How Buffalo’s Zoning Code Subsidizes Sprawl, Costs the City $$$
28 June 2012 No Comment
This article, written by David Steel, was originally published at Buffalo Rising and reprinted with the author’s permission.
Buffalo not only legislates to promote sprawl style land use patterns, it also rewards sprawl based development with a generous gift from the tax payers. In my last few posts dealing with the current city zoning code here, here, and here, I showed how some of Buffalo’s most beloved buildings and neighborhoods can not be replicated today because of an absurd outdated law – the Buffalo zoning code.
I also recently wrote here about how much less property tax is collected from sprawl based property when compared to equivalent densely built property. This massive government subsidy of sprawl in the form of drastically lower taxes is true in Buffalo as well. The result of this legal and economic attack on urbanism is to create a city full of parking lots and empty space. As an example of this I looked at some of the properties from 783 to 701 Elmwood.
This is possibly the most prosperous stretch of Elmwood. Its land use patterns range from very dense to outright sprawl with some properties containing nothing but parking. The drastic variation in tax rates and money collected from nearby and adjacent properties is shocking.
The first building I looked at was 758 Elmwood. It is a beautiful 3-storey 1890s building with 20 apartments above a very nice row of shops at street level. It fills the width of its site but only about 1/2 the depth of its lot and has no parking. The remaining space appears to be a shady back yard. It is a wonderful building that people in the neighborhood love. It adds great character and vibrance to the street but, as with other buildings of this type in Buffalo, it cannot be replicated by law.
To make it legal you will need to add space for 46 cars and as much as 10,000 square feet of open land. That would almost double the current lot size. Of course to do this you will need to tear down its productive and attractive densely built neighboring buildings. I also looked at the M&T branch bank building which sits on the next property south. It is a good example of what the zoning code loves. It is only one story tall with only one use – banking. It is set back from the street with a small dull plaza area filled with useless little trees in front and a giant parking lot in the back. Cars need to cross over the sidewalk to access the parking in two places creating a dangerous situation for pedestrians.
The building is not unattractive but it hardly adds much life to the street, especially after it closes at 5:00 pm. This site used to be mostly filled up with the amazing dark old Public School #30. The school was a gloriously hulking 4 stories from the 1890s. Anyone who remembers that great old building knows what a major loss that was. It was torn down just because. It would have made a great apartment building today and it likely would have paid the city significantly more in taxes than the bank does. (of course old school 30 did not meet the code either). This is where the city’s sprawl, tax payer gift comes in. As I noted, sprawl pays significantly less in taxes to the city of Buffalo than neighboring dense development.
701 Elmwood (the one story parking lot and bank) pays only about $0.51 per square foot of property.
715 Elmwood (the densely built mixed use apartment building) pays about $1.21 per square foot of property – more than three times the rate paid by the bank.
766 Elmwood (parking lot see more below) pays only about $0.09 per square foot of property – only $1,380 per year – the neighboring dense property pays almost $13,000
In raw dollar terms the dense apartment building is paying $6773 more in taxes than the bank. But if you consider that the bank property, if built out to the level of the apartment building, could be paying as much as $37,000 or approximately $26,000 more than it currently pays. So you can see that the people of Buffalo are forking over a substantial sum so that M&T bank can maintain a big convenient free parking lot.
Then there is the partially gravel covered parking lot at 766 Elmwood which sits between Globe Market and the 7 Eleven store. The owners recently proposed a new high density building for the site – a proposed building which does not meet the zoning and for which they will need to ask for a variance. In the meantime the owners have graciously allowed free parking on the land. This parking lot pays only $1,380 in property taxes per year. That works out to about only 9 cents a square foot! The apartment building at 715 Elmwood pays more than 17 times more in taxes on a smaller property… that is more than 1700% more! If built to the same potential as 715 Elmwood the parking lot should collect as much as $25,000 or probably more since a new building mostly likely would be taxed at a higher rate.
Just looking at these two sprawl style properties in Buffalo’s most prosperous neighborhood you can see how the City is potentially leaving as much as 62,000 in tax money on the table – in just 2 properties! The so called “free” parking provided on these properties does not look so free all of a sudden. With so much of Buffalo reduced to no value at all how can this tax discount be justified in the city neighborhood that is growing in value? What business discounts its hottest product like this? With so much of the city reduced to basically $0 in value it is insane to discount the areas that are accelerating in value and then also make it illegal to do what it takes to make the land pay what it should be paying. This is just an incentive for disinvestment in Buffalo. That makes no sense. Buffalo has been buckling under to sprawl culture for more than 60 years now. It has not worked. Time to try urbanism again.