At one time, Buffalo had neighborhood shops on every corner and sometimes, even mid-block shops in residential neighborhoods (gasp!), to provide the neighborhood with meats, beer, bread, fish, clothing, odds and ends, and more. As suburban sprawl began to happen and cities wanted to compete, Buffalonians adopted the “Elvis Code” in 1953, a zoning code that wanted Buffalo to become just like every other suburb in America. Separate the uses. Build highways. Add parking. Retail in a residential neighborhood with no parking? Blasphemy! No more! You know… the same urban renewal strategy that ended up destroying almost every one of our cities. The problem with that old “Elvis code” was that most of our dense, walkable and mixed use city became instantly illegal overnight.
Across the city, all the neighborhood shops were boarded, abandoned, turned into apartments or were demolished due to neglect. Shopfront owners could continue business but as big box stores grew, they struggled to stay open. Once the doors were shut, they could not reopen or renovate without needing several approved variances. With zoning variances being at the whims of a board decision and a community in decline, why even risk it? Few would. Without zoning approval, you won’t get your bank loan. Without bank loans, you have less money to invest. Without money to invest, neighborhoods decline. With decline… well, we get this.
Why do these little neighborhood shops matter??
Answer: Neighborhood shops are where dreams come true!
Think about it for a second. Neighborhood shops define your place. They help you define your vibe. They give you a place to provide essential services. They are essential to the community because they are where small businesses can start, grow and thrive. Small businesses fill a neighborhood need and become micro employment centers. Jobs build community stability and encourage investment. Shops add positivity, warmth and comfort to the surrounding neighborhood and actually increase safety as street presence is increased! And even in the digital age, a physical space is still so important for organic growth and connecting with customers. In a post-COVID world, they will remain strong as they are desperately needed as a stepping stone for our micro businesses. In short, shopfronts are what’s up.
In 2017, Buffalo NY decided to throw out the old “Elvis Code” and unanimously adopt the Buffalo Green Code. The Green Code is an award-winning form based zoning code that works to enrich our community by allowing more of what we already have – walkable, mixed use neighborhoods. What I describe as the most beautiful paragraph in the Green Code (6.1.1.F -detailed below for reference), neighborhood shops became legal again and are now able to be reopened with the granting of a special use permit from the City Council. Boom! Success!
Putting 6.1.1.F Into Action:
After the Buffalo Green Code was adopted, we saw this little building. It had two apartments and a micro 550sf storefront on the first floor that had been vacant since… you guessed it: the Elvis code!
Knowing the new zoning rules, we took a leap to purchase an underutilized building on Buffalo’s West Side knowing very well that under the siding lay hidden original shopfront windows from 1920. We worked with a local bank who gave us a renovation loan based on the after renovation value which allowed us to dream bigger. We named her Sprout and started our journey to bringing her back to life.
Progress! Here we are removing the crappy 1960’s siding to expose the original shopfront windows for the first time in over fifty years! What a special moment it was. And go figure – we mentioned the space a few times and with little effort, we secured a perfect tenant – a coffee and pie shop! (See, dreams do come true – who doesn’t love pie?!?!)
The great thing about the Buffalo Green Code is that it is doing exactly what it was designed to do: rebuilding our city in a way that honors our past instead of destroying it.
Taking Action In Your Community:
How many vacant neighborhood shops exist in your world that could be neighborhood assets? Hop on your bicycle and count them. If you are looking to rescue the neighborhood shops in your community, consider adopting a zoning ordinance about them. Here is the language from our code to help you advocate for your neighborhood shops and if you’re a zoning nerd like me, you can read the entire thing here.
About the Buffalo Green Code provision that allows neighborhood shops:
6.1.1. F. Neighborhood Shops. An applicant is eligible to apply for a special use permit to establish or expand a commercial use in the N-2R or N-3R zone where the below criteria are met, irrespective of the limitations of Table 6A: Principal Uses. These criteria are intended to allow existing commercial buildings in residential zones to be utilized to incubate small businesses and artisans in order to serve as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization, as a tool for economic development, and as an important component of the walkability of a neighborhood.