By James Fink, originally published in Buffalo Business First on February 28, 2017.
Rollout of Buffalo Green Code hailed by city, developers
Just a few weeks into the implementation of the first phase of Buffalo’s Green Code, the telephone-thick document is viewed as a clearer road map to navigate the city’s development landscape.
The Green Code, whose initial phase officially took effect on Feb. 17 and whose second phase becomes the city’s development blueprint on April 3, is the byproduct of more than six years of meetings, studies and reviews overseen by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and his development chief, Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning.
Some 242 public meetings were held, attended collectively by thousands of interested parties before the code was enacted by the Buffalo Common Council earlier this year. It covers all 94,000 properties and parcels in the city ranging from office buildings and factories to single-family homes and vacant lots.
“It was a massive undertaking,” Mehaffy said Tuesday morning during a Green Code panel discussion presented by Business First and the Phillips Lytle LLP law firm. “But, at the end of the day we have a new set of rules and predictiability for both the citizens and development community.”
The last time Buffalo’s building code underwent such a massive overhaul was 1953.
Now, the Green Code is coming on line as development in Buffalo continues at aa record-breaking pace. Last year alone, $7.8 billion worth of projects were in the city’s economic pipeline and many more are on the way.
Consider at the Feb. 13 Buffalo Planning Board meeting, more than $400 million in various private sector-driven projects were approved by the agency. At this past Monday’s planning board meeting, another $60 million in projects were approved, including a $35 million makeover of the McCarley Gardens complex on the city’s East Side.
“It took a long time to get here, but it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Adam Walters, a Phillips Lytle partner.
Mehaffy, who was a private-sector, land-use attorney before joining the Brown administration in 2006, admitted that under the 1953 code, lawyers were easily able to challenge decisions and rulings that came from Buffalo agencies.
“The regulations were so out dated,” Mehaffy said.
The new guide remains a working document, Mehaffy said, and adjustments may be needed.
“Hopefully, we got it right,” said Jessie Fisher, Preservation Buffalo Niagara executive director. “We were all working off of a 1953 document that nobody wanted.”
Fisher noted that approximately 85 percent of Buffalo’s buildings — both residential and commercial properties — pre-date World War II. Only 5 percent of the city’s properties are protected by historic or preservation-based landmark status.
“We’d like to use the Green Code to bridge that gap between the 5 percent and the 85 percent,” Fisher said.
Walters said the Green Code has helped make Buffalo’s development process become easier and smoother.
“It is a pretty concrete document and it’s a bold document,” Walters said. “The (development) rules just got a heck of a lot cleaner today than they were just a few weeks ago.”
Sam Savarino, founder and president of Savarino Cos., said right now he and his fellow developers are just coming to grips with the Green Code.
However, by and large, Savarino said he supports the new code.
“There is short-term pain but long-term gain,” Savarino said.
Dennis Penman, Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. executive vice president and principal, agrees with Savarino’s assessment.
“The old code was for people who walked up and down Elmwood Avenue for the past 40 years,” Penman said. “The new code is for people who will be walking up and down Elmwood Avenue for the next 40 years. I call it the road map for our new city.”
The developers and Mehaffy say implementing the Green Code will be an educational process for everyone.
Variances, in some cases, will be needed. That’s why Buffalo has the Zoning Board of Appeals.
During the Green Code “shake down” period, the ZBA will likely see a bloated agenda, some are predicting.
“Development is not a ‘one size fits all’ process,” Walters said. “It never was and never will be. We are going to have projects that need variances. The reality is, you will always need variances.”