Buffalo's Elmwood district is demonstrating that success can be developed in any urban area when the goal is to create vibrant business districts and residential neighbourhoods instead of merely treating these neighbourhoods as dead freeways.
By Jason Leach
Published July 02, 2013
For years I've had a not-so-secret love affair with Buffalo. Hamilton has never suffered the extreme levels of decline as Buffalo, but we can certainly learn from its examples, not only of what not to do but also of what to do.
Elmwood Village, Buffalo
We hung out in Buffalo's Elmwood Village on the weekend. It's a great neighbourhood with people everywhere. It has challenges, including parking, but they're the challenges of a neighbourhood in ascendance, not a neighbourhood in decline.
Delaware Park was packed with families on a Sunday night. Folks in our group said, "Why can't Hamilton have this?" referring to the street lined with patios and people walking and using bikes.
The short answer is that we still think we need our streets to be dead freeways and our buildings need to be one-storey boxes with big parking lots.
Buffalo is currently developing a new land use policy called Green Code. It's a form-based code to replace the zoning code that has ruled building in the city for the past 60 years. The strategy [PDF] is simple: "Fix the basics, build on assets, and embrace smart growth and sustainability."
Single-use zoning rules kill development dead. The old zoning rules in Buffalo are part of why its light rail transit (LRT) line has not performed better at attracting new development: investors were interested but suburban-style building rules got in the way.
The Green Code abandons the old approach of use-separated zones and low-density, car-dependent design with one-storey businesses surrounded by parking, and replaces it with a new code that "focuses on the appropriate form, scale, and character of development. It addresses the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and type of streets and blocks."
The goal is dense, mixed, thriving walkablke neighbourhoods supporting economic centres across the city. The new rules make it easier to restore and adaptively reuse old buildings, and new buildings will fit better into the urban fabric of the neighbourhood.
Buffalo is also planning to eliminate parking requirements, the dreaded sourge that is familiar to anyone in Hamilton who is eager for urban revitalization.
Buffalo's new land use plan also comes on top of its ongoing bike investments, greening their streets with storm-water planters, and generally working extremely hard to revive their urban, walkable neighbourhoods.
Elmwood is one lane each way, has 24-hour curbside parking and carries 17,000 cars per day in various spots, in addition to being a public transit route.
In Hamilton, we believe Main King, and Cannon Street each need to be four- or five-lanes wide. Why? No reason.
What's missing in Hamilton is a little thing called vision.
And it's not just our streets. Our planners panic when an entrepreneur proposes to open an ice cream shop in a storefront next to a park in the middle of a lively mixed neighbourhood.
We just had a proposal for just that at the corner of Locke and Peter, a building that has recently been a yoga studio, used bookstore and variety store.
The city said it has to revert back to residential zoning and that the investor should try to open a store on King Street instead, because that's where commercial development should go.
Would you want to open a store based on foot traffic next to four or five lanes of roaring traffic on King?
Some cities lead their way out of hard times. Others make an art of lagging.
Buffalo's Elmwood district is demonstrating that success can be developed in any urban area when the goal is to create vibrant business districts and residential neighbourhoods instead of merely treating them as freeways to somewhere else.
Kudos to them for leading and showing vision even in the midst of very difficult economic circumstances.
Hamilton can absolutely see the same vibrancy and success in our older urban neighbourhoods if we simply muster up enough vision and leadership to make it happen.
with files from Ryan McGreal
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