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Thread: No NUs in Buffalo: why the Rust Belt rejects New Urbanism

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
    Mar 1996
    Upstate New York
    Blog entries

    No NUs in Buffalo: why the Rust Belt rejects New Urbanism

    I'm working on an article describing why NU is nonexistent in Buffalo, and rare in the Great Lakes region: "No NUs in Buffalo: Why The Rust Belt Rejects New Urbanism". A summary of the major reasons I think NU is not part of the planning and development picture in the region:

    * Negative associations with urban-like built environments are still stuck in the heads of much of an insular and aging population, thanks to lots of cultural baggage left over from years of decline, flight, and racial tensions.

    * Very low land values offer no incentive for compact development. Developers can build $200K houses on 1/2 acre lots and still make a tidy profit.

    * Outdated zoning codes often have no PUD requirements, or mandate very low maximum densities in PUDs and even multi-family districts. We're talking about codes that still mention telegraph offices and haberdasheries.

    * Conservative local developers and builders are leery of straying from a "tried and true" formula of single family houses on large lots in a cul-de-sac filled subdivision. There's nothing on the ground in the area, so they're leery of being the guinea pig for NU.

    * Conservative lenders/bankers. See the above.

    * Land ownership/platting pattern: there are few large parcels available for a good-sized NU development, and it's very difficult to acquire and agglomerate smaller parcels.

    * Possible cries of NIMBY because of the much smaller lot sizes associated with NU are likely. The small lot suburban development (5,000-6,000'^2 lots) that is the norm in California, Colorado and the Sunbelt is rare or nonexistent in post-1960 Rust Belt suburbia; those in the Rust Belt aren't accustomed to the sight of higher density suburbs. In the eyes of many, small lot sizes = cheaper houses and more intensive traffic.

    * In New York state, there is the possibility of opposition from local governments if developed as single-family condominiums, due to lower property tax rates.

    * There is widespread belief that cities should copy the built environment of its suburbs. The roots of this may be a spurious relationship logical fallacy. "Amherst is growing. Amherst is dominated by low-density residential development. Therefore, Amherst is growing because it is dominated by low-density residential development on winding drives and cul-de-sacs. For Buffalo to grow, it needs to be more like Amherst, and have plenty of low-density residential development in loop-and-lollypop subdivisions too."

    * Desperate local officials have low expectations and a fear of scaring developers away from their communities by asking for more than the bare minimum. "Any development is better than no development."

    * Perceptions of design limitations; not just the usual concerns about emergency vehicles but also about snow storage.

    What do you think? If you're in the American Rust Belt, why do you think New Urbanism and traditional neighborhood development has been slow to take off there?

  2. #2
    Sep 2007
    Columbia, SC
    Maybe not specific to the rust belt, but I just don't like having people piled on top of/around me. There are a lot of people who feel the same. I think NU is pretty cool in concept, I really do, but I would, and do, choose not to live in that environment.

  3. #3
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
    Jun 2003
    at the neighboring pub
    Quote Originally posted by Captain Worley View post
    Maybe not specific to the rust belt, but I just don't like having people piled on top of/around me. There are a lot of people who feel the same. I think NU is pretty cool in concept, I really do, but I would, and do, choose not to live in that environment.
    And that's fine. What's mysterious is that a whole geographic region seems conspicuously absent of this development style. I have a really tough time believing there aren't at least some folks in the Lake Erie area that would prefer living in a NU development. I think the question is what has discouraged the market from providing such a housing option.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman GŲring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  4. #4
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
    Mar 2004
    Where the weak are killed and eaten.
    Much of that applies to the Detroit area as well.

    However, there are countless examples of New Urbanist infill, brownstone style condominiums, mixed used developments, shopping centers, and new subdivisions that at least borrow some from new urbanism.

    I would think you need to at least have a few successful projects so that it ups the ante and the developers have to give more. Once you can get the developers to see a benefit, then the municipalities should fall in suit to try and capture the development.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian jsk1983's avatar
    Feb 2004
    Chicago, IL
    Perhaps part of the casue here is the relatively high supply of pre-war suburban development (ie. street car suburbs, villages, etc.) If someone wants to live in such an environment, housing is readily available in places such as Kenmore, North Buffalo, Williamsville, and the like.

  6. #6
    Feb 2007
    San Francisco, CA
    I think weather is a factor as well. One of the chief goals of NU is to create "walkable" areas. Walking around in the winter isn't always ideal in most of the rust belt - and as some others have mentioned, there are already many walkable areas in older suburbs for those who want that experience.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
    Dec 2001
    West Valley, AZ
    My community, as many have heard before, is "pioneering" in a way. We are a rust belt city with no impediments to sprawl, 115k and have been slowly shrinking in the past couple censuses. That has probably leveled off and actually changed as a positive gain in the last 6 years.

    We have introduced form-based code and new urbanism concepts. They have been adopted by council but are only applied to the pre-1950 portion of the City for many of the reasons Dan stated (even though they do not hinder suburban type development). The code is flexibly written to encourage mixed uses and the zoning is extremely fined grained. "spot" zoning can no longer be called a bad word when it helps foster a walking/ mixed-modal environment.

    In the last 2 months that this has been active, the code has dramatically improved the quality of infill housing. I'll follow-up with pics when the construction of a couple new infill homes are complete.

    The hesitation to adopt the code comes from teh commercial markets. They fear that the design restrictions (such as maximum building setbacks) will be detrimental to commerce, even if they are still able to provide the minimum parking required in front of the building. The developers want to over-park because that is what they are used to doing. They refuse to put parking in the rear, even if it is just excess parking that is only used by employees. Changing the culture is the hardest thing.

    We've had countless, and I really mean countless, informational and educational sessions on the new code...most met with lukewarm attendance. We've sent personal invitations to realtors, developers, engineers, etc all pleading with them to become familiar with the code, help up tailor the code and question the code. Again, almost no response except from the usual suspects (sign companies, neighborhood advocates).

    Luckily, the local political desire for this code is strong as it does make it easier and more lucrative to develop in the older parts of town. Education is paramount. NU can't be sold as a panacea and must be defined for what it is at every opportunity.

    With new development remaining to be cheap and the urban school district struggling, it'll be a while before a redevelopment resurgrance arises. NU is only one facet of many strategies which are needed to foster rust-belt redevelopment. Appropriate use of tax incentives are another, a strong school district is another and an effective police force is the other major piece... IMO.

  8. #8

    Jul 2002
    Chicago, IL
    Dan, as a Rust Belt resident myself, I think your first two points capture it all.

    I don't think any other region of the country has the same enmity for the urban scale as the Great Lakes/Upper Midwest, and over the last several decades our region has become the most insular in the nation (thank you, Sun Belt migration!).

    Most importantly, there are very few physical constraints to sprawl development in the Great Lakes/Upper Midwest -- no mountains, no deserts, mostly acres of cheap farmland and forest.

  9. #9
    Nov 2005
    In the Peach State
    Maybe NU in not a new idea in these cities because they went through their development boom prior to WWI. This was a time when urbanism was not new, it was common. The concept of revering to this for new development when you can go down the street and get the authentic thing may not be that appealing.

  10. #10
    Sep 2007
    BFLO, NY
    Well, this is right up my alley. As a soulless former planner now in the development field, I can answer this item by item.

    1. There may negative views of urban areas ridden with crime, but as most would agree, urban areas as a whole are not viewed negatively. In fact, areas of Buffalo, specifically North Buffalo/Parkside and Elmwood are very vibrant and sought after locations. Also, being a northern city developed pre-auto, the city and itís first ring suburbs for the most case are very dense and very urban. Buffalo, the Tonawandas, Lackawanna, Amherst, Cheektowaga are urban, but because theyíre not in the city proper, theyíre not deemed ďurban,Ē even though the majority of Erie County residents live in these communities.

    2. Exactly. You can buy 100 acres in Niagara County for $500,000, put houses that sell to the majority of the market and make good money.

    3. Most of the next areas of growth (Orchard Park, Lancaster, Clarence) have some sort of density code. The codes you mention that have telegraph offices are likely the older first ring suburbs I mention above that area dense already and will never see NU in them. I do challenge you to tell me what munis they are, I hate when someone makes comments like that to belittle someone or someplace and not back it up.

    4. Iíve heard more than one major developer say ďIíll be the first to be second in line.Ē These guys are all old school developers who have method that works, sadly.

    5. I disagree. If youíre a major developer with a successful track record and take an NU project to a local bank, theyíll bite. The real issue is, no one has done so. Donít blame the bank for not funding what itís presented to them.

    6. Agreed, as noted above with the density of the greater metro area, there isnít space to compile land. Youíd have to destroy an existing urban pattern to recreate what youíre destroying. Stupid and wasteful. The large parcels are in the suburbs and hence developed as traditional subdivisions.

    7. Well, as someone noted, we have no limited factors to growth. If the market wants 20,000 sq ft lots, they can have them. There are not mountains constraining how many total lots can be built. Again, watch the stereotype about not accustomed to high density suburbs, as noted above. Maybe look into some reports on the area, some census data, maybe check the Erie County mapping website and runs some maps by density. You seem pretty dead set that Buffalo is only large lots from the Niagara River to Transit Road and youíre way off.

    8. Exactly. Why would anyone want growth in developed acres without growth in population and then allow that growth to get a tax break for their services? Read Better Not Bigger.

    9. I wonít even get into this because Amherst isnít total dominated by low density development. What do you consider low density? Again, I think youíre misguided. Sure it has subdivisions with large lots but a lot of subdivisions have pretty standard lots. Sure, theyíre not 33x100 city of Buffalo lots, but my main contention with NU is that they feel like everyone should want that and should be forced into it. If youíre a young professional, raising a family, you want a place for your kids to play thatís private, you donít always want to be in some common area.

    10. I can tell you that many of the suburbs have that fear, and many donít. Depends. The older areas do, the areas seeing development pressure donít. Come to an Orchard Park, Amherst, Lockport, Clarence or Wheatfield planning board meeting.

    11. Not sure what you mean about design limitations and the snow issues seems made up. Never run across complains about snow. Nothing in WNY is design for snow storage. About the only time snow is brought up is in parking lots where they prefer curbs to save the lawns and landscaping from plows.

    NU isnít a northern phenomena because we have urbanism. Why are the rust belts cities singles out but NYC, Boston, Philly are not? They have the same development patterns basically as Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo. So where is the difference? Developable land. Many rust belt cities have it, the major east coast cities do not. NU was developed in response to crappy Floridian development like Orlando, not because of Buffalo. We already have urbanism. Until we have increase population in Buffalo, there is no use for NU here. Why? You canít create town centers with retail and mixed housing on some cornfield.

  11. #11
    A majority of the so called NU developments (anywhere in the country) are not true New Urbanist. As a matter of fact most of these projects are the result of a single developer and architect making unilateral decisions which goes counter to New Urbanism tenets.

  12. #12
    Aug 2005
    Davis, CA
    As far as I see it, there will not be enough demand for new urbanist development unless you have:

    - Development pressures and a dwindling supply of land

    - A limited supply of old urbanism and (re)-developable land in the urban core

    The rust belt emphatically lacks either of these characteristics. It has:

    - Plenty of cheap land

    - Plenty of abandoned or under-utilized old urbanist areas that can be redeveloped, rehabilitated, and so on. Why build "new" urbanism when there is so much old urbanism there for the taking?

    As others have pointed out, the entire Northeast has a significant lack of NU-ism. As far as I know (correct if I am wrong), there is not a single NU development in the New York metro area. And why would there be? If you want urbanism in that area, you can move to Manhattan, or the boroughs, not to mention Jersey City, New Brunswick, Princeton, New Haven, Stamford, etc. Sure, there is plenty of new urban development going on, but it is happening in these already-existing urban areas.

    NYC has development pressures and high land costs, but has such an abundance of old urbanism that can be redeveloped or added on to, that it does not need New Urbanism.

    Two parts of the country where NU has thrived are the West Coast and the Southeast. Both these regions have high land costs, strong development pressures, and started out with an inadequate supply of old-urbanist fabric to meet the demand for urbanism.

  13. #13
    May 2007
    Buffalo, NY
    I agree with bflo and unless. Since the population is decreasing, there's no real need to use the land more efficiently, because there's no worry of overwhelming the existing infrastructure. If the population was growing like in places where they do use New Urbanism ideas, then it would probably make sense to use it here too.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
    Mar 2007
    Lowering the PCI in the Hills
    I think one major problem with promoting NU in the rust belt areas is the changing demographics.

    With populations shrinking in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, etc. there is limited incentive for communities to promote infill and rehabs of existing building because there is a perception among the remaining residents that there is even less of a chance of running out of developable land anytime soon (unfortunately, with the decreasing population, there is of course actually more of an incentive to have infill so that new infrastructure does not need to be built).

    Also, the examples of NU that people in these areas may have (at least in the Detroit area) are built over corn fields 40 miles from the city because of the cheap land in those areas. I think that when the residents of a region look at these few examples (I am thinking mainly of the "Cherry Hill" project in Plymouth, MI), they say to themselves, "Thay looks great. Now build something like that closer to civilization."

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