Progressive zoning creates opportunities
By MATT CHANDLER
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Whether it's building up or tearing down, Western New York can be slow to change when it comes to development. Examples include the demolition of the Aud, the construction of a new Peace Bridge, the razing of the Skyway - you get the idea.
But there is reason for optimism when it comes to development in communities from Hamburg to Williamsville. It's called form-based zoning and is considered by many planners to be the answer to revitalizing areas across the region.
The concept is pretty straightforward: The key to bringing in new business is to make it business-friendly. Traditional zoning, often called Euclidian zoning, focuses on restrictions and is a numbers-driven process. That is, how high, how wide, how much parking and what kind of businesses can and cannot operate in a zone.
Charles Grieco, a partner in Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel LLP, has been involved in the Village of Williamsville switching to a form-based zoning model. He said the problem with Euclidian zoning is that it is segregative and can discourage development of an area.
Creating walkable communities
"Euclidian zoning is the dominant form of zoning throughout most of the United States," Grieco said. "It is a text-based form of zoning that is really very abstract and very auto-centric."
It's that last point that offers a chance to make what some might consider radical changes to the way neighborhoods are designed - and ultimately towns, villages and cities. He said under form-based zoning, buildings are brought to the front of the property, while parking - which comes with less-rigid requirements than Euclidian zoning laws - is pushed to the back. The idea is to create areas that are accessible by everyone.
"The idea of an auto-centric design is fine when you are talking about segregated use, but that really only works when people can hop in their car and drive from point A to point B," he said. ""Form-based codes are designed to work for everyone - pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as automobile users."
Grieco said he has seen overwhelming support for efforts to advance form-based zoning. When there is resistance, often it's because people don't fully understand the objectives of the initiative, which he said centers on improving the quality of life.
"We're not so much interested in controlling or segregating the uses of property, particularly when there are many uses that are compatible with each other," he said. "Instead, we are trying to achieve a specific form and we are going to regulate how those buildings relate to one another and how they relate to the public realm."
According to Grieco, the concept is adaptable so that it will work not just in Williamsville but almost anywhere.
"The village is one square mile, so everything is really walkable," he said. "But it has also been done in large cities like Miami, so there is no question it will work in Buffalo."
Flexibility is key
William Tuyn is vice president and director of town planning for Greenman-Pedersen Inc. For more than 30 years, he has worked with communities on zoning and development issues and, like Grieco, he is a proponent of form-based zoning.
"This is about getting back to the idea of prescriptively telling people what we want places to look like," he said. "What's really important is the physical structures we are going to build along with the massing and the scale and the density. What goes in those buildings - the idea of mixed uses - really aren't a problem anymore."
Tuyn said the freedom that comes with form-based zoning can allow a city to be flexible as needs evolve, something that is more prohibited in a Euclidian model of zoning.
"So if there is a time when there is a need for more residential development, the upper floors of a building could be developed as residences," he said. "Then, at another point in time, if there became a demand for more office space, owners could subdivide and develop more offices and it is still OK because the focus is on form, not use."
According to Tuyn, whether it is the number of parking spaces required, the use of a building or other nuances, traditional building codes tend to tell people what they don't want, versus this concept of creating what is desired.
Grieco illustrated that point by comparing old zoning codes for Williamsville with the one that covers form-based zoning.
"Euclidian zoning is all words and numbers," he said. "Here, with form-based, we actually have illustrations and concepts of what we want buildings to be like and how we want properties to be designed as part of a community."
Tuyn summed up what he sees as the key point about form-based zoning: "We want to build beautiful buildings and then give those buildings flexibility so that they can function to serve the needs of the population."
He said an important distinction with form-based zoning is that, while the rigid requirements found in Euclidian zoning may not be as prevalent, it is far from a free-for-all concept.
"There are specifications and rules in place to say what kinds of businesses can operate where, so it isn't devoid of any regulation," Tuyn said. "But it is based more on offering guidance to building owners and allowing them to have more flexibility in what they do."
Chuck Banas is a community activist and consultant who has been involved in the form-based movement for more than six years. He said bringing the concept of such zoning to a city the size of Buffalo takes a lot of work but is something that not only is viable, it could re-energize the city.
"If you look at places like Miami and Denver, they have both adopted form-based codes and they went through a torturous process to get there, with massive resistance from all of the community stakeholders," he said. "In Buffalo, the process has been a lot easier. We have encountered essentially no resistance from the development community and most of the business groups seem very open to the change."
Banas describes himself as someone "who loves Buffalo. I love what it was, I love what it is and what it can be."
Following the outdated model of Euclidian zoning is a recipe for stagnation, he said.
"It just isn't a very good tool for physically getting the type of places that most people would want to live in," he said. "The rules and requirements tend to be arbitrary. And for that reason, it doesn't lend itself to developing those kinds of places."
There also are misconceptions about zoning laws, Banas said, both current and proposed.
"Take, say, Elmwood Avenue or even Main Street in East Aurora. In most cases, the zoning for both places make most of the development illegal," he said. "You cannot rebuild in an environment like that."
He said it really comes down to giving those who live and work in a community an enhanced quality of life.
"Most people want walkable communities and they don't realize that their own, existing laws make that illegal," he said.
To that point, Banas said the push for form-based zoning is really an effort to "legalize all of the great walkable, mixed-use communities we have" while injecting new value into the city.
"Buffalo has been committing sort of slow, legal suicide for the last 50 years because of our zoning," he said. "This is a chance to change that.