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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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