New Zoning Code in Buffalo Removes Parking Requirements

When Strong Towns first created its crowdsourced map showing progress on the removal of parking minimum laws across the country, the information submitted about Buffalo, NY stated that a new "green code" was in the works that had the potential to completely eliminate parking minimums in the city. That was exciting news, but today, we're even more excited to share that the Green Code was formally adopted by Buffalo at the end of 2016.

We have a Buffalo resident, Daniel Baldwin Hess, who is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, here to share this update and the backstory behind it.

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Like many Rustbelt cities, the downtown core of Buffalo, New York is pockmarked by surface parking lots. Now, for the first time since 1953, urban planners in Buffalo have performed a complete reset of the Uniform Development Ordinance (UDO) in a project dubbed “The Green Code.” The new UDO, which replaces outdated zoning regulations geared toward 1950s urban renewal, removes minimum parking requirements for new development. This transition to a form-based code is aimed at reinvigorating Buffalo’s vibrant neighborhoods, capitalizing on its good civic “bones” (including a radial street pattern), and emphasizing urban sustainability.

A historic industrial city at the eastern end of Lake Erie, Buffalo declined throughout the twentieth century as manufacturing evolved through globalization. With a population that is less than half of what it was in the 1950s and shrinking per capita wealth, Buffalo is the 6th poorest city in the nation. As sprawl increased, the city desperately tried to cope with a suburban exodus by providing cheap or free parking in the central business district in an effort to make downtown worksites competitive with those found in the suburbs. In a notorious example, the Larkin Administration Building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1906) was demolished in 1950 and converted into a parking lot.

Parking requirements were added to the Buffalo zoning code by the late 1950s. New developments had to conform to a floor-space-to-parking-space ratio for required parking. Even with lower minimum parking requirements than other cities, today, approximately 28 percent of land area in Buffalo’s city center is used for parking but only 63 percent of parking spaces are occupied on an average weekday. This oversupply is compounded by low parking prices set by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps in its municipal parking lots and structures, which occupy the most centrally located and desirable parking areas (depressing parking prices elsewhere). An abundance of inexpensive parking encourages people to drive and weakens the need to search out other travel methods for commuting to work.  

The new Green Code marks a transition away from use-based Euclidean zoning principles to a form-based code which emphasizes contextual settings.  In an effort to recapture the foundation of Buffalo’s vibrancy, mixed-use neighborhoods organized around sustainability principles are intended to be the dominant style of development.  Furthering this goal, the new ordinance completely removes developers’ legal obligation to provide off-street parking. A market-based approach will guide developers and property owners to decide how much, if any, parking to provide.  The removal of minimum parking requirements simplifies the development process and removes barriers to infill development and adaptive reuse. 

86 percent of attendees at an initial public meeting expressed support for repealing minimum parking requirements.

Luckily, the planning team in Buffalo was hungry for new ideas. Following a national meeting held in Buffalo of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and special lectures at the University at Buffalo with Dr. Donald Shoup, the team became well versed on the effect of excess parking supply on urban form. As the Green Code began to take shape, the City of Buffalo Planning team, buoyed by support from environmental and preservation groups, tested the idea of removing parking requirements. The results were astonishing: 86 percent of attendees at an initial public meeting expressed support for repealing minimum parking requirements. Widespread support from developers emphasized how parking minimums hinder development and lead to a parking oversupply. Modest opposition failed to convince others to reject the change in parking minima.

The consequences of this change will be exciting to observe. Opportunities created by the Green Code to increase development in the city center may also increase demand for public transit. Residential housing demand in the central core has already grown, and there is hope that the Green Code (and a lack of parking minima) will encourage creative development that can provide more affordable housing, enhance opportunity for entrepreneurship, preservation, and infill development, and accelerate urban regeneration.

Challenges will also arise: managing on-street parking, and supporting alternatives to driving and parking, as some trips will shift from automobiles to walking, biking or public transit. The city might consider performance-based parking or parking benefit districts to manage potential parking spillover. To further mitigate the spillover effect on residential streets where parking is already congested, parking permit programs could be implemented. While the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law currently prohibits this, work is already underway to modify or repeal this regulation.

In cities faced with declining population, resources are strained, development is scarce, and applying regulatory approaches create challenges for bettering cities. In Buffalo’s slow-growth setting, minimum parking requirements may have served as a hindrance to development. The removal of parking regulations addresses an undervalued and oversupplied parking stock by repealing, rather than adding, a regulation.

(All photos by Daniel Baldwin Hess)

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About the Author

Daniel Baldwin Hess, PhD is Professor of Urban Planning at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His scholarship addresses interactions between transportation, land use, and other public concerns as a means to improve city functions and urban life.