Comments on: Zoning 101: Area, Height, Placement it's like being there Tue, 16 Sep 2014 04:56:38 +0000 hourly 1 By: jay jay Wed, 05 Aug 2009 00:31:08 +0000 I always thought placement of structures with setbacks were also to protect home owners having homes built in front of them. For instance, a 25-foot minimum front setback would mean that a building needs to have a 25-foot buffer between it and the front lot line that separates it from a public right of way or street. This apparently is not the case in the neighborhood of Garden Park Homes where a home was built in front of another without any rezoning of the parcels such as a Planned Development.

By: John Floyd John Floyd Sat, 01 Aug 2009 22:02:16 +0000 Mr. Warpehoski,

Ms. Armentrout has a point – the public is only asked to comment on draft plans and ordinances. There is no public input when plans are being made. That it takes the city a long time to put these drafts into final form does not alter the lack of community input into the bulk of the policy change process. This opaqueness of the pre-draft process, and the “this-is-what-we’re-doing-folks, like it or lump it” attitude of city officials, combined with non-responsive “responses” to public enquiries, is what leads to the sense of betrayed trust.

Whether or not current zoning should change, we are not embarked on a process that will change our zoning for the better. It may be a bit narrow to suggest that the only option to current zoning is to give carte blanche to the current political class.

By: Vivienne Armentrout Vivienne Armentrout Sat, 01 Aug 2009 18:10:38 +0000 This comment thread is paralleling a thread on Arbor Update on “what kind of city/development do we want”. I’m not sure that this is the place for expounding different competing visions at length, though that question underlies the response to the AHP revisions. Clearly that is the discussion that we need to have as a community.

Unfortunately, we are not having that discussion. Rather than seeking a common vision from the public, the public is being presented with draft plans and ordinances and being invited to comment on them. (A short list: A2D2, AHP, AATPU, and the combined (and edited!) general plan.) The plans and ordinances all assume a certain vision, namely intensive development within the city. While there are public hearings, there is little opportunity to see what the true likely impact of these changes are; rather, the presentations are more along the line of a sales talk. The public may suggest a few changes around the edges, or may protest the overall direction, but there is little opportunity to make substantive suggestions that reflect a different vision of the city.

The nearest attempt to have real public participation was the Calthorpe exercises. These were manipulated toward a predetermined outcome, but did make some attempt to gather preferences at the beginning, rather than the end, of the process. However, many recommendations of the final report are not being followed in the current process.

It is difficult for the public to respond adequately to this torrent of proposed changes that are likely to change the nature of our city (and in fact, that is presented as their selling point). So even if there have been discussions by various bodies open to the public for a couple of years, this is still a very rapid process.

By: Chuck Warpehoski Chuck Warpehoski Sat, 01 Aug 2009 17:39:41 +0000 Great discussion! Thank you Chronicle for providing a venue for it!

Let me chime in again:
1. As I’ve followed discussions about development in Ann Arbor, I’ve “The option of urbanism: investing in a new American dream” by UM Professor Christopher B. Leinberger to be very helpful. Leinberger’s book explores:

* The transition from the 40s and 50s-era walkable/transit focused development to the 70s and 80s-era car-focused, suburbs and strip malls model of development, and the positives and negatives of that change for society;

* How the S&L bailout of the 1980s brought Wall Street into the real estate market and how that’s contributed to the homogenization of development; and

* How demographic changes are leading up to pent-up demand for “walkable urbanism,” and which may mean we’ve already overbuilt drivable suburban developments.

The Ann Arbor Library has a copy, or I’m sure Nicola’s would order it for you. It’s a good book to put these discussions in a broader context.

Armentrout talked about a sense that this process has been one of “numerous planning ventures that the city government is undertaking in a great rush.” Floyd describes this as a process that has “gone on long before issues are brought to the public.” According to the AHP Staff Report, this process began in 2007, has been back and forth between planning commission, City Council working sessions, and the Commission’s Ordinance Revisions Committee. The staff report also describes this as part of the process of implementing recommendations in the Non-Motorized Plan and Northeast Areas Plan. At the 5th Ward meeting I attended, it seemed that staff was responsive to the comments offered. This really doesn’t seem to me to be a hasty endeavor detached from public participation and public process.

Jack Eaton makes several points. This comment is already getting too long, so I’ll just respond to a few.

Eaton writes, “Experimenting with high-minded theories is risky.” The 50s and 60s-era zoning we have in our commercial districts was an experiment in “let’s drive EVERYWHERE” development. I don’t think it works for the environment, and when I look at Washtenaw Avenue east of Platt, Stadium Blvd and Maple between Pauline and Dexter, South Industrial, or a lot of the other commercial developments affected by these changes, I don’t think that experiment has worked out too well.

Eaton also writes, “For example, replacing chemo-lawns with more buildings is not necessarily an environmental improvement.” Redevelopment of sites that were built before current stormwater and other environmental regulations will often bring them in compliance. If the current K-Mart site on Maple, for example, were re-developed, the new site development would be much better in terms of stormwater runoff.

Eaton also give the example of “the little shopping center at Stadium Boulevard and Packard Road,” which he alleges, “could be replaced by a 50 foot tall multi-use building with reduced setbacks from the streets” under the proposed changes. What he fails to take into account in this example is that the lot on that site is pretty small, and any new construction there would still be under the FAR restrictions. So Eaton’s 4-story, 50-foot building at 200% FAR could only take up a quarter of the lot. I’m not in real estate or finance, so I don’t know the numbers on this, but I can’t imagine the cost of building up four stories would work on such a small lot in a residential area. But I could imagine it being a 2-story, mixed-use, retain-and-residential or retail-and-office site. To me that sounds within scale of the neighborhood.

Finally, when I hear people talk about the neighborhoods and areas in Ann Arbor that they love, I usually hear them refer to areas built before our current zoning laws. They talk about the Burn Park and Kerrytown, not Georgetown Mall of Liberty Heights. If our current zoning laws are not giving us the kind of development we want, why shouldn’t we change it?

By: Nancy Shore Nancy Shore Sat, 01 Aug 2009 14:19:19 +0000 As I read through the comments I seem to see some places where many of us can agree.

I think we can agree that Ann Arbor is a great place to live with many neighborhoods that have a wonderful walkable character.

I think we can agree that as of late there have been several proposed developments that have damaged the trust of the public in a public process of determining what we want our community to look like.

And I think we can agree that while there are parts of Ann Arbor that are beautiful and walkable, there are also some parts of Ann Arbor that resemble strip malls and ghettos of office parks.

It is my hope that some of the ordinance changes will help transform some of the areas that are now less desirable into ones that are more desirable.

But I think where the challenge is that the ordinance changes can only go so far. Can the City really dictate exactly the types of buildings that should be put up on a particular area? How does public enterprise fit into this picture? When people talk about a vision, I do think it’s important for the City government to be involved in this vision, but it also seems to make sense to bring in developers and people with private interests who are actually going to be building these buildings.

It is my hope through all of this that we can find some common ground and get away from some of the visceral reactions that people are having to either no-development are large developments.

Can we agree that we’d like to see Ann Arbor continue to thrive? And can we agree that there are some places in Ann Arbor that could become more walkable, like some of the retail-only and office-only areas? If so, perhaps we can focus on those areas and make sure to have a lot of sensitivity when any of these areas are close to established residential neighborhoods.

As the University continues to grow and as we continue (hopefully) to attract employers to the area, I hope we can find ways to increase the amount of walkable housing in our community so that many of these employees can live in Ann Arbor and contribute to its vibrancy. I hope this is something we can get behind.

By: carrie mayfield carrie mayfield Fri, 31 Jul 2009 21:31:55 +0000 People, you better pay attention, or you will be living next door to a mega gas station, or a business that was shuttered years ago awaiting to be re-opened.
Does anyone Know what is going in the old Shell station at Maple & Miller? Or who Owns it? I moved six yrs ago & it is still being “worked on”
Maybe they are waiting for the zoning change…………

By: carrie mayfield carrie mayfield Fri, 31 Jul 2009 21:25:14 +0000 Please, remember what happened in the Garden Homes subdivision, not two, not three, but FOUR houses put on a lot originally intended for one, maybe two houses! Go on down Fulmer St, halfway on the left, they (the developer) even made his own little “street”! My question, what happened to the original neighborhood plan? Now they are buying the houses with large yards and putting another house on the lot!
(drive further down Fulmer, its on the right, by the path, 2 of them!) And you wonder where is the trust? The council listened to public input(against) then said OK, DO IT! I went to the meetings, I was

By: Jack Eaton Jack Eaton Fri, 31 Jul 2009 20:33:35 +0000 @Murph

I’m glad that you concede that some recent site plans have been to extreme. It would be hard to argue that City Place, 601 Forrest or 42 North were beneficial additions to the City or their respective neighborhoods. I, however, disagree that I’ve engaged in inaccurate or unrelated discussions. The new urbanism discussion relates to the excuses the planning staff asserts for the proposed zoning changes. The transit discussion relates to the staff’s preposterous claim that dense development will cause better transit service. The willingness of suburban populations to forgo palatial homes with vast lawns for high-rises is germane and is different in a small mid-western town than in Atlanta or Boston. So, not only do I think that the proposed changes would allow more extreme development, but I also believe that the rationale asserted by staff to support the changes is wrong.

I admit that, unlike you, I am not a professional urban planner. Thus, when I speak of the New Urbanism, it is in the context of how the Ann Arbor planning staff is using the term to support the proposed zoning changes, not how those theories are discussed in textbooks. Our planning department has offered the Area, Height and Placement proposal as new urbanist, even though the proposal does not address quality. The AHP proposals contain quantitative changes, not qualitative changes. Like you, I have actually read the AHP proposal. I have also attended all six meetings where the plan was explained. The changes in that proposal increase size, decrease setbacks and increase commercial FAR. Not a word in the changes address any aspect that would improve the quality of the developments built under the new zoning specifications. We will end up with more, not with better.

It is quite a leap in logic to presume that increased urban density will end or even curtail sprawl. If we want better places, we need to mandate better places, not taller, denser places. For example, replacing chemo-lawns with more buildings is not necessarily an environmental improvement. To effectuate an improvement, we should offer incentives to commercial property owners to replace chemo-lawns with natural plants.

You seem to imply that if the City allows someone to build a coffee shop within walking distance of my neighborhood, it will cause the demise of strip malls. There is nothing in the proposed zoning changes that will bring about the end of strip malls. Strip malls would just be built taller, with other uses above the Starbucks.

If the current plan were approved, the little shopping center at Stadium Boulevard and Packard Road could be replaced by a 50 foot tall multi-use building with reduced setbacks from the streets. Thus, the nearby homes would have an over sized structure that is not technically a strip mall but would have street level shops and a few floors of other uses towering over homes. The new development would likely have a well-lit parking lot behind the building adjacent to homes. Again, the changes in the AHP proposal address quantity, not quality.

It seems like the academic theories of urban density should be applied to urban areas, like Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta or Boston rather than a mature, small mid-west town like Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor really is not an urban setting. We should not bear the brunt of experimental, unproven theories.

The Planning staff presents simultaneous, conflicting arguments about the impact of the proposed changes. On the one hand, staff asserts that the adoption of density will lead to a reduction in automobile use and improve the city. Separately, and in contradiction to the first assertion, staff argues that citizens need not worry that the zoning will lead to widespread removal of existing development to make way for denser development. Density can only have an impact if widely implemented. So either the proposal will not affect automobile use or it will cause widespread replacement of existing buildings. If it is not widely applied and will not have much impact, then it is unnecessary.

New Urbanism is an untested theory of urban planners. I am sure that the ideas are full of good intent. But, let’s remember that the Cabrini Green type of development was an experiment in well-meaning urban planning. Those projects demonstrate what happens when urban planning fails. Experimenting with high-minded theories is risky.

After conceding that Ann Arbor does not have good transit service, you argue that we need to simultaneously address land use and transit planning. Too late. The City just approved a 20 year transportation plan that did not include any improvement to transit service (such as a grid route system or more frequent service). Instead, the plan is to spend a lot of money on train systems to serve the existing and growing sprawl. After tax payers subsidize the building of those train services, we will have to spend huge sums on operational subsidies because all public transit requires huge subsidies. Those expenditures will compete with bus operation subsidies for ever diminishing transportation dollars. Instead of concurrently planning density and improved transit, the city has a transportation plan that undermines transit improvement while pushing for density as if transit will spontaneously appear when enough people need it.

Whether we achieve that critical mass of transit-ready residents is less important than the existence of operational subsidies. Last year, cities throughout the country experienced rapid growth in transit ridership but could not expand service because there is no money for operational expenses. Our state transit funding comes from the transportation fund (as does road building and other projects) which comes from a tax on gas. With a diminishing population and ever more efficient cars, that gas tax generates significantly less funding each year. In the next couple years, the transit portion of the transportation fund will be too little to satisfy the federal requirement for local matching funds. There will be nothing available to improve transit.

Contrary to your claim, a five minute ride to the grocery store is not doable. In my neighborhood, there are a variety of grocery stores within a mile or a mile and a half. To get from my neighborhood to any of these stores requires riding a bus downtown, changing buses and riding that bus back out to the store. My neighborhood has the density to support bus service to and from nearby shopping centers, but lacks transit service. Adding to the height or reducing the setback to developments in our area will not address the fundamentally poor transit service we have.

Academic studies about large urban areas are not a good reason for changing the zoning code in a small town. I know it’s not an academic study, but I don’t know anyone living in a palatial home in Scio Township who feel they are stuck living there because they cannot find a pedestrian friendly neighborhood. People move out of Ann Arbor for a variety of reasons – high taxes; unresponsive politicians; newer homes – but not for lack of pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. Ann Arbor is not Boston, Atlanta, Chicago or New York. It is a mid-western town that is nearly fully developed. Increasing permissible building height, commercial FAR and reducing setback is not going to make established neighborhoods into something better than they are now. As mentioned before, good transit service doesn’t just happen. It requires significant public subsidies. Density does not provide that funding.

The desire to dramatically increase development within the city also fails to acknowledge the infrastructure problems that come with increased density and population growth. What will they drink? We have had to close drinking supply wells because of the Pall pollution plume. We have little extra capacity. Can our sewer system and watershed system handle growth? Those systems are near capacity. Additional density is not an appropriate response to infrastructure that is near capacity.

In short, the AHP proposals do nothing to address the quality of new developments. While city residents complain that the current regulations allow site plans that have negative impact on existing neighborhoods, the proposed changes merely allow more, not better. Quantity will not lead to quality.

By: Vivienne Armentrout Vivienne Armentrout Fri, 31 Jul 2009 19:36:51 +0000 I was at the Fifth Ward meeting too, and Chuck Warpehoski’s comments are a fair reflection of some of what was said. I’m writing carefully because the planners who presented the material said that they were going to take comments on the Chronicle into account as public comment. I also plan to write up my own summary for my blog. But one thing that came out in comments was that many people simply do not trust the intent or the execution of these numerous planning ventures that the city government is undertaking in a great rush. As was said in different ways by different people, the fact that neighborhoods are having out-of-scale developments thrust down their throats makes many of us suspicious of expansive redefinition of zoning classifications. Most of them amount to much larger buildings on the same parcels (one set includes no cap on building height, which the planners said was being rethought, but without any real commitment). Maybe what the mayor meant was people committed to the “Big (Building) Picture”.

Another issue raised is the concern about the possible effects on adjacent properties. There are, as C.W. mentioned, some specific areas where these redefined zoning classifications could have a significant, as yet unknown, impact on adjacent parcels and a mechanism for anticipating and softening that was not identified.

I also agree with C.W.’s observation that these are a combination of very small fixes (easy to do) and very large changes (need some careful thinking through), and perhaps wrapping them up together will make an ungainly package.

By: John Floyd John Floyd Fri, 31 Jul 2009 19:13:31 +0000 Ms. Shore,

Few people would object to your suggestion of building high rises at State and Eisenhower, or Briarwood. Westgate and Maple Village malls could withstand at least mid-rises if done with some aplomb, as could Plymouth near US 23. Additionally, removing more of the student population to North Campus would restore much of the arts-and-crafts and late-Victorian to their original purpose: small homes on small lots, walking distance from downtown, for permanent residents to own. As you walk these neighborhoods, you can identify the structures that were built as neighborhood retail, and have since, in many cases, been converted to homes. They could be returned to their original purpose. We already have “new” urbanism here – it just needs to recognized and, in some cases, restored.