A conversation about The Green Code
Photos by kc kratt
After seven years and dozens of community meetings, in 2017, the city of Buffalo enacted a new Zoning Code. Known colloquially as the Green Code, and referred to by lawyers and bureaucrats as the UDO (Uniform Development Ordinance) the Code is a comprehensive statute in which its various authors intend to standardize the practices and processes for real estate development. It is, as Joe Biden might put it, a big deal. In order to see how it is working, Spree assembled a panel of experts.
David A. Rivera, Majority Leader and Niagara District Common Council Member; Jessie Fisher, urban planner and executive director of Preservation Buffalo-Niagara; Kisha Lynn Paterson, architect with DiDonato Engineering & Architectural Professionals; and Nick Sinatra, founder and president of Sinatra Real Estate.
Could each of you tell me, based on your experiences, what successes you’ve seen under the Green Code process?
David Rivera: The first success was the outreach and inclusion of residents during the development of the Green Code. As a Council Member, it was by far the piece of legislation with the greatest resident participation during my time on the Council. Since being signed into law, we’ve seen intensive training for City Hall staff and the decision-making bodies on how to implement the new rules and procedures. And the greatest successes have been new and improved projects that conform to the Unified Development Ordinance, and the participation of the general public to ensure projects meet what is needed for the neighborhood.
Kisha Patterson: I think that, if nothing else, it has focused everyone’s attention on the fact that we haven’t been regulating or even considering what our city building is going to look like. People are now looking at projects and asking, “How does this relate to what our wishes are?”
Nick Sinatra: I think it’s too early to say at this point. The code needed to be overhauled, and that in itself is a victory—a new code with twenty-first century building materials techniques, safety, and styles. Its implementation, execution, and effect on development in our city is yet to be seen.
Jessie Fisher: There is now greater transparency in the process. It’s one process for the entire city, it’s written out very clearly, and it’s easy to understand. There is a greater emphasis on following that process by the various boards in City Hall, in terms of staff reports, which I don’t think I ever saw before the Green Code. This has contributed to a greater level of citizen engagement, as well as professionalism. I consider that to be the biggest success of the Green Code in the short term.
Of course, that’s painting with a broad brush. The Elmwood Village recognized years ago how broken things had become, and sort of set out on its own voyage, but what you are seeing now, because they went out into every neighborhood, is broader input and more engagement.
KP: I think it is going to be important for people to remember what they said they wanted and to look at what is proposed, and to say, if what they are being shown isn’t what they asked for, “Hey, I asked for pickles.” If that happens, that will be the real success.
As of this interview, we have had three rather substantial projects come up and go through the Green Code process: the Sinatra project on Jefferson, the Chason project on Elmwood and Forest, and the Dash’s project in North Buffalo. All of these projects have involved applications for variances from the Green Code. Is that what we can look forward to in the days to come, or is the process still settling down?
NS: Variances are inevitable and good for the process. People with experience in city planning and architecture need to be the referees on the code, not bureaucrats. It is impossible for a body to envision every single potential issue that will come up in the process at each site, now or in the future, so it’s inevitable and good. As times change, there needs to be flexibility. In the end, the hope is the board will have the process work this way: the developer and his team (led by the architect/engineer) should envision future projects with the code as the guidepost. As things come up, the zoning board will hopefully have the experience/expertise/judgment to make the best decisions for our city and its citizens working together with the developer looking to invest in our community. If that happens, it will be a success. Enhance good projects. Question projects that don’t initially fit the standards. That’s the goal. Let’s see how it works in practice.
DR: Variances will always exist in zoning law. When the city’s Permits Department tells an applicant they cannot get a building permit for their project, the applicant has a right to appeal that decision to a higher body. New York State has very clear rules for how variances should be considered, and those factors to consider did not change with the Green Code. Prior to our new city zoning law, variances were partly seen as an answer to the flaws of our 1950s zoning law. Now that we have a fair, reasonable zoning code, there will need to be a culture shift from that flexibility of how variances are evaluated.
Similarly, there will need to be a shift from our development community. The feedback from each of these projects and others provides invaluable insight to developers on what residents want to see buildings look like in our neighborhood commercial districts. There will also be unique parcels and projects that will need variances to make them feasible. The hope is that most projects are code compliant and that most variance requests have minimal deviations from what is allowable as of right now.
KP: It seems sort of naive to think that there won’t be variances. Every site is unique, every project unique, every process is unique—but we have made this the law and we are going to defuse community engagement if it is not enforced. It’s not the law if it’s not enforced, so the question is who, what, where, and why do people get variances? I think that whatever the answers to those questions are, we are going to have to watch, because it shouldn’t be easier to get a variance based on the number of zeroes or commas in the project description, or if there isn’t vocal community opposition. They should be granted for the right projects and for the right reasons.
JF: The worst thing that could happen with this Code would be if it became one more way that Buffalonians can be cynical about our leadership and civic engagement. If one of the successes was that it brought people into the process and gave them a sense of ownership, that would be a win. It will be a failure if it is just seen as a suggestion or a guideline. The variance process is built into the approval process for a reason. That’s the next big test: how does it get enforced? All three of the projects that you mention required significant width variances, and, at one of the meetings of the Zoning Board about one of those projects, a board member commented that maybe the Green Code width standard simply doesn’t work for our community. To me this question brings back a sort of philosophical question: what do we want to build in our neighborhoods? And who is going to build them? Because maybe it is not in the business model of the very large developers to build the kind of neighborhoods that the neighbors want—that maybe those sorts of developers want to do projects that would fit downtown, or on the Main Street corridor. The Green Code reflects consensus on what the neighborhoods said they wanted: new builds on about the same scale of the older buildings. We may need to ask who is developing the city, and whether we need to bring additional folks into that mix.
KP: Cities are something we have to do together. The reason I got into architecture is that, when I was a kid, I looked at the city I lived in and said, “Why did they build that?” And the key word was “they.” I wanted to be the “they.” The thing is, it’s never one person. If we have a Code that makes smaller buildings the norm, then we may have to say to some developers, “You’re going to have to change your business model.” That might mean that the “they” would not be a small group of larger developers. For a long time, Buffalo has been unwilling to ask for what it really wants, because we’ve been so busy just keeping the lights on. Now the lights are on, and we’re going to be OK, and now it is time to say, “We want it our way.”
Do you see any gaps in the Green Code as it exists today?
NS: Too early to tell. I think the architects of the code tried to think of everything, but unforeseen events will pop up as they always do. The key is to not let the code be a roadblock to smart development but a guidepost to properly envision our great city in the decades ahead.
There are some gaps, some procedural, and some practical. We always knew there might be changes in the future, but it was important to get the code out there, put it into practice, and see the results. This is the best way to see what works and what does not work and will help us find any gaps that need to be filled or tweaks that need to be made. Additionally, the code does not legislate design, so people will always see gaps in projects that were code compliant, but are not aesthetically pleasing. Again, we’ll need our development community to digest what the neighborhood wants its buildings to look like and do its best to create and design buildings that match the fabric of the neighborhood and do not disturb the character of the community.
JF: The Green Code is pretty agnostic when it comes to historic preservation, and in a city like Buffalo—this isn’t some blank canvas in Arizona or Texas. We have a city that exists, and a unified ordinance that excludes our preservation ordinance and makes almost no reference to it is not a very “unified’ ordinance. We know that when we get praise from outside the community, a lot of it is based on our existing built environment. So let’s build on the assets that we have, and let’s protect what we have. Let’s not be agnostic when it comes to historic preservation.
Kisha, as an architect, do you think that Jessie’s suggestion would inhibit your creative process?
KP: I’m going to start with a “no.” When you have a city like Buffalo, which has so much heritage in its buildings, it only pushes you to be more creative. Anything I build is built in a city that has world-class architecture. It took a couple hundred years to get here, and those areas in the city that embrace that always seem to do better. It is incredibly environmentally savvy to recycle a building—cars are only around for ten years, buildings are around for hundreds. We also need to confront gentrification in ways that the Green Code doesn’t and that we aren’t really otherwise looking at. Maybe we need a better vocabulary for both gentrification and historic preservation so we aren’t triggering a negative response.
William C. Altreuter is a lawyer and Elmwood Village resident.