1.8 Planning and Zoning

It has been more than thirty years since the City of Buffalo last approved a comprehensive city-wide plan, and more than fifty years since it approved a city-wide zoning ordinance. Yet, much has changed in that time. As Buffalo entered the 21st century it was evident that a new Comprehensive Plan be adopted and given the force of law so that citizens, neighborhoods, companies and investors can plan and act with certainty, and the City itself can make decisions rationally and deliver its services efficiently and effectively. 

Likewise, the Comprehensive Plan needs be based on a sound planning philosophy and sound planning principles. For Buffalo, that means taking a regional approach; integrating economic, environmental and community considerations under a concept of sustainability; and implementing principles of smart growth. Furthermore the Comprehensive Plan needs to be linked directly to the selection and prioritization of capital projects through the City’s Capital Improvement Program. 

The Comprehensive Plan also needs a revised zoning ordinance to give it full effect. Such an ordinance must reflect the Comprehensive Plan and its smart growth principles. As such, it can provide the measure of predictability and certainty that both investors and citizens require. Without a companion zoning ordinance the Comprehensive Plan will lack the enforceability that will make it credible and achievable. 

The current ordinance and an official zoning map was adopted by the City in 1951. That ordinance included 12 zoning districts (five residential, four commercial and three industrial) specifying the use, height and area regulations in each case. Since its adoption, many amendments have been approved and a host of special use districts and Urban Renewal Districts have been created. As a result, the ordinance is difficult to comprehend and apply today. 

The zoning now in effect embodies the thinking of the mid 20th century about appropriate land uses and regulations. But it also reflects efforts since then to respond to the changing needs of the city through a proliferation of new and special zoning districts and an increasing number of individually-zoned parcels. At the same time, there are many cases of unplanned intermingling of residential and industrial uses that were typical of the built environment prior to the adoption of the current ordinance. A new ordinance must take this history into account. 

The city that grew up mostly before zoning had relatively high densities in mixed use areas. Buildings were built to the lot line in commercial strips and there was little parking. Away from commercial strips in residential districts overall density was significantly lower. Most homes were in detached one- or two family structures on lots of 30 to 60 feet wide. Because people needed to live near employment centers in the period before widespread automobile ownership, residential neighborhoods often developed in the shadow of commercial or industrial uses. The urban landscape was pedestrian-friendly with shopping and other services close by residential areas. There was no apparent need for design guidelines for multi-story mixed uses or the protection of urban architecture. With a few exceptions, the city was built-out and the urban fabric whole. 

In the half century since then, both the city and its regional context have been transformed. Buffalo has lost half its population to the suburbs. Major shopping is now located at the city’s edge or in the suburbs, accessible mainly by car, but also by bus. The restructuring of the regional economy away from heavy industry and manufacturing has been accompanied by the demolition of many obsolete structures. This process has changed the urban landscape, with vacant areas in many neighborhoods and surface parking lots replacing buildings downtown. 

Most post 1960’s development outside the central business district has been single-story and single-use with buildings set back from the front lot line behind surface parking. Unfortunately, current zoning permits this kind of suburban style development rather than prescribing more urban solutions. 

Revised zoning categories and districts and a revised zoning map to reflect and support the Comprehensive Plan and the principles of smart growth should be prepared by the Office of Strategic Planning (OSP) as soon as possible. It will be one of the City’s principal tools for implementing the Plan.