Effort to Overhaul R4C Zoning Continues

Ann Arbor planning staff, commissioners work on proposals to possibly change requirements for parking, accessory structures, density

Ann Arbor planning commission’s ordinance revisions committee meeting (Dec. 27, 2012): With the goal of delivering recommendations to the Ann Arbor planning commission this spring, a subset of planning commissioners have been meeting regularly for several months to work through issues related to R4c/R2A zoning districts.

Bonnie Bona, Diane Giannola, Ann Arbor planning commission, R4C/R2A zoning, city ordinances

Ann Arbor planning commissioners Bonnie Bona, center, and Diane Giannola at the Dec. 27 meeting of the commission’s ordinance revisions committee. (Photos by the writer.)

The Dec. 27 meeting of the commission’s ordinance revisions committee was the latest in a long, politically fraught process of overhauling the city’s R4C/R2A zoning – with an eye toward encouraging density while preserving the character of the neighborhoods.

R4C allows for multiple-family residential dwellings, such as apartment buildings, while R2A zoning limits density to two-family residential structures. Although both types of zoning are being addressed, R4C zoning is receiving the most attention. That type of zoning classification – which allowed for the controversial City Place development on South Fifth Avenue – has been characterized by city planners as “broken,” and in 2009 the city council formed an advisory committee to study the issue. That group presented a final report in May of 2012 to the planning commission, with a set of recommendations and analysis.

Since then, planning commissioners who are members of the commission’s ordinance revisions committee have been reviewing the recommendations and talking through other possible changes as well.

On Dec. 27, ORC members met again, this time focusing on parking requirements. Generally, commissioners seemed to lean toward discouraging parking on site. But commissioner Bonnie Bona felt the advantage of keeping parking requirements is that the city can then offer incentives for property owners to satisfy the requirements without actually providing on-site parking – by including other alternatives on site, like covered bike parking, or by paying into a fund that would support the launch of programs like car-sharing, for example. Commissioner Diane Giannola expressed concern about the impact of parking on residential streets. She also noted that in general, some of these changes might not be appropriate for all neighborhoods that are zoned R4C.

Commissioners reached a consensus to explore linking the parking requirement to the square footage of a structure. The current approach links the parking requirement to the number of units in a structure. Also related to square footage, commissioners briefly recapped a previous discussion they’d had about a possible approach to accessory structures. The idea would be to encourage owners to fix up their accessory structures, by allowing them to renovate or replace the buildings – as long as the renovated or new structures conform to the same size as the existing structures, and are on the same location within the site. Commissioners expressed interest in allowing these structures to be used as accessory dwellings, acknowledging that the previous effort to do that – floated in the 1990s – was strongly opposed by some community members and never taken up by the city council.

These ideas for R4C/R2A zoning are still being developed and are not yet even in draft form. The ORC is working toward a goal of crafting a final set of recommendations for the full planning commission to consider, possibly in March. If the recommendations receive planning commission approval, the next step would be for city councilmembers to take action on specific ordinance changes.

R4C/R2A Zoning: Background

Appointed by the Ann Arbor city council, an R4C/R2A zoning district study advisory committee began working on the issue in December 2009. The committee’s appointment was in part a response to concerns related to the City Place project – which was planned to replaced several older houses with a large two-building apartment complex. The project has since been completed on South Fifth Avenue. Committee members were: Chuck Carver (rental property owner representative), Ilene Tyler and David Merchant (Ward 1 residents), Wendy Carman and Carl Luckenbach (Ward 2 residents), Ellen Rambo and Michele Derr (Ward 3 residents), Julie Weatherbee and Nancy Leff (Ward 4 residents), Ethel Potts (Ward 5 resident). Also on the committee were Jean Carlberg, who at that time served on the planning commission, and Tony Derezinski, who was a city councilmember at the time.

The advisory group completed a report that was presented to the planning commission earlier this year. Commissioners were briefed on the report at a May 2012 working session. [.pdf of advisory committee report. For a detailed background on the issues leading up to this current study – which dates back several decades – see Chronicle coverage: "Planning Group Weighs R4C/R2A Report."]

R4C and R2A zoning districts were established in the 1960s, and applied to existing neighborhoods – resulting in many parcels that did not conform to the zoning regulations. R4C allows for multiple-family residential dwellings, such as apartment buildings, while R2A zoning limits density to two-family residential structures. Most of the advisory committee recommendations relate to R4C districts.

R4C, Ann Arbor zoning, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

The dark red areas are those locations that are zoned R4C in the city of Ann Arbor. (Image links to Google Map)

The advisory committee’s report includes 10 recommendations, with accompanying analysis. [.pdf of recommendations] The major recommendations relate to: (1) rebuilding structures that don’t conform to existing zoning; (2) rezoning certain areas from R4C to R2A; (3) reducing minimum lot sizes and minimum lot widths; (4) exploring the creation of zoning overlay districts; (5) revising density calculations; (6) revising parking standards; and (7) changing requirements for lot combinations. The report also recommended no changes to zoning for rooming houses or group housing (such as fraternities or sororities).

Aside from a general recommendation regarding non-conformance, the recommendations all relate to R4C districts.

In May 2012 – after the advisory committee report was presented at a planning commission working session – it was decided that the commission’s ordinance revisions committee would take a closer look at the report. The committee was to draft a set of recommendations to bring before the full planning commission. Members of the ordinance revisions committee are Bonnie Bona, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal and Wendy Woods. ORC meetings are open to any commissioner, however.

The planning commission’s fiscal 2013 work program, approved by commissioners in June of 2012, set a target of December 2012 as the completion date for R4C/R2A recommendations. That target date has shifted to March of 2013, when recommendations are to be brought to a full planning commission meeting. Commissioners would then vote on recommendations that would be forwarded to the city council for final action. Due to the controversial nature of the issue, it’s likely that further changes would also be made by the council.

The Dec. 27 meeting was attended by city planner Matt Kowalski, who’s the staff point person for the R4C/R2A project, and planning commissioners Bonnie Bona, Diane Giannola and Kirk Westphal. Westphal participated via speakerphone.

Accessory Structures

The Dec. 27 ORC meeting began with a recap of ideas regarding an approach to accessory structures, which commissioners had discussed at a previous committee meeting on Dec. 10. City planner Matt Kowalski said that after the Dec. 10 meeting, he’d walked through some of the R4C neighborhoods west of State Street to assess the status of accessory structures in that area – including garages and other detached out-buildings.

Kowalski noted that there are quite a few of these buildings, and he estimated that 75% of them aren’t usable at this point – owners just haven’t torn them down.

Kirk Westphal, the planning commission’s chair, asked for clarification about the previous discussion. Kowalski explained that the idea that had been discussed was to encourage owners to fix up their accessory structures, by allowing them to renovate or replace the buildings – as long as the renovated or new structures conform to the same size as the existing structures, and are on the same location within the site.

Diane Giannola noted that this would provide a way for people to have accessory dwellings, where people could live, or to use as a place for parking their vehicles.

accessory structure, Old West Side, Ann Arbor zoning, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

An accessory structure in the back of a house on the city’s Old West Side.

By way of background, the issue of accessory dwellings has been a controversial one in Ann Arbor. The planning commission has looked at the issue several times, including a major effort in the late 1990s. The planning commission at that time brought forward recommendations that received major pushback from some members of the community, and mayor John Hieftje ultimately did not bring the recommended changes to the council for consideration. The forcefulness of that opposition is typically noted by anyone who has raised the issue since then.

Currently, the only kind of accessory dwellings allowed in Ann Arbor must be attached to the principal dwelling and be less than 600 square feet. Other requirements include: (1) the principal dwelling must be owner-occupied; and (2) the occupant of the accessory apartment must be a relative of the owner. An available special exception use for accessory apartments has been sought only two times since it was added to the zoning regulations for residential properties in the 1980s.

At the Dec. 27 ORC meeting, planning commissioner Bonnie Bona said these secondary structures already have “spatial preference” within the neighborhood, so it would be a way to allow an existing accessory unit to be used. Kowalski added that now, the structures are just taking up space and most of them are used as storage, with “crap piled up in there.”

Bona said she suspected that very few of the structures could be saved. But she noted that the important piece of any ordinance change would be to require any new buildings to be the same size that’s currently on the site, in the same location. The structures have a smaller footprint and lower height than the main buildings that are in R4C districts, and are typically in the back yard.

Kowalski pointed out that moving this issue forward would require revisiting the accessory dwelling unit debate of the 1990s.

Parking Requirements

The main focus of the Dec. 27 meeting was on parking requirements in the R4C/R2A zoning districts. Matt Kowalski began by reviewing the recommendations of the advisory committee.

From The Chronicle’s report on the advisory committee recommendations:

Currently, the same number of parking spaces – 1.5 spaces per unit – are required, regardless of how many bedrooms are in each unit. It was felt that this approach encourages developers to put more bedrooms per unit, [Matt Kowalski] said. Committee members and public participation indicated a strong desire to encourage a mix of different number of bedrooms per unit, so a graduated scale of parking requirements is recommended.

Recommendation: Adopt a graduated scale of calculating required parking based on unit type (above), increasing parking requirements as number of bedrooms in units increase. The Advisory Committee also recommends investigating an off-site parking storage concept and other alternative parking methods.

The recommendation calls for keeping the same parking requirement – 1.5 spaces per unit – for units with 0-4 bedrooms, but increasing the requirement to 2 spaces per unit for units with 5-6 bedrooms.

The 2011 draft report had recommended a more fine-grained parking requirement, corresponding to the three recommended unit types: 0.5 spaces for each 0-2 bedroom unit; 1 space for each 3-4 bedroom unit; and 2 spaces for each 5-6 bedroom unit.

According to the final report, a majority of committee members felt that the parking requirement shouldn’t control a building’s site design, and that open space shouldn’t be converted to parking in order to meet the requirement. But some committee members expressed concern about ensuring adequate on-site parking. The report states that the committee also recommends that parking requirements be studied further, in conjunction with all the other R4C recommendations.

In recapping the recommendations on Dec. 27, Kowalski characterized the advisory committee as being unable to come to a consensus about parking. “Some wanted more parking, some wanted less,” he said. But he added that no one wanted to completely eliminate parking requirements.

Bonnie Bona wanted to explore the argument in favor of not having a parking requirement, even if the committee ultimately doesn’t make that recommendation. She said she intuitively knew why, but needed to work through how to articulate the reasoning.

Diane Giannola noted that if there are no parking requirements, then that’s incentive for housing targeted at undergraduates. Even if you are a graduate student or young professional who walks to school or work, you still own a car, she said. So by eliminating the parking requirement, Giannola reasoned, those neighborhoods would become more focused on undergraduate housing.

Bona disagreed, saying that even if the city doesn’t require parking, the landlords could still provide it if they wanted to market their properties to graduate students or young professionals.

Giannola clarified she wasn’t necessarily opposed to eliminating parking requirements, but she had concerns about the impact on neighborhoods. Almost all residents have cars, she said, even if they don’t drive it every day.

Parking Requirements: Other Options

Bona identified one advantage of having parking requirements: That the city can then give developers some options to provide instead of parking. If there are no parking requirements, that’s not possible. “If we take it away, we don’t get anything for it,” she observed. Westphal agreed, saying it was something to use as a carrot for providing other things that the city might want.

Bona pointed to the city’s payment-in-lieu-of-parking for the downtown development districts as an example of that. Developers can buy out of the city’s on-site parking requirement by paying for parking permits within the city’s parking system. Most recently, the proposed residential development at 624 Church St. in downtown Ann Arbor – a 13- or 14-story, 83-unit apartment building with approximately 181 beds – was granted the payment-in-lieu option by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. The developer will be able to provide 40 spaces of required parking by contracting for the spaces in the public parking system, instead of building the spaces on site as part of the project.

Matt Kowalski, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor city planner Matt Kowalski.

Bona also supported a more holistic approach. If the city eliminates parking, then other transportation sources need to be provided at the same time. The city has buses and bike racks, she said, and services like Zipcar. But the big element that’s missing is a car-sharing program, she said. It’s only being done experimentally in other places – that is, the concept of a private individual being able to rent out their car. That kind of approach needs to be integral to whatever zoning changes are made, she said, because we live in a community where grocery stores aren’t very close to residential areas. “Parking in lieu might help pay for getting something like [car-sharing] going.”

Commissioners discussed the difference between Zipcar, a private company that offers a membership-based car rental service, and car-sharing programs, in which individuals rent out their own vehicles. It’s like a ride board, Bona explained – except that instead of giving someone a ride, “you let them use your car.” She said there are only a couple of cities that had such programs on an experimental basis, including Portland, Oregon.

Kowalski thought it was an idea worth exploring. But he noted that if the parking requirement is reduced based on someone’s participation in Zipcar or another car-sharing program, then the city has to monitor that participation. “And what happens if they drop out?”

Tandem parking and car elevators were other ideas mentioned during the meeting, as was the possibility of remote parking lots where owners could rent spaces for long-term parking. Kowalski noted that if remote parking involved privately-owned lots, it would be difficult to include that incentive in zoning regulations.

Westphal pointed to the city’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and encouraging alternative transportation. He said those goals would be more likely achieved if there are fewer cars in the neighborhoods. Eliminating parking requirements would be one way that the city could work toward that.

Bona urged her colleagues to watch a recent TED talk regarding the effects of “nudging” – encouraging slight changes in behavior that have dramatic impacts. [TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and the 18-minute lectures at its conferences – known as TED Talks – are focused on what organizers call “ideas worth spreading.” Bona was referring to a September 2012 talk by Jonas Eliasson that focused on changing driver habits to alleviate traffic congestion. The concept of nudging was also addressed in a 2009 TED talk by Sendhil Mullainathan, titled "Solving social problems with a nudge."]

Bona felt that Ann Arbor could provide a nudge by keeping a parking requirement in R4C districts – either the current requirement or a new one that the advisory committee recommended. But in addition, the city could make premiums available so that property owners could avoid the parking requirement.

In addition to Zipcar and car-sharing, there are also ride-sharing programs offered by companies like Zimride and GreenRide, Bona said. Currently, Zimride and GreenRide are only offered to people affiliated with the University of Michigan. She said she’d support exploring how to expand those ride-sharing programs to the rest of the community, too.

Kowalski wondered why more people didn’t use taxis. There was some discussion about the cost, and Bona suggested inviting someone from the city’s taxicab board to talk to ORC members about those services. It was also worth learning more about other transportation alternatives, she said, like bus passes. ORC’s recommendations should include some analysis about what’s available and why it’s not being taken advantage of, she said.

Parking Requirements: Other Options – Bike Parking

Kowalski noted that Portland allows bicycle parking to substitute for up to 25% of required vehicle parking on a site. For every five non-required bike spaces, the motor vehicle parking requirement is reduced by one space. Portland allows existing parking to be converted to take advantage of that provision.

bicycle parking, bike lockers, Ann Arbor parking, alternative transportation, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Bicycle lockers and hoops at the city’s Fourth and William parking structure. The city’s bike lockers are managed by the getDowntown program.

Bona felt that any credit given to a property owner for bike parking should be given only if the bike parking is covered – “and not those darn bike lockers.” She said she recently discovered a bike locker behind a large recycling bin at her workplace. The locker was “surrounded by lawn tools – you couldn’t get to it if you wanted to.” They also take up a lot of space and are ugly, she added.

Bona asked if the city’s planning intern could look into other options for covered bike parking. She suggested surveying University of Michigan students about what they wanted, and then incorporating that into the new R4C requirements. She said she could imagine that students might want indoor bike storage in an accessory structure – similar to the bike rooms that are part of some of the new apartment buildings in the city.

Kowalski noted that students probably would like bike storage that’s easy to access, with just a cover over the top. He reported that the bike room at the Landmark apartment building is nearly empty, while the bike hoops are entirely filled. Students in that building are so close to campus that they might not use the bikes as much, he said. Bona noted that the bike room at Liberty Lofts – a condo building on the Old West Side – is packed, but people there use their bikes primarily for recreation.

Westphal felt that a certain number of covered bike spaces should be required. Beyond that minimum, additional covered spaces could be part of a premium.

Parking Requirements: Floor Area Ratio

The conversation about parking requirements also touched on previous discussions that commissioners have had about premiums based on floor area ratio (FAR) in the R4C districts, as a way of encouraging density.

FAR – a measure of density – is the ratio of the square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot. A one-story structure built lot-line-to-lot-line with no setbacks corresponds to a FAR of 100%. A similar structure built two-stories tall would result in a FAR of 200%.

In D1 areas – city’s densest zoning district – there are no parking requirements, as long as the total floor area does not exceed 400% FAR. But if a developer wants to increase a project’s FAR, the city has a requirement of 1 parking space for each 1,000 square feet of additional floor area.

Bona said it might make sense to think of floor area ratios in R4C districts as “something to dip our toe in the water a little bit, and not get too crazy” – so that any changes wouldn’t result in a flurry of additions to existing structures. The idea is that renovations could be encouraged for existing small structures or those that are really dilapidated, “but not necessarily motivating every single property to make additions,” Bona said. She said she didn’t want to make structures bigger, but she did want to stop owners from building six-bedroom units.

Giannola said that if the city does try to incentivize add-ons or accessory structures, there needs to be some requirement for the front of structures to be renovated too. Westphal noted that that’s where premiums would come in – for example, an owner could get incentives for rehabbing a building or bringing it up to Secretary of the Interior standards.

Bona asked Westphal to clarify: Did he mean that there would be one standard FAR, then an owner could increase the FAR if renovation work was done to the front of a building? Yes, he replied – either use that as a premium tied to additional FAR, or tied to waiving a parking requirement on the site.

Kowalski said that any improvements should include the entire building, not just the front. Westphal noted the difficulty in defining what “improvement” means. Does that then lead into the issue of design? he wondered. One possibility would be to just have a checklist of items, he said, rather than a subjective evaluation.

Kowalski noted that in reviewing similar types of zoning for other cities, quite a few of them have general massing requirements – covering a building’s scale and shape – which Ann Arbor doesn’t have, he said. That would address many of the issues that arise in the R4C districts, he noted.

Massing requirements could cover areas like porches too, he added. For example, some massing requirements in other cities call for porches to cover at least 50% of the facade, and that porches had to be offset from the house, not inset into the building. “I think we could come up with something that could be done without becoming onerous to the staff, property owners or the general public who are trying to figure out what’s going on,” Kowalski said.

Westphal suggested that the city could reduce or eliminate parking on site in exchange for some design elements, renovations, and/or increased density – within certain constraints to height and other aspects of the building. Kowalski clarified that none of the committee discussions so far have touched the height limit in R4C districts. So height limits would remain unchanged, he said.

Related to height, Bona thought the issue of dormers should be addressed. [The City Place project, which included dormers on the two buildings, added to the building's height. It was argued that the large structures identified as "dormers" weren't actually dormers at all, but rather were a way to artificially lower the “eave” of the building. And that, it was contended, resulted in a calculation of the building's height that was lower than its actual height – which would have exceeded the city's height limit in that zoning district.]

Parking Requirement: Tied to Square Footage, Not Units

The current parking requirement is linked to the number of dwelling units are in a building – 1.5 spaces per unit. Westphal suggested that instead, the parking requirement could be linked to a building’s square footage. For example, the requirement could be expressed as one space per X square feet, similar to the way that parking requirements for commercial properties are calculated.

Kowalski said the square footage idea is interesting – saying it goes along with the idea of letting the market drive at least some of the parking availability. Then, as a premium to lower the amount of parking required on a site, a property owner could do certain things – like offer covered bike storage.

Bona noted that they were discussing two things: (1) providing a premium if the owner wanted a higher floor area ratio (FAR); and (2) providing a premium so that the owner could avoid the on-site parking requirement. The FAR premium could be tied to building renovations, she said, while the parking premium could be tied to bike parking or payment into an alternative transportation fund – to help pay for projects like a car-sharing program.

Commissioners agreed that they should run some scenarios to see how parking requirements would be calculated if linked to square footage, by looking at older buildings as well as some of the newer projects.

Parking Requirement: Residential Permits

Westphal asked about the advisory committee’s resistance to completely eliminating the parking requirement in R4C districts: Was that because they were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough on-street parking for residents and their visitors? He thought the city’s residential parking permit program might factor into the discussion.

parking permit, Ann Arbor planning commission, R4C zoning, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A sign indicating permission for residential permit parking on West Washington Street.

Giannola wondered whether the city could require that if a property owner uses premiums to eliminate on-site parking, then they also couldn’t use a residential permit.

Kowalski related the advisory committee’s concern – that every student living in a building would bring a car, and if there’s no place on site to park, then students will take up parking on neighborhood streets. Westphal argued that the premise is false – contending that not every student has a car. He also noted that students can’t store cars on the street, because the law prohibits parking on a residential street for more than 48 hours. “That’s a matter of enforcement,” Westphal said.

Bona felt that street parking should be addressed in the R4C recommendations, and suggested that Kowalski gather information about how the residential parking permits are issued, and how compliance is enforced. She said it’s an open question as to whether street parking is migrating into adjacent neighborhoods that don’t have residential permits. If so, what can be done to address that?

By way of additional background, some of that information is available on the city’s website for residential parking permits. The residential parking permits are obtained by individuals who live in the area – regardless of whether they own or rent. The permits allow residents to park on neighborhood streets without being ticketed. That differs from the permits associated with large residential developments in the city’s downtown zoning districts (D1 and D2). For those projects, the developer must provide a certain number of parking spaces on site, or buy permits in the city’s public parking system.

Next Steps

It’s likely that the ORC will meet again in mid-January, though no meeting has been scheduled yet. Matt Kowalski intends to write up a summary of the group’s work so far, indicating areas of consensus on possible changes.

The committee will prepare recommendations to be brought to the full planning commission, possibly in March. At that point the commission would review the recommendations, hold a public hearing about the proposed changes, make additional revisions, and vote on recommending the changes to city council. Councilmembers would have the final say on any ordinance changes to the R4C/R2A zoning, with additional public hearings.

Present: Bonnie Bona, Diane Giannola, Kirk Westphal (via speakerphone). Also: city planner Matt Kowalski.

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  1. January 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm | permalink

    I find it curious that our planning commission believes that it can “nudge” residents out of their cars through changes to our zoning regulations. Apparently, they have not been paying attention.

    The developer of the shopping plaza where the Washtenaw Avenue Whole Foods store is located agreed to reduce the number of parking spaces when his site plan was under review. I encourage any planning commission member to visit that Whole Foods store in the evening or on a weekend day to witness the wisdom of that social planning experiment. It appears to me that the lack of parking has not gotten anyone to abandon their car.

    The developer of the Plymouth Green development also agreed to provide reduced parking spaces when his site plan was initially submitted. He later returned to get temporary permission to use space originally intended for a restaurant for more parking. He explained that retail tenants would not rent space unless there was plentiful parking. More recently, he has returned to the planning commission and council to seek permanent permission to provide that extra parking.

    The Planning Commission’s insistence on reducing available parking has significant adverse impact on city residents. Their desire to use the R4C zoning regulations to further this experiment will prove to be disastrous to those neighborhoods. Please stop engaging in magical thinking and address the actual R4C issues before you – destruction of existing structures and combination of lots for uncharacteristically huge developments.

  2. January 3, 2013 at 3:33 pm | permalink

    There is an element of zealotry that creeps into some of these discussions. It sometimes seems that commissioners are using their positions to push a personal view of how people should behave and how land use should be structured. This is contrary to the notion of planning to meet a community vision. In particular, I am disturbed by the willingness to dismiss recommendations of the citizen advisory committee. The committee was not at all homogenous and they worked very hard to come up with those recommendations.

    The discussion of parking is an example. Some commissioners seem ready to make decisions about parking availability in neighborhoods based on their views about alternative transportation. (I suspect that all of the commissioners do live in single-family houses and use automobiles at least part of the time.) Here they are seriously discussing how people could simply live in these dwellings without cars, and how to force them to do so.

    Do they really believe that most people (students or “real” people) will not have cars, if only to do the weekend shopping? It takes real dedication to adopt a no-car life with our current geographical and service limitations. Many places are only accessible via car. Downtown has limited services, including groceries. (Discussions often seem to assume that all travel will be within the downtown area.) Though it is possible under some circumstances to shop via bus, our wheel-and-spoke system, not to mention limited hours of service on some routes, makes that very difficult. People may even choose to travel out of town for recreation or to visit friends and family.

    The idea that this zoning can be planned around a supposition that most of this housing will be used for undergraduate students is also disturbing. Have the members done a market analysis? My understanding is that we may soon have a surplus of the higher-priced student units. Also, this is not a desirable outcome for these Central Area neighborhoods where families and long-term residents literally have some ownership. And then the members are making predictions about the behavior of those hypothetical students.

    All this points to the fact that some members of the Planning Commission appear to be using this position to push personal viewpoints on the community. They should ignore recommendations of the advisory group only on the basis of measurable physical considerations or legal/regulatory ones.

  3. By Leslie Morris
    January 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm | permalink

    I was a resident of one of those R4C neighborhoods for twenty-one years, and I agree most emphatically with Jack Eaton — the inadequate parking in those neighborhoods is already disastrous. Very frequently visitors to the student apartment building next to my house parked (without asking)in our driveway, and when we would come out to ask what was going on they would say “But there wasn’t any other place to park.” Sometimes I would ask my children to climb on these invading cars, so that people looking out of the apartment windows would notice and come out to move them.

    The allowable parking on the streets was constantly filled, sometimes with cars from student residents of University Towers, which of course had no parking at all.

    One thing that is not often remembered is that with the declining state support of the University of Michigan, and the resulting huge increase in tuition, especially for out-of-state students, is that increasing numbers of students are from very well-off families, and these students have increasing numbers of personal cars. Wishing this situation were different does not make it so.

    The zipcars are a good idea, but it’s going to be a while before this idea takes off, and well-to-do students are not willing to give up the cars they have been used to since they turned sixteen.

  4. January 3, 2013 at 4:17 pm | permalink

    Re (2) “I suspect that all of the commissioners do live in single-family houses and use automobiles at least part of the time.” I think that illustrates our planning problem in Ann Arbor.

    Our city transportation planner commutes to town from Oakland County to preach the benefits of alternative transportation to us. Some of our planning staff lives on tree lined streets in 4th and 5th Ward neighborhoods or even in the City of Dexter while working to impose high-density “best-practices” urban planning on our city.

    Two local activist who actually live downtown are Stephen Ranzini and Ted Annis. Notably, those gentlemen do not try to “nudge” others to leave the neighborhoods for high rise life. What they advocate is improved public safety and downtown greenspace.

    The disconnect between what our “planners” want us to do and what they themselves practice undermines their credibility. I admire Dave Askins and Mary Morgan for their effort to live a car-free existence. They are engaging in that experiment themselves rather than forcing it on others. Don’t tell us how to live, show us through your own actions that it is possible.

  5. By John Q.
    January 5, 2013 at 8:53 pm | permalink

    While I don’t think the “market knows best”, in the case of parking requirements, I think that leaving these decisions to the developers of these properties make sense. Let them decide how much parking is going to be needed. It’s in their best financial interest not to provide too little or too much parking. I’m hearing the the same kind of zealotry from those who insist that we have to provide parking for every possible car as those who push the view that people should live without cars. Those kind of requirements are unnecessary and are pushed by the entitled viewpoint of people who think that the public street in front of their home is actually their own private parking lot. Any student of urban design will tell you that parking mandates forcing parking, even when not needed, hurt efforts to create alternative transportation systems and the kind of development that supports a more dense downtown. Proponents of those mandates should be up front about how those parking requirements will work contrary to the city’s efforts to build the downtown area.

  6. By Leslie Morris
    January 6, 2013 at 9:18 am | permalink

    John Q. raises an interesting question. That is, why have parking requirements at all? Why have zoning requirements at all? Each developer presumably knows what kind of building, use, size, height, etc. meets his own financial and market requirements. Local governments could save money by eliminating this time-consuming set of regulations. The Zoning Board of Appeals could also be eliminated. Should we perhaps put this on the ballot?

  7. January 6, 2013 at 9:50 am | permalink

    Re (5): “It’s in their best financial interest not to provide too little or too much parking.” This keys in to a discussion at the DDA reported by the Chronicle. (It was a discussion of the in lieu parking program.) Parking costs money. Developers may include some to attract certain clients, but if they can push that cost off onto the public, they will.

  8. By John Q.
    January 6, 2013 at 1:10 pm | permalink

    Indeed it’s a trade-off for the public. But what’s the greater benefit? More residents living downtown? Or having more parking places and fewer residents?

  9. January 6, 2013 at 3:10 pm | permalink

    The R4C issue is not about downtown residents. It is about neighborhoods.

    As to the DDA issue, the question partly resolves around financing of parking. If the DDA builds parking funded by public funds, is this a reasonable subsidy to developers? And is it a right that can be demanded by all developers or will some receive special treatment? I think that was part of that debate.

  10. By John Q.
    January 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm | permalink

    “The R4C issue is not about downtown residents. It is about neighborhoods.”

    No, it’s both. Does the city want additional residents living downtown and in the adjacent neighborhoods that have RC4 zoning, through higher-density R4C development? Or not? If the answer is “no” then the city should rezone those parcels to something that’s not RC4. If the city doesn’t want that kind of development in those areas, why does it leave that zoning in place?

    As far as the parking question as it relates to the DDA, I don’t see it as such a simplistic equation. The questions that need to be asked first are:

    1. Should the city mandate a parking spot for every potential resident? Does that make sense and is it a good public policy?

    2. Does the city want more parking or more residents? In theory, you can have both if you want every new development to be a parking garage and a residential structure. But the reality of development costs is that leads developers to demand taller buildings and you often end up with buildings that detract, not contribute, to the surrounding urban environment. If you have to trade-off, is the public policy preference more parking spaces? That’s what I’m hearing some people promoting.

    The problem that I see is that Ann Arbor residents generally say that they want a walkable community with a lively street life that doesn’t sacrifice the needs of people in favor of cars. But many of the same people insist on zoning rules that put cars before people and lead to a built environment that emphasizes the need to park cars before the need to have development that promotes walkability and an active and healthy streetscape. Some of these same people complain about subsidies for private development and those who live in apartments and condos but seem to believe that they are entitled to treat the public street in front of their homes as their private property. I don’t know which view wins out but they are incompatible.

  11. By Leslie Morris
    January 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm | permalink

    To John Q.: All the residential zoning districts (those that begin with an R, for residential) have parking requirements. The downtown zoning districts begin with a “D” (for downtown). The current discussion has nothing to do with “walkability” or “active and healthy streetscape” of the downtown. The current discussion involves how much parking the residential neighborhoods zoned “R4C” need. See the first paragraph of Vivienne Armentrout’s comment #9. Confusion with downtown issues is not helpful.

  12. By Andy
    January 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm | permalink

    RE: #9 “The R4C issue is not about downtown residents. It is about neighborhoods.”

    VA, your remark here (and Ms. Morris’ in #11) reveals an assumption that “downtown” is not itself a neighborhood, or that downtown exists independently of its adjacent neighborhoods. I think a lot of our disagreements over zoning, land use, parking, development, etc in this town partly stem from the degree to which we accept this assumption. (For the record, my personal views on this topic are closer to John Q’s but he seems to be arguing his case pretty well so I’ll leave it at that.)

    Many of us (a minority, apparently) don’t necessarily buy into Euclidean zoning in the first place, which is what the whole R– vs. downtown distinction is based on. But I guess that’s a separate conversation.

  13. By Andy
    January 7, 2013 at 4:22 pm | permalink

    Also, re: #1 — citing the Whole Foods on Washtenaw actually undermines your argument. Providing additional parking at that site would only worsen the gridlock in the half-mile radius around the Huron Parkway/Washtenaw intersection. Last time I made the mistake of attempting to fill a prescription at the nearby Walgreens during evening rush hour, I made a mental note to remember to park across the street next time. The problem was less a lack of parking than the fact that it took several minutes sitting in a queue just to get from the parking lot back on to the road.

  14. January 7, 2013 at 7:36 pm | permalink

    Andy, I agree that downtown is a neighborhood. But R4C zoning does not affect downtown. To my knowledge, there are no R4C parcels there.

    This particular article is about a Planning Commission discussion of the R4C/R2A citizen advisory committee. If we want to discuss downtown (which has a whole separate set of issues relating to parking), it should be in a different context.

    The question about whether our current zoning system (Euclidean, which I understand to refer to a particular municipality, not to the Greek sage) is the right thing for urban planning is interesting, but it is after all our law. We should have that philosophical discussion in a separate forum.

    I think that what John Q. is implying is that he is among those who would like to densify the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Again, that is a question and discussion for a different forum (a redo of the entire Master Plan of the city). It should not be done by degrees and not by stealth (small changes and spot zoning).

  15. By John Q.
    January 7, 2013 at 10:51 pm | permalink

    I don’t have a strong opinion about “densifying” the neighborhoods around downtown. But it’s silly to have an R4C zoning district and attach zoning standards to it that mimic the requirements for single-family homes. What’s the point? Follow through with the recommendation from the Study Committee Report and eliminate the R4C zoning from those neighborhoods.

    “Recommendation: Select areas should be rezoned from R4C to R2A and additional study be given to other areas that could warrant rezoning based on current conditions. Large R4C parcels outside of the Central Area should be rezoned to a more appropriate zoning

    Leslie – My comments weren’t specifically directed to downtown. They apply equally well to adjoining neighborhoods covered by the R4C properties or any development in the city. The idea that those concepts only apply downtown is short-sighted and highlights why the single-minded focus on demanding more parking to accommodate more cars works against the points I raised. A city that places parking above all else is never going to be a place that Ann Arbor residents say they want the city to aspire to be.

  16. By Tom Whitaker
    January 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm | permalink

    One of the most persistent myths regarding the neighborhoods bordering downtown and the UM campus is that these neighborhoods need to be more densely populated than they are. Truth is, these neighborhoods are already quite densely populated–certainly more than the downtown-zoned districts of D1 and D2. That’s because most of houses have been divided up into apartments, or if not divided, each bedroom is rented to one or two people. There are also many smaller apartment buildings interspersed among the houses. Even historically, widows and families in these neighborhoods provided rooms for worker and student boarders.

    The myth of needing more density in the neighborhoods around downtown has been proliferated primarily by developers of projects like Near North, City Place and the defeated Moravian that wanted to build large downtown-sized projects on property that is less expensive than the property that’s actually zoned for that purpose. If we continue to allow huge developments to sprawl into the residential neighborhoods, where is the incentive to build “up” in the downtown proper?

    Another myth is that these neighborhoods, at least those within about a mile of campus, need to add more affordable housing. This runs counter to a comprehensive study of affordable housing published by the County in 2007, which stated unequivocally that no new affordable units should be built in what the report called the “college tract,’ where they would be consumed by students that generally have more options and safety nets than the average adult or family with a very low income. There are already many affordable options in these neighborhoods including ICC houses, Avalon houses. Once one is further than a few blocks from campus, the rents drop dramatically for all.

    The R4C study committee’s recommendations about down-zoning certain areas basically follow the recommendations made in the Central Area Plan–a document that is now over 20 years old, but major elements of which have never been adopted by the City even though the intention was to eliminate the 1960′s-era, urban-renewal-based zoning. Every study, forum, or community conversation in the past 20 years that has touched on these near-downtown neighborhoods has reinforced the basic principles of that plan: that the quality of life, the historical character, and the general nature of these neighborhoods needs to be preserved. Even the DDA plan speaks to how important these neighborhoods are in providing an attractive place to live for customers of downtown businesses.

    As a property owner and resident of the R4C district, I don’t see parking as the primary threat. Landlords throwing down gravel and allowing tenants to park in the backyards may actually have been something that helped keep these grand old houses viable for decades. It’s when tenants are allowed to park on front lawns, or jumping the curb to create their own driveways that it detracts from the neighborhood aesthetics. Better enforcement of existing codes is needed.

    I’m much more concerned with the current ability of developers to assemble several properties in a row, tear down the individual houses, and build something huge and ugly (like City Place) simply because the City has never codified the recommendations of the Central Area Plan, that would ban this practice. I’m more concerned that the City has allowed developers to build 5 and 6 bedroom apartments that, unlike the old 5 and 6+ bedroom homes, will only ever serve as student housing or as some other group home function. Current City code only allows for 6 unrelated persons to share a housekeeping unit (which is possible in a three or four bedroom dwelling unit), but it does not give permission to build 5 and 6 bedroom units. I hope the revisions do not add provisions that allow expressly allow for 5 and 6 bedrooms in the code for the first time. Instead, anything larger than 4 bedrooms should be prohibited without a variance.

  17. January 10, 2013 at 10:48 am | permalink

    Re (13) Andy, you appear to have misunderstood the point I was making about the Washtenaw Avenue Whole Foods store. I meant to convey the idea that providing inadequate parking does nothing to “nudge” folks out of their cars into alternative transportation modes. Instead, providing inadequate parking frustrates customers and limits the amount of business the store can do.

    The experience you recount in comment (13) actually reinforces my opinion that our planners’ efforts to social engineer through zoning is ineffective. Our planners believe that the way they should address the considerable congestion on the Washtenaw corridor is to increase density — adding residents, office space and retail outlets — thereby creating an area where cars are less necessary.

    Increasing population density and commercial activity in the Washtenaw corridor will not reduce congestion, will not nudge drivers out of their vehicles and will not create the desired “walkable” community. Likewise, reducing the required parking in neighborhoods that are near downtown will not result in a magical transformation of our means of transportation. These experiments in planning will have long term adverse consequences.

  18. By John Q.
    January 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm | permalink

    “Our planners believe that the way they should address the considerable congestion on the Washtenaw corridor is to increase density — adding residents, office space and retail outlets — thereby creating an area where cars are less necessary.”

    I don’t know of any planners that advocate for increased density to reduce congestion. New York City has incredible amounts of density and intense congestion. But that increased density has allowed it support a tremendous amount of commercial and residential development in a limited area by developing transportation systems that support multiple transportation options (on foot, bicycle, bus, car, subway, etc.) Suburban style development, on the other hand, only supports one kind of transportation choice – by car. When congestion due to car traffic maxes out, growth and economic activity stall because there’s no alternative systems in place to accommodate more activity. I’m not equating for NYC levels of density in Ann Arbor. But you have to have certain amounts of density to support alternatives to cars.

    There are no realistic solutions for relieving congestion from cars. If you widen roads or add more parking, you’ll only temporarily succeed in postponing the next wave of congestion that comes from induced demand. The only long-term “solution” to congestion is economic decline as seen in Detroit where roads widen to accommodate 7 to 9 lanes of traffic now sit largely unused.

  19. January 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm | permalink

    Re (18) I agree that none of these planners make a direct link from an increase in density to the relief of congestion. It is implied in much of this density debate, including in your statement that “you have to have certain amounts of density to support alternatives to cars.” The persistent pursuit of increased density with reduced parking says more about where they wish to “nudge” us than they are willing to explicitly state.

    I agree with your statement “There are no realistic solutions for relieving congestion from cars.” On the other hand, there are many things that can exacerbate the congestion problem that already exists in places such as the Washtenaw corridor and worsen the parking problems that already exist in the near downtown neighborhoods.

    Addition population and businesses will only increase the traffic congestion problems on Washtenaw. Failure to require adequate parking in the R4C districts will cause further problems with street parking and misuse of neighboring driveways.

    The alternative to mindless economic expansion is not stagnation. A community can achieve a level of economic activity that is in equilibrium. I believe that we will find a stable low growth economy to be much more sustainable than the boom and bust economies that we have witnessed in the recent past.

  20. January 11, 2013 at 5:56 am | permalink

    Regarding the Washtenaw corridor, it is accurate to say that planning efforts envision a densely populated corridor in order to relieve traffic problems and improve walkability. See Reimagine Washtenaw’s site: [link]

  21. By John Q.
    January 11, 2013 at 11:24 pm | permalink

    “The persistent pursuit of increased density with reduced parking says more about where they wish to “nudge” us than they are willing to explicitly state.”

    Or the planners recognize that those parking spots you insist on seeing provided generate little or no economic value to the city. Parking spots don’t pay taxes. Excessive parking detracts in some many ways from building the kind of city that residents say they want. There are many failed communities that followed the approach that you suggest the city take. Why should Ann Arbor go the same way?