City of Buffalo Zoning Code
What is a zoning code?
Zoning a city means to partition it by ordinance into sections reserved for
different purposes.1 Zoning codes typically designate permitted uses of
land based on maps which separate one set of land uses from another.2
What is the purpose of a zoning code?
Theoretically, the primary purpose of zoning is to segregate uses that are
thought to be incompatible (i.e., houses and factories.) In practice, zoning
is often used to prevent new development from interfereing
with existing residents or businesses and to preserve the
"character" of a community.3
When was Buffalo’s current zoning code adopted?
The City adopted the current zoning code in 1951. While there
have been many amendments over the years, the basic structure
of the code has not been changed since that time.4
Where can the zoning code be found?
The entire zoning code can be found in Section 511 of the
Buffalo City Code. The current zoning code and the “Buffalo
Zoning Map,” which shows the way that Buffalo is mapped
into separate districts, can be found online at:
How does the zoning code function?
The code divides the city into different classes of districts. These districts
are mostly differentiated based on varying levels of residential,
commercial, and industrial activity in different areas of the city.5 These
districts are then laid out on the “Buffalo Zoning Map.”6 If you wish to
develop in Buffalo, you must look at this map, see what district you are
working in, and look at the regulations in the code for that district.
What sorts of regulations exist for the different districts?
Typically, the code will specify for each district 1) what the permitted uses
are for property in the district (what sorts of buildings may be built there
and who may occupy them), 2) height restrictions on buildings in the
district, and 3) the amount of free space that must surround any building
on property in the district.7
What are “Special Zoning Districts”?
The current code has a provision for “Special Zoning Districts,” which are
described as particular areas of the City with unique characteristics, which
require special zoning districts.8 The special zoning districts may then
have specific regulations set out in the code, which deviate from the
traditional districts based on that area’s unique characteristics.
Special zoning districts currently existing in Buffalo are:
Elmwood Avenue Business District,
Allen Street District,
Special Delaware Review District,
Hertel Avenue District,
Sign Overlay District,
Seneca Street District,
Kensington-Bailey Business District,
Residential Overlay Parking District,
Buffalo Coastal Special Review District,
Nagara River Coastal Special Review District,
Hamlin Park Overlay Review District,
South Park Special Zoning District,
Abbot-McKinley Special Zoning District,
Clinton Street Special Zoning District, and
Lovejoy Street Special Zoning District.9
What else does the current code provide?
The current zoning code also contains provisions for special regulations
pertaining to the “downtown” and “transit station” areas,10 as well as
provisions on off-street parking and the placement of signs on buildings.11
What are “variances?”
The code also provides for a Board of Appeals. Any property owner in
the city may file an application with the Board for permission to vary from
the code. This is called receiving a variance. According to the code, a
variance is supposed to be granted only if not granting it would cause
“undue hardship” to the property owner. However, it is within the
discretion of the Board to decide whether to grant a variance.12
What is wrong with the current code?
The current code was written for a very different city than Buffalo is now.
When the code was written, nearly twice as many people lived in the city,
meaning that there is far more land zoned residential than is still
necessary. There was also a lot more industry in the City at the time,
leaving areas zoned industrial, but unoccupied.
Beyond this, the structure of the code focuses on land use restriction,
rather than on creating a vision for what citizens want the city to look like
as a whole. These restrictions can often create frustration for developers
who may otherwise be willing to invest in the city. Also, the fact that the
current regulations are mostly limited to building height limits and setback
requirements does little to create a cohesive urban environment.
Is the City currently planning a code reform?
Brian Reilly, the current commissioner of Buffalo’s Department of
Economic Development, Permit and Inspection expressed support for a
drastic overhaul of the current zoning code in a Buffalo News editorial on
December 12, 2008.13 Commissioner Reilly supports a “form-based” code
and has called for a “smart” code, suggesting that the best way to go about
this would be wholesale reform for the entire city, rather than
implementing a new code slowly in particular neighborhoods.14
What is a “form-based” or “smart” code?
A “smart” code is actually part of the family of “form-based” codes,
which means that it primarily addresses the physical “form” of the
building and community. Unlike the City’s current code, it does not focus
on the “use” of land. The smart code allows for “distinctly different
approaches in different areas of the community, unlike a one-size-fits-all
conventional code.” It focuses more on what the community wants
particular areas of the city to look like, rather than on creating restrictions
as to what type of development may occur in particular districts. It is also
a “transect-based” code, taking into account the city’s relationship to the
environment. This means that some districts will be based on the ratio of
natural habitat to human habitat.15
What are the “smart” code’s intended outcomes?
The “smart” code is intended to support walk-able, mixed-used (i.e.,
residential and commercial) neighborhoods. It also supports the
conservation of open land and the preservation of local character. It
discourages urban sprawl, the loss of open land, and dependency on
automobiles. The code is also intended to reduce the need for variances.16
How is code reform intended to affect the City of Buffalo?
A reformed code should allow the citizens of Buffalo to have more control
over what their city actually looks like. It is intended to encourage
development by giving developers the opportunity to appeal to a
community through aesthetic innovation rather than being forced to
comply with a set of land use regulations, which leads to “cookie-cutter”
development and may inhibit development altogether. Overall, the code
should turn Buffalo into a more cohesive urban environment.
Increasing the options for development in parts of the city that were
formerly restricted could lead to the demolition of more abandoned
housing or the renovation of abandoned industrial space. This in turn
could lead to other positive results such as a decrease in crime or an
increase in surrounding property values.
What is an example of how a new code could work?
On the east side of Grant Street, between
Letchworth Street and Bradley Street,
there is a row of abandoned and
dilapidated houses. This block is zoned as
R2 under the current code, which restricts
the type of commercial development that
may take place here. Thus, a developer
interested in developing a mixed-use area
with both residential and commercial
options would be prevented from doing
so, and the houses would stay abandoned.
Under the new code, the developer would
have more freedom to pursue a mixed-use
option so long as he conformed to the
aesthetic plan for the neighborhood.
What needs to be done to create the new code?
There is a fair amount of research that must be done into the city’s existing
conditions and how to develop a tailored form based code that specifically
addressed Buffalo’s needs. Often this period of planning is referred to as a
“charette,” in which professional planners and residents will have the
opportunity to develop a plan for the future development of the City. The
city must be mapped into various neighborhood districts, based on the
relationship of the City to the environment, and special purpose zones
must be identified. Finally, aesthetic standards must be established for
each neighborhood describing the types of buildings that should be placed
their, their height, and their position on the property relative to the street.17
How long will it take to reform the code?
Code reform is expected to take from a year and a half to
two years to implement.18
Have other cities had success with code
Flagstaff, Arizona has adopted a smart code that allows for “floating”
zones in areas designated as “mixed use.” This allows more options for
developers to decide what type of development they can bring to a
Arlington, Virginia adopted a form-based code in 2002, which included
standards for building form, streetscape, and architecture, as well as
administrative guidelines for expediting approval process. Since adoption
of the code, Arlington’s Columbia Pike corridor has seen more $30
million in approved development.20
Petaluma, California adopted a “Smart Code” in 2003 that focused on
issues such as “building heights, location of buildings in relation to the
street and to other buildings, location of parking, and design of streets,
sidewalks and the public realm.” The code also allows for the mixing of
stores, homes and workplaces. “After nearly 20 years of little
development in this area, new projects were under construction on six
downtown blocks in the first year of the new code.”21
Where can I learn more about zoning code reform?
http://www.nmgonline.org contains many useful resources pertaining to
current zoning issues in Buffalo and the implementation of a smart code.
City of Buffalo Ordinances, §511
§511, Article IV – Article XV, generally
§511-56, 57, 58, 59, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 68.1, 68.2, 68.3, 68.4, 68.5
§511, Articles XVII and XVIIA
§511, Articles XIX and XX
§511, Article XXIV
Buffalo News, Opinion, To advance, Buffalo must update its zoning code, Brian
Artvoice, Brian Reilly on Breaking the Code, 2/26/09
Form Based Codes: Implementing Smart Growth, Local Government Commission, 4-
Smart Codes, Smart Places, Jason Miller, Summer 2004,
Revitalizing Neighborhoods and Town Centers, Local Government Commission,