Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: The Cuomo Challenge
Next story: Breathing That Peace Bridge Air

Brian Reilly on Breaking the Code

Brian Reilly talks about the pursuit of a new, form-based zoning code for Buffalo

For Brian Reilly, the ongoing acrimony over the design of a proposed hotel in Erie Basin Marina make a perfect case for a complete overhaul of the way the city encourages and enables development—not just on the waterfront but in neighborhoods and commercial districts, too.

Brian Reilly

According to Reilly, that begins with comprehensive reform of the city’s zoning code. Everything else, he says, flows from that.

Reilly Rich Tobe as commissioner of the city’s Department of Economic Development, Permit and Inspection Services last July. One of his priorities has been pushing for a form-based smart code that emphasizes how a city and its structure relate to each other spatially and in terms of mass, to replace the current, decades-old zoning code that emphasizes land use restrictions.

A form-based code, Reilly says, does a better job of communicating precisely what citizens want their community to look like. That in turn makes controversies such as the Erie Basin Marina hotel contretemps less probable, since the city is less likely to receive such very different plans for the same parcel as were advanced by JW Pitts Properties and Ciminelli Development.

Archaic zoning codes and a poorly written request for proposals (coupled with onerous parking contracts) prolonged and muddled the process.

“The city, let’s just say, has a string of not very tightly written RFPs that have been subject to lawsuits and problems,” Reilly told Artvoice in an interview in December. “This one is the latest in a series that will end with my tenure, because I won’t write RFPs like this one.

“What you want is an RFP that asks for what you want, not for good ideas. It has to recognize the constraints in your regulating agreements and in your regulations.”

Currently the city is reviewing application from about a half dozen firms to consult on implementing a form-based code. (To learn more about what a form-based code does, visit In the interview, Reilly spoke at length about the necessity and benefits of code reform. What follows are excerpts from that conversation:

Brian Reilly: Right now you’ve got linear commercial districts, but people don’t shop that way so you have to change your zoning.

You’ve got a city that was built for twice as many people that live here, so you’ve got a lot more residential zoned land than you need. What do you do there?

And you’ve got a lot of land that envisioned heavy industrial uses and old uses that we no longer have. So you have to address that.

Basically you need to re-envision your entire code and the regulating governments around it. You have to do it in a way that’s participative, because you don’t want to change something if people are still going to complain about the result. You’ve got to get their complaints in upfront. What are we trying to achieve? What would you be happy with?

A lot of the implementation for this proposal for the winner will be community outreach, business outreach. And it will take two years.

AV: Will the code reform be a citywide deal, or will it start as a pilot project in a designated neighborhood?

Reilly: We’re persuaded by doing it in other cities and talking to people who have done it that the best way to do it is to do it all at once. Otherwise, it’s like herding cats. Part of the problem of the past is that people would do things piecemeal, and we can’t do this piecemeal. These problems are so big—like the question of what your residential, industrial, and housing mix will be—I just can’t imagine addressing that piecemeal. Because then you let people fight—turf battles, political influence, not in my backyard, stuff like that.

It will profoundly influence the future of the city. By talking about your mix of land use, you’re talking about your tax base. You’re talking about your vacant properties problem, because you might have solutions to it through permitted uses. I think it’s a community conversation.

AV: How long will it take to implement?

Reilly: I say two years, but it could be a year and a half. The community outreach is what’s going to take a lot of time. We want people to be happy for the next 50 years with the zoning code. We know the problems that have accumulated—and the people who are upset about the last 20 years of decisions know them even better than we do—so you get the chance to write solutions to those problems into your code. You’ve got to do it right, so you’ve got to talk to people.

If you want to build a city for the 21st century, your built environment has to take into account things like efficiencies and sustainability—things like greenhouse gas emissions. No one’s talking about this, but we’ve been talking to the EPA and colleagues across the country who are working on the science side. We know that EPA is gong to make this the next federal organizing principle, like brownfields were for the past 15 years. They’re either going to make an agency for it or make a mandate and put it on an existing agency like EPA.

So cities have to plan for how we will comply with, and hopefully benefit from, the greenhouse gas organizing principle. It’ll be things like how do you reduce vehicle miles traveled? You look at things like municipal infrastructure, like the sewer plant and the water treatment plant—big energy users. I just talked today to somebody about putting up wind turbines on the unbuildable portion of Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park, potentially as a municipally owned effort. There’s a special tax benefit you can tap into if you do it that way, and they’re really expensive otherwise.

That’s the kind of sustainable thinking you’ve got to build into your code, because it’s too hard to do haphazardly.

There’s a lot of stuff you have to build into your code, and you need a team that can plan for that. Because our current code is a battle plan for Word War Two. It’s a whole different world now.

AV: Do you have experience in this kind of wholesale code reform?

Reilly: Yeah, Milwaukee redid its zoning code while I was there. I wasn’t the city planner. What I did specifically was I took LEED guidelines and adapted them for our industrial park. LEED had not, and still has not, done an industrial standard, so we wrote LEED-like guidelines. And I would say that their success should be measured by the number of complaints that the business community had about them—which was zero. If you would measure the environmental benefit of those guidelines versus LEED, it’s probably 80 percent of the environmental quality with 20 percent of the brain damage.

LEED doesn’t address greenhouse gases, because the issue is so new. LEED isn’t the best thing in the world. There are some really good things but there are some problems, too. You can have a green Wal-Mart in Lancaster and it would score really high on LEED points, but we know from the regional plan that wouldn’t be optimal. A building has more impact based on where it’s located than on how it’s built.

So there’s an opportunity to take LEED but apply it citywide. There’s a lot at stake in the zoning code redo. In the end what I want, and what we don’t do in New York, is create a clear, predictable set of acceptable ground rules which the public is already happy with because they had their say upfront.

The test of a good RFP will be that everyone’s gotta be happy with whatever the results are because you’ve built their expectations into it upfront. The death here is we have so many kicks at the cat, which creates unpredictability. The question to one of the Erie basin developers, Ciminelli, was “Will you sue?” I mean, you don’t want anyone ever asking that question. Because that means that if you don’t like the result you can sue. You gotta have a better process. You gotta tell people in your regs what you will accept.

The other question is how many people get to say no to a project. In Buffalo that’s a huge question. What I need to do in the zoning code redo is ensure everyone’s objections are codified upfront, so they have confidence that whatever is allowed already meets their standards. That will end the desire to have lawsuits, because you built it in upfront. And people who care about good design don’t have to stay up at night worrying, because you wrote the rules to ensure good design.

AV: How does a form-based municipal code mesh with a state program like the Empire Zone?

Reilly: Everybody can say bad things about the Empire Zone, and they’d be right. However, there too you don’t want to kill something—you want to make it better. It’s a one-size-fits-all program; we didn’t design it that way, the state legislature did. But it is the single most differentiating factor for a business to look at relocating to Buffalo. So you’ve got to find a way to fix it.

It costs the same to do a historic rehab in Buffalo as it does in New York City, but the rents and the sale prices in New York City are much higher. That’s why we’re not having any reuse of our old buildings. So when we redo our zoning code, we have to talk about ways to address that problem that New York City doesn’t have. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all program. The other thing is in New York a lot of law is written from an owner-centric point of view. Bank of America is going to build another bank, they’re going to own the bank, so the program is geared toward that.

In Buffalo it’s not usually the business that builds the building, it’s a developer who builds the building. So you get these weird perversities where a developer has to hire a janitor and count that as job creation, because the program doesn’t recognize tenants.

So—terrible program. But what’s worse is the current proposal that people who are entered into the program are now going to have to meet a new standard years later. What does that say to anyone who might want to come to New York? Come to New York, play by the rules, but we might change them later one. I mean, that’s really bad.

The Empire Zone has the same problem as Buffalo’s zoning code: You have to decide what you want, where the bar is, and then craft your regulations and incentives to get what you want. First you have to know what you want.

In zoning, we need to learn what we want by talking to people. We need to get people together and say, “What do you want?” And we also need to talk about constraints. Part of the problems on the near East Side downtown—the stuff that I hate, the buildings on Main Street that I hate—my fear is that’s what the market will bear. If that’s what you find out—and it could be the case, right? People only have so much per square foot to spend—then you have to say, “What support can we put into place to get good design even for modest budgets?” That’s a great challenge for design advocates.

AV: Say it takes two years. How do you steer development in the meantime so that it matches the goals you’ll set in the form-based code?

Reilly: One good thing, if you want to look at it this way, is that we’re in a depression, so there’s not going to be lot of new building right now. The design crimes won’t have occasion to be committed just yet. So can we use this slow period to get the zoning code redone, get some political buy-in?

Because there are some communities that will say any development is better than nothing, so we want the Rite-Aid. I have to have an answer for that. The trick would be to have a consulting team that has gone into particularly poor neighborhoods and say, “This is how design guidelines can actually improve things for you.” It’s not just about elites saying, “This is how a city should look” and chasing away any kind of development. It’s “How do we do something in your neighborhood that will endure for 20 years, that will add value, that’ll get you the next project across the street rather than just the Rite-Aid?”

AV: But it’s less about the use, right, which is how folks who don’t want Rite-Aids have tried to stop big-box projects in the past—even though their objections are more aesthetic than use-based.

Reilly: A form-based smart code is what we’re asking for. So in a sense it doesn’t matter what a building looks like. What matters is the building’s massing in relation to the street. Even a funny-looking building, if you get the size and location right, you’re 90 percent there. There are other ways to do the tweaking, the facade, stuff like that. But most of our problems in Buffalo, the things you don’t like—on Main Street, for example—have committed the massing or the setback or whatever sins. So I’m not so worried about the design.

In Milwaukee and in Charlottesville, Virginia, the architecture and planning schools were very involved in both raising the bar for design expectations and in creating the tools that help developers create good design. So we’re gonna look at—I don’t know if we can call it a community design center, but we’re going to look at that.

AV: How big a lift is this code reform?

Reilly: There’s just so much work to do here in Buffalo. Which is why you’re not going to be done in year changing all this stuff. We know where we can go, but there’s so much internal work to do.

There’s 20 years of neglect here, and you’ve got to strip it away. It’s on the policy side, the staff side, the regulatory side, and we’re trying to chip away at these things. And I think the most important thing we can do to affect development in Buffalo is to redo the code.

blog comments powered by Disqus