Long Story Short: Monkeying with the Code
Illustration by JP Thimot
Policy-making 101: rules are for everybody
When I taught in public school, we created plenty of rules and policies of conduct. Too many, I thought, but when you create a rule, I’ve always felt you have to unfailingly enforce it, without bias. At school, not everyone did, and the rules sometimes became a farce, an open joke, breeding resentment among those who sensed that capricious favoritism accounted for the uneven implementation. Kids quickly figured out (often correctly) that certain groups ("jocks," boosters, high achievers) got special treatment, which fostered bitterness and loss of confidence in authority.
You might say something like this is happening with Buffalo’s year-old Green Code. Replacing the city’s archaic zoning regulations with a new-urbanism philosophy took seven grueling years, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of tax-dollars, with input from thousands of community members and experts. When it was voted into law, the code was heralded as a momentous achievement.
A two-tier code
Now though, resentment is growing. While homeowners are routinely denied variances for relatively minor requests such as parking pads, big developers like Carl Paladino, Nick Sinatra, Paul Ciminelli, and Mark Chason (Buffalo’s jocks, boosters, and high achievers) routinely receive multiple variances for projects, often despite community opposition.
The Buffalo renaissance
Buffalo is experiencing a “renaissance.” Everyone says so. But note how the term is often placed in quotation marks, because most of the evidence for the city’s rebirth is a recent construction boom. After decades of stagnation, developers have come to view Buffalo as the land of opportunity, a place where money can be made by knocking down old stuff and replacing it with glitzy new stuff. After such an extended development drought, Buffalo’s Planning Board, Zoning Board, and Common Council appear to welcome any large building proposal like a lemonade stand in the desert. The thinking: this is Buffalo’s moment, and heaven forbid we stand in the way of progress. Putting aside issues of gentrification, selectively targeted development, and the impending housing crisis, many residents hail large construction projects as evidence of a citywide renewal. Resistance to big new development is seen as backward thinking. So, builders appear to be having their way with the city, while ordinary folks are subject to tight regulation.
Hertel vs Elmwood: the media smackdown
I was prompted to ponder Buffalo’s development policies, and the nature of progress, due to an intriguing confluence of recent news stories. An article in Tuesday’s Buffalo News is titled Elmwood grapples with growth, but there’s harmony on Hertel. It’s another story characterizing Hertel Avenue’s current commercial growth as a success story (which it is) while suggesting that the Elmwood Village is on a downslide. This particular article compared the Elmwood Village Association unfavorably to the Hertel Business Association. But the overarching narrative of the media spin goes like this: Hertel is thriving because its community and leadership embrace progress, while Elmwood is floundering because stodgy preservationists and change-adverse residents repeatedly react with knee-jerk disapproval to large-scale development.
The Elmwood Avenue downturn
Business district slumps are cyclical. Recent articles in the New York Post affirm that it’s even happening in Manhattan, and there are myriad reasons. Women and Children's Hospital’s move downtown helped kick-start Elmwood’s current doldrums. At the other end of the avenue, Chason Affinity eliminated seven structures containing affordable housing and small businesses to build a large condo project that’s currently in the hole-in-the-ground stage. And two behemoth development proposals for Elmwood and Bidwell Parkway by Ciminelli Real Estate have been put on ice indefinitely, while more small businesses became shuttered in the process. So, yeah, a downturn. But temporary. Developers like Sinatra & Company Real Estate, Chason, and Ciminelli, which have bought up large chunks of the Elmwood strip, most likely relish the “failing Elmwood” narrative, which boosts their status as economic messiahs.
Another Elmwood proposal meets resistance
Monday, the Buffalo News ran an article titled, First Elmwood Crossing project faces criticism on multiple fronts. It’s about a Buffalo Planning Board review of the first proposal in the redevelopment of the former Women & Children's Hospital site. Some neighbors at the meeting were supportive of the Sinatra & Company plan, which would be built on the current site of a parking lot, attached to MTK restaurant. But critics pointed out that the project requires at least three Green Code variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals, one to double the number of floors allowed. (This may be warranted, considering the size of nearby buildings.) Given its early track record for enforcing the Green Code, expect the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant the variances. And the farce will deepen.
When development goes wrong
The final obliquely related story that piqued my interest last week—Urban Expressway Removal in Buffalo: The Historical Context—appeared in Buffalo Rising. The article reports on a policy brief drafted by the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), on what is widely considered to be one of Buffalo’s greatest historical blunders undertaken in the name of progress. Construction of Route 198, the Scajaquada Expressway, began in the early sixties. The modern highway bisected Delaware Park and obliterated Humboldt Parkway, as acres of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s historic park system were sacrificed to the asphalt gods. Amherst Street was cut off from Buffalo State College. Certain West Side neighborhoods were severed from the park and lake. Access to Main Street was impaired. The once beautiful Humboldt Parkway neighborhood was devastatingly split down the middle and subjected to expressway noise, and light and air pollution. Home values along the entire route dropped, and development from Black Rock to Hamlin Park declined.
It seemed like progress at the time
The clarity of 20/20 hindsight can be dumbfounding. When the 198 was built, Buffalo had started its decline. The city was eager to take advantage of massive Eisenhower-era federal funds earmarked for highway development. The Scajaquada was heralded as progress in the age of the automobile. It happened at a time when there were no pesky preservationist groups to advocate on behalf of Olmsted’s park, or the Humboldt Parkway neighborhood. No one to battle this outsized proposal adversely altering the neighborhoods it annexed. And just like that, in two years, the damage was done. Plans to correct the error began nineteen years ago at the State Department of Transportation (DOT), and are ongoing.
It took just thirty-seven years after the 198 was built for the DOT to begin reversing its error. Almost two decades later all we have to show for it is a contentious speed limit reduction. “Buffalo is still suffering from the transportation choices made over a half century ago,” says the PPG brief.
I can’t help but wonder if urban sociologists of the future will say the same about the Elmwood Village. The Green Code was supposed to stop destructive development from happening, but, one year since it’s gone into effect, there are signs that—like a badly enforced school policy—its good intentions are going awry. Maybe the decision to limit Elmwood Village building heights to three stories was a mistake, one that could be reconciled through a community-based revision process. But gratuitous and uneven variance approval is not the answer.
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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