What’s Wrong With the City’s Land Use, Zoning and Development Processes

 “The Lawrence” in the Fruit Belt Highlights What’s Wrong With the City’s Land Use, Zoning and Development Processes

By Arthur Giacalone

Tim LeBoeuf and his Symphony Property Management, LLC, have big plans. They would like to construct “The Lawrence,” a 5-story, 131-unit market rate apartment project on Michigan Avenue and Maple Street.

If built, The Lawrence would be the first major residential project encroaching on the Fruit Belt, a historically rich, economically poor, predominately non-white neighborhood. It is a neighborhood situated immediately east of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), bordered by Michigan Avenue to the west, Jefferson Avenue to the east, Best Street to the north and the Kensington Expressway to the south, with High Street serving as its focal point. The Fruit Belt’s streets, which include names such as Grape, Peach, Lemon and Orange, consist primarily of one-family, two-family and three-family homes, nearly all of which stand no more than two stories high. [Here’s a link to an intensive survey of the Fruit Belt neighborhood’s history, people, and distinctive building stock, that was conducted by Preservation Studios and overseen by Preservation Buffalo Niagara.]

Three peculiarities stand out to me as I review of the papers filed with the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning in support of “The Lawrence”:

First, the submitted documents refer to “building” and “structure” as if the development consists of only one building. In fact, what is being proposed are two large buildings, one on Michigan Avenue facing the medical campus, and one on Maple Street, surrounded by the Fruit Belt neighborhood. [Note: The official terminology used in the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) “agenda” continues the misleading reference to a lone building, “983 Michigan Avenue – Construct Multiple-Unit Residential Building.”]

Second, Tim LeBoeuf’s application uses at least three different titles for the project: “The Lawrence Market Rate Apartments,” “Michigan Avenue/Medical Campus Apartments,” and “The Lawrence Michigan Avenue Apartments.” Notably, none of the names references the project’s location within the Fruit Belt, or seems to target as potential tenants current Fruit Belt residents.

Third, consistent with the various names given to the proposed development, the project seems designed to ensure that its “market rate” tenants can, if they choose, have virtually no interaction with the people who presently call the Fruit Belt their home (other than driving their vehicles to and from the enclosed ground floor and the adjacent street). Patios are located internally. None of the units will have balconies facing either Maple Street or Michigan Avenue. The prolonged Maple Street expanse gives the impression of an unwelcoming wall.

The more I think about the proposed development’s details – and the political, social, and legal context in which it was submitted and is being processed – the more I realize that “The Lawrence” proposal epitomizes virtually all that is (from my perspective) wrong with the land use, zoning, and development processes in the City of Buffalo. And the more I am reminded that much of what I view as detrimental to the interests and effectiveness of city residences is: (a) rooted in the pro-development philosophy of Mayor Brown; and, (b) facilitated by the all-too-often docile and ineffective actions of the city’s legislators, the Common Council, headed by its President, Darius Pridgen (who is also the Ellicott District Councilmember, and, therefore, tasked with the responsibility of representing the interests of the voters in and around the Fruit Belt).

More specifically:

  1. THE primary function of the Green Code is to provide a “Green Light” to development, not, as promised, to preserve neighborhoods or protect the quality of life of residents.

When Mayor Byron Brown announced the Buffalo Green Code back in 2011, city residents were promised a land use plan that would preserve the character of neighborhoods and encourage future development that was consistent with the prevailing patterns. Residents were told that the historic fabric in a neighborhood – typical lot sizes, scale of existing buildings, and the intensity of development – as well as what residents wanted to see in their neighborhoods, would provide the foundation for future growth. That’s not what we got.

The Green Code, crafted, not by our legislative body, the Common Council, but primarily by and under the supervision of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, supplanted these lofty goals with a competing set of interests: the desire of developers to maximize profits.

The new zoning ordinance increases the ability of developers and commercial interests – not City residents and their elected Common Council members – to decide where new construction will occur by not only significantly increasing the amount of land “available for as-of-right development” (that is, without the need for rezoning or the grant of a special use permit by the Common Council), but also by greatly increasing the density of the projects permitted “by right.”

  1. The Green Code, and the state-mandated “environmental review” that preceded it, ignored the adverse impacts of gentrification on less affluent neighborhoods such as the Fruit Belt, and encouraged displacement of longtime residents and homeowners by allowing commercial and residential buildings out-of-scale with the surrounding community.

Buffalo’s Common Council was the official the “lead agency” responsible under SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review ACT) to take a “hard look” at the potential adverse impacts of the proposed new zoning and development law – that is, the Uniform Development Ordinance or “Green Code.” Rather than preparing, or, at a minimum, closely supervising preparation of the state-mandated “draft environmental impact statement” that preceded the enactment of the Green Code, Buffalo’s elected legislators let the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning perform the lion’s share of this crucial task.

Despite protests (by me and others), the SEQRA study prepared by the Office of Strategic Planning failed to address significant legal and moral issues, such as: To what the extent would Mayor Brown’s vision for Buffalo – manifested in the “Green Code” – result in the displacement of low-income, mainly non-white residents from their neighborhoods?  Would a zoning code that allows “as of right” construction of large mixed-use commercial buildings (what the Green Code calls “Commercial Block” buildings) on portions of Michigan Avenue and High Street near the medical campus, and large residential buildings (referred to in the Green Code as “Stacked Units”) throughout the Fruit Belt, accelerate gentrification and the displacement of Fruit Belt residents?

The failure of Buffalo’s executive and legislative officials to openly and objectively confront these issues has left many residents vulnerable. Tim LeBoeuf’s proposed apartment project, and the fashion by which it is handled by Buffalo City Hall, will undoubtedly begin the process of answering these and related questions that the Brown Administration and the Common Council chose not to address prior to enacting the Green Code.

  1. Even when a zoning ordinance gives developers an extremely generous “inch,” some (most?) will try to take the proverbial “mile”.

The Green Code that was enthusiastically approved by Mayor Brown and the Common Council in early 2017 designates the portion of the east side of Michigan Avenue directly across the street from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, as well as most of High Street between Michigan Avenue and Jefferson Avenue, an “N-2E” (Mixed Use Edge) zone. Under Buffalo’s zoning ordinance, an N-2E zone allows “by right” development of “Commercial Block” mixed-use buildings, and “Stacked Units” residential buildings, up to three-stories in height and on lots as wide as 120 feet.

The Green Code places virtually all of the remainder of the Fruit Belt’s residential streets, including Maple Street, in the “N-2R” (Residential) zone. While Commercial Block buildings are not allowed by right in an N-2R zone, under Buffalo’s zoning ordinance, “Stacked Units” residential buildings, up to three-stories in height and on lots as wide as 75 feet, are permitted “by right” in N-2R.

As written, the Green Code magnanimously allows a developer to construct “by right” on Maple Street a three-story, 15,750 square-foot apartment building on one or more parcels of land totaling up to 75 feet in width. Likewise, Buffalo’s zoning ordinance permits construction “by right” on Michigan Avenue of a three-story, 25,200 square-foot apartment building on parcel(s) of land as wide as 120 feet.

But that was not enough for Mr. LeBoeuf and company.

LeBoeuf’s Symphony Property Management is seeking approval to combine fifteen (15) parcels – six on Michigan Avenue totaling 181.5 feet in width (when the maximum width allowed in an N-2E zone is 120’), and nine on Maple Street totaling a whopping 260 feet in width (when the maximum permissible lot width in the N-2R zone is 75’). And the developer wants The Lawrence buildings to reach five stories in height – despite the Green Codes 3-story limit in both N-2R and N-2E zones.

All in all, the total square footage of The Lawrence as proposed is approximately 136,800 square feet of new, market rate apartments (I say “appears” because LeBoeuf’s papers do not supply this figure). As stated in the papers submitted in support of the proposed development, Symphony Property Management has chosen this “density and scale” in order “to provide a financially feasible project that does not rely on public funds to sustain itself.” LeBoeuf’s application then states that “the proposed scale is not out of character with the surrounding context of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.” Revealingly, no mention is made of the inconsistency between the 5-story, 131-unit, 136,800-square-foot girth of the “The Lawrence” project, and the modest density and scale of Fruit Belt neighborhood it would surely dominate.

To demonstrate the extent to which LeBoeuf’s proposal is dramatically out of character with the surrounding Fruit Belt neighborhood, I have compiled “Property Information” from the City’s on-line site regarding the fifteen residential properties on or adjacent to Maple Street nearest to the fifteen parcels sought to be combined for the proposed apartment project. Here’s what the city’s official data reveals:

– Nu – Number of stories: While LeBoeuf and company would like to build two 5-story structures, the average height of the 15 nearest residences – none of which is over two stories in height – is 1.67 stories.

– Square footage of buildings: The total area of the 15 nearest residential structures is 33,343 square feet. As noted above, The Lawrence as proposed totals approximately 133,800 square feet.

– Lot sizes: LeBoeuf would like to construct 133,800 square feet of market rate apartments on just 1.014 acres of land. In contrast, the total area of the 15 nearest developed lots is 1.402 acres, about 40% larger than The Lawrence composite site.

– Density of development: Most revealing of all, the 15 nearest residences comfortably support 19.25 units per acre, while The Lawrence proposal would dramatically alter the character of the Fruit Belt neighborhood with its 129.2 dwelling units per acre.

Symphony Property Management certainly is trying to make the most out of the very generous opening to the Fruit Belt provided by the authors of the Green Code.

  1. Byron Brown’s Administration has created an environment in which “sophisticated” developers, their architects, and lawyers, don’t even try to present a proposal that meets the specific requirements of the Green Code.

As Mayor, Byron Brown appears to have filled City Hall with planners, administrators, and lawyers who understand, in the words of a friend of mine, His Honor’s “doctrine of development”: do everything you can to facilitate a developer’s proposal. On top of that, thanks to his longevity as mayor, Byron Brown has appointed – or, at a minimum, reappointed – every single member of the two entities meant to make the zoning process fair and transparent: the City Planning Board, and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Given the pro-development bent at City Hall, the professionals who work for developers – and, the developers themselves – have figured out that they don’t need to exert themselves too strenuously in an effort to meet the requirements of the Green Code. Indeed, the “doctrine of development” has led to a world where projects are filed that require not only multiple variances from the ZBA, but, as with the LeBoeuf proposal, need in excess of 20 such deviations from the criteria set forth in Buffalo’s zoning ordinance.

This approach leaves residents confused, cynical, and rightfully distrustful of the City of Buffalo’s land use and development process.

It also shows how City Hall has chosen to disregard a quote (attributed to Austrian-born architect Christopher Alexander) that had graced early documents disseminated on behalf of Mayor Brown’s “Green Code”: “Every increment of construction must be done in such a way as to heal the city.”

(above photo is rendering of the Lawrence found in public domain) 

Art Giacalone is a Buffalo resident, semi-retired zoning/environmental lawyer, who posts on development-related topics at his blog. https://WithAllDueRespectBlog.com