,” he said.

Developing the new code is a daunting task for a city with a relatively small planning staff. “It’s my project,” Hawley said. “It’s what I work on all day, all night and all weekend.”

The LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system has been a guide for the project, Hawley said, and more than 5,000 Buffalo citizens have provided input over the past two years.

“We’re trying to move toward a much more predictable and certain development process where both investors and neighborhood residents know what’s required, making the process easier. The document will be a visual instruction manual for how to build our city, so requirements will be depicted not just through text, but through helpful diagrams, tables, and illustrations.”

Hawley said the new code will be much shorter and easier to understand than the 1,500-page document it will replace. He said the new code will “legalize” many of Buffalo’s historic buildings and neighborhood developments that were written out of the code in 1953.

“We want a return of the corner tavern and the corner store, which is a staple of Buffalo… and we want to be able to adaptively reuse some of our historic resources with an adaptive reuse permit that allows a wider variety of uses for buildings that are landmarked or on the National Registry of Historic Places,” he said.

Open-air markets, artisan industrial uses, roof-top solar and residential wind turbines will all be allowable under the new code.

He said the new ordinance will accommodate garden-style residential landscaping rather than restricting yards to traditional turf, and it will protect some of the city’s legacy trees. The code will provide direction on rain gardens and wetlands as well as a “dark sky” ordinance that aims to reduce “light pollution” from buildings and parking lots.

One of the controversial aspects of the new code is a proposal to eliminate all minimum parking requirements. If approved, Buffalo will be one of the first large cities in the country to do so.

The Green Code project will fix what Hawley called “the worst sign code in the entire country.”

Under existing code, if you own a restaurant and want to put a small “sandwich-style” chalkboard sign on the sidewalk in front of your business, you must first pay a $75 application fee. Then you need the permission of the commissioner of inspection services and the commissioner of public works. Then you need to post a $5,000 performance bond acceptable to the city controller, holding the city harmless in case somebody trips over the sign. Finally, you need the approval of the common council.

“And then once you go through all that, the permit lasts for 30 days and you have to go through the process all over again,” Hawley said, to a roar of laughter from the audience. “So, removing barriers and making things easier is an import part of what we’re doing.”

The Green Code will incorporate “complete streets” concepts, as well as something Hawley called “complete blocks,” which provide guidance on connectivity between neighborhoods. He showed an aerial view of an “absurd example” in Orlando, Fla., where two property owners who share a rear lot line have to travel seven miles by car to get from one address to the other.

“That is NOT a complete block,” Hawley said. “That’s the state of our country.”

He said complete blocks are “a system of small connected blocks that allow walkable communities to happen. Complete streets are not enough; we need complete blocks.”

“What this whole project is about is deciding what kind of city Buffalo should be,” Hawley said. “That is a question that anyone who’s thinking about their community should ask. What has occurred over the past couple of years is we found that the city we want to be is very much like the Buffalo we already have, only better. So, we’re designing a code that hopefully will make Buffalo healthier, wealthier and more beautiful for future generations.”

For more information on the Buffalo Green Code project, see www.buffalogreencode.com.

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