Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 16, 2013): Moving ahead on a project that’s been years in the works, planning commissioners took action at its meeting to adopt a set of changes to the city’s R4C/R2A residential zoning districts.
Commissioners unanimously recommended that the city council adopt the draft changes, and that the council direct the planning staff and commissioners to develop ordinance language that would implement these recommendations.
Eight people spoke during a public hearing on the recommendations, including several who’d served on an R4C/R2A advisory committee. They raised a variety of concerns primarily related to lot combinations, parking requirements, and a proposed “group housing” district.
Related to lot combinations, several speakers urged commissioners to institute a maximum lot size of 6,525 square feet, equal to an allowable density of three units. This had been a recommendation of the advisory committee, in an effort to prevent future projects like the large City Place apartment buildings on South Fifth Avenue.
In contrast, the planning commission’s recommendations call for more flexibility in combining lots, but don’t yet provide much detail about how that approach would work. The approach would require planning commission approval of lot combinations as part of a project’s site plan review. Review standards would still need to be developed, as well as standards for design and massing – to ensure that any new development is compatible with the neighborhood.
The proposed group housing district was another point of concern for speakers during the public hearing, and was the focus for much of the commission’s deliberations. The recommendations designate a new zoning district, located south and west of the University of Michigan’s central campus. It would be roughly an area outlined in the city’s Central Area Plan, but with final boundaries to be determined. [.pdf of Central Area Plan] The idea is to address issues that are somewhat unique to neighborhoods with a large amount of student housing.
In general, the new district is intended to allow for flexibility by putting limits on density, but with premiums provided in exchange for community benefits such as pedestrian-friendly and architectural design standards. For example, parking might be based on a building’s total floor-area ratio (FAR), independent of the number of units in a structure. The recommendations call for details of this new district to be fleshed out in a second phase, after other ordinance changes are made that are seen as more straightforward.
Commissioners discussed the terminology for this proposed district, with some preferring the term “flexible housing” rather than “group housing,” which was the phrase used in the Central Area Plan. Commissioners appeared to reach consensus in directing Matt Kowalski – the city planner who’s taken the lead on this project – to clarify the group housing term as one that’s based on the Central Area Plan. Kowalski intends to make some other minor revisions to the draft report, based on feedback from commissioners, before forwarding it to the city council for consideration.
If the recommendations meet with council approval, the planning staff would then work with the city attorney’s office to develop specific ordinance revisions to implement the recommendations. Those ordinance changes would also be reviewed by the planning commission’s ordinance revisions committee before being voted on again by the full planning commission and then the city council.
Related to this R4C ordinance process, some commissioners are concerned about how that work flow would fit in with the ongoing ZORO (zoning ordinance reorganization) project. At a five-hour retreat on April 23, several commissioners expressed frustration that ZORO seems to be languishing in the city attorney’s office. The ZORO project, which started in 2009, is a comprehensive zoning code review aimed at streamlining the development-related city code, clarifying terminology, and eliminating inconsistencies and outdated material. The commission intends to convey its concerns to the city council, hoping to push the project toward completion.
In other action at their April 16 regular meeting, commissioners recommended approval of two residential annexations on the city’s northwest side, and moved forward a project to replace outdated electrical equipment at the Barton Pump Station. The station pumps raw water from Barton Pond to the city’s water treatment plant about two miles away.
Commissioners also recommended that the city council approve distribution of the city of Ann Arbor’s draft non-motorized plan for feedback from neighboring jurisdictions. [.pdf of staff report and draft non-motorized plan] This is an update of a plan that was initially approved in 2007. It makes policy recommendations as well as specific project proposals, primarily related to pedestrian and bicycle travel.
On April 16, Ann Arbor planning commissioners were asked to recommend that the city council approve a set of changes to the city’s R4C/R2A residential zoning districts. [.pdf of staff report and R4C/R2A recommendations]
The R4C/R2A recommendations were made by the planning commission’s ordinance revisions committee (ORC), informed by an advisory committee that had made a separate report last year. Planning commissioners had been briefed on the recommendations at their April 9, 2013 working session. [For additional Chronicle coverage, see: "Planning Group Weighs R4C/R2A Report" and "Effort to Overhaul R4C Zoning Continues"]
City planner Matt Kowalski walked commissioners through highlights of the recommendations. He noted that the ORC agreed with many of the advisory committee’s recommendations, but there are some differences.
R4C zoning allows for multiple-family residential dwellings, such as apartment buildings. 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.” The advisory committee’s work had focused on preserving the character of existing neighborhoods, in part by preventing current structures from being demolished and replaced with larger buildings.
Most of the changes apply to all parcels zoned R4C. Kowalski noted that neither the advisory committee nor the ORC felt there was much concern with development pressures or zoning inconsistencies in R2A neighborhoods.
The current draft recommendations propose implementing changes in two phases. The first phase primarily includes changes that were recommended by the advisory committee, with some modifications made by the ORC. [.pdf of chart comparing existing code, advisory committee recommendations, and ORC recommendations]
For example, the ORC is recommending parking requirements that are less stringent than either the existing requirement of 1.5 spaces per unit or the advisory committee recommendations (1.5 spaces per unit for 0-4 bedroom units, and 2 spaces per unit for 5-6 bedrooms). The ORC parking recommendation is for 1 space per unit for 0-4 bedrooms, and 1.5 spaces per unit for 5-6 bedrooms.
In addition, the ORC is recommending these changes for the first phase:
- Lot combinations need approval: Planning commission approval would be required for lot combinations in R4C districts, as part of a project’s site plan review. Review standards would be developed, as well as standards for design and massing, to ensure that new development is compatible with the neighborhood. [The advisory committee had recommended instituting a maximum lot size of 6,525 square feet, equal to an allowable density of three units. The ORC consensus was that this maximum lot size would be too restrictive.]
- Conflicting land use buffer for vehicle areas only: The only areas that would require screening would be those used for vehicles – such as areas used for parking. This recommendation essentially reverts to the requirements used prior to 2011, when the city instituted changes to its landscape ordinance. Those changes expanded the conflicting land use buffer requirement in R4C districts to apply to the screening of buildings, in addition to vehicular use areas. The change resulted in an increase in variance requests for redevelopment in R4C districts, given the small size of the lots. [The issue was not part of the advisory committee's recommendations.]
- Further study of R2A district: Further study is called for to determine if the R2A lot size should be reduced to 6,000 square feet, allowing opportunities for duplex conversions. This number is based on the lot size requirement that was in place prior to 1984, when the requirement was raised to 8,500 square feet. [The advisory committee did not recommend zoning changes in the R2A district.]
Based on discussions among staff and the ORC at previous meetings attended by The Chronicle, these first-phase recommendations are seen as somewhat easier to implement, because there is general consensus on them.
A second phase would focus on creating a “group housing” zoning district. The advisory committee had recommended preserving the character of existing R4C neighborhoods by creating overlay districts on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, with standards for massing, design and patterns of development. Instead of that approach, ORC has recommended designating a new zoning district, located south and west of the University of Michigan’s central campus – generally in an area outlined in the city’s Central Area Plan. [.pdf of Central Area Plan]
The intent is to address issues that are somewhat unique to neighborhoods with a large amount of student rental housing. Kowalski noted that the boundaries for this district aren’t set in stone, and would be further evaluated when this phase moved forward.
In general, the approach would allow for flexibility through the use of limits on floor-area ratio (FAR) – with premiums provided in exchange for community benefits such as pedestrian-friendly and architectural design standards. For example, parking would be based on FAR, independent of the number of units in a structure. The ORC also recommends studying a payment-in-lieu-of-parking approach, similar to the policy that’s in place for the downtown area.
Any specific ordinance changes would require separate review by the planning commission and approval by the council. That process is likely to take several months, at least.
R4C/R2A Revisions: Public Commentary
Eight people spoke during a public hearing on the recommendations, including several who’d been involved in the R4C/R2A advisory committee.
Jack Eaton noted that the advisory committee spent a lot of time listening to the whole community give input, “and I’m really alarmed that we’re disregarding some of the most important points that they made.” He wants the city to adopt a maximum lot size, as recommended by the advisory committee. It’s the most efficient way of maintaining character and size in the neighborhood, Eaton said. He’d also like a maximum height or maximum number of floors, for the same reasons.
Having overlay districts would be a complex undertaking, he said. It’s taken four years to develop the current set of recommendations, he noted, so he couldn’t imagine how much time would be “frittered away” coming up with a variety of overlay districts, while neighborhoods remain under the threat of combined lots and projects that are out of character. He urged the commission to return to the advisory committee’s recommendations, set a maximum lot size of 6,525 square feet, and establish a maximum height or number of floors.
The next speaker was Ethel “Eppie” Potts, who noted that she served on the advisory committee. It took a long time for the committee to finish its work, in part because it met infrequently, sometimes only once every 6-8 weeks, she said. Potts highlighted several issues. Setting limits on lot combinations was important to help residents gain control of their neighborhoods and prevent the “monster buildings” being proposed in R4C districts. The basic standard must be a maximum of 6,525 square feet for a combined lot, she argued.
Another issue is parking. The advisory committee had wanted a graduated scale, Potts said, “though we never finished the work.” In contrast, the ORC proposal is not graduated, she said, and it’s not realistic. She suggested instead a requirement of 1.5 spaces for up to 3 bedrooms, 2 spaces for up to 4 bedrooms, and 3 spaces for 5 or more bedrooms.
It’s nice to think that if there are fewer parking spaces, there will be fewer cars, Potts said. But there are always parking shortages, and no fewer cars. Until the city changes its zoning to allow for neighborhood stores, Potts said, “cars will be needed for housekeeping.” She said developers have indicated that lower parking requirements are an incentive to build more bedrooms, because more of the land can be used for building.
Potts also said the ORC had talked about three-story houses. “This must not be encouraged,” she said, because it violates the streetscape of these R4C neighborhoods. When attics are squared off for a third floor, the character of the building is changed. “Dormers are not the answer,” she said. “No, to third stories.”
Potts also said she had lots of questions about the proposed new zoning district. What does it gain for anybody – except perhaps more income for landlords? The advisory committee did not give up on the viability of the small, old houses in these neighborhoods, Potts said. If they’re not too broken up inside for rentals, some of them can still return to single-family houses. What problem is being solved with this new district, and for whom?
Faramarz Farahanchi told commissioners that his partnership owns several student rentals and he personally manages them – noting that his personal phone number is posted on every one of the houses. There is perception versus reality, he said. The perception is that everyone will want to live in the tall buildings that are being constructed near campus. “The reality is no one can afford those tall buildings,” he said– especially if they’re from Michigan.
Farahanchi said he looked up the property tax on The Landmark at 1300 S. University – and reported that it’s $1.8 million per year. There are 606 rooms, so it would take three months of full occupancy at $1,000 per room just to cover the property taxes, he calculated. Those tall buildings are also very high maintenance, he said, so they can’t reduce the rent. The effect of these high rents in the new apartment buildings is that the rents have also increased significantly for other rental properties, he said. As a result, students are renting properties farther away from campus. Now, the city is looking at new zoning and restrictions to try to reduce density, he said. What will happen? The students will move somewhere else. The university is expanding – that’s not stopping, he added.
Some people who don’t live in these neighborhoods believe that apartments with five or six bedrooms are bad, Farahanchi said, but that’s what students want. That’s why new buildings include apartments with five or six bedrooms. He said the parking requirement could cause developers to build apartments with just four bedrooms for six people, plus a “study room” and a “relaxing room.” The two extra rooms would be used as bedrooms, he contended, but wouldn’t be as safe because the rooms wouldn’t have to meet the same requirements as bedrooms.
Speaking next was Eleanor Linn, who said she’s lived for the past 31 years in a house zoned R4C that’s near downtown. The city needs to be cautious about these changes, she said, in light of problems that have arisen with D1 and D2 zoning. [The allusion was to a controversial proposal for a large apartment building at 413 E. Huron, which is zoned D1 – the highest density zoning – and abuts an historic neighborhood.]
Watching that process unfold for 413 E. Huron, she said, it’s clear that zoning regulations with numbers are far stronger than general statements. Along with a minimum lot size and lot width, there should be a maximum size too. It would eliminate the ability to combine large numbers of lots, which would ruin a streetscape. There should be height limits for the same reason, she said.
Lot combinations should be limited to two lots, Linn said. If decisions on lot combinations were made administratively, that would open the process up to bullying. Linn also said that the few anomalously large lots should be rezoned. In R2A, there should be a strict definition for a duplex, or the city would risk the construction of several duplexes in a row connected only by “a flimsy piece of construction material.”
In addition, Linn called the proposed new group housing zoning district “highly problematic.” At the ORC meetings she attended, it was routinely called the “student slum,” the “ghetto,” and “the area to be torn down,” she said. If there are problems with maintenance or enforcement in these areas, then the city should increase inspections and increase revenue through fines, she suggested. FAR formulas should not replace setbacks and height limitations if the goal is to preserve a neighborhood’s character. Nor should special exception use be waived, she added, as it would result in unregulated large group residences where enforcement is left to the city’s “already overburdened police.”
With the increase in student high-rises, Linn felt that more families might want to “rehabilitate” houses in the R4C districts, but the cost is high. It’s even higher if the house has tiny kitchens, locked interior doors and a warren of hallways. So she urged commissioners to make the regulations quantifiably specific, and hoped they would completely abandon the proposed new zoning district.
Ellen Ramsburgh said she agreed with Linn’s comments. She noted that when advisory committee members walked through these neighborhoods, they agreed that the scale and “neighborhood pattern” need to be protected. The combination of lots is foreseen as a major problem.
When the R4C district was originally established, there was almost immediately a demolishing of buildings and a combination of lots for new projects that interrupt the street pattern, she said. On some streets, you’ll encounter a “three-lot, blocky square building totally … interrupting the streetscape.” It makes it less of a neighborhood. Ramsburgh pointed out that R4C neighborhoods are already dense and walkable, with good housing stock, though some of it has been neglected. “In a sustainable world, we can’t afford to tear down good housing stock just at a whim.” She supported the maximum lot size, as well as the recommendations that help with non-conformity. She’s also worried about group housing, and wondered what the parameters are for that.
Gwen Nystuen reported that she lives next to a large fraternity that was built in the early 1900s and has three parking spaces. She’s very concerned about these R4C recommendations, and stressed the need for a maximum lot size. When developers build a big block of apartments in a neighborhood with houses, she said, “that really is not very neighborly.” It’s a real disruption, so the city needs to have some control over massing. That could be done through setting a maximum lot size, or to set a maximum number of units per building. Nystuen also pointed out that there’s no definition of “group” for the proposed group housing district, and that needs to be clarified.
Chris Crockett told commissioners that she’s lived in a R4C neighborhood since 1971. She’s very concerned that after all this time working on recommendations, things are not spelled out in terms of vision and numbers for these older neighborhoods. She’s uncomfortable with leaving things “so fluid and so open, because I think that’s an invitation to abuse.” If exceptions are needed for projects, the city already has ways to handle that – through the zoning board of appeals, or by proposing a planned project. Those ways allow the community to buy in to whatever decision is being made.
But the most disturbing idea is the designation of a “student rental neighborhood,” she said. “What are you thinking?” This idea has been tossed around for decades, she noted, but it might be unconstitutional. A student rental neighborhood is open to many abuses as well as crime, she said.
Crockett felt the Old Fourth Ward Historic District works well because families live there and anchor the neighborhood. The city’s zoning should not work against the best interests of a healthy, diverse demographic, both in the downtown and near downtown neighborhoods. She urged commissioners to strike any reference to a student rental neighborhood.
Ray Detter said he was speaking on behalf of the downtown area citizens advisory council. He agreed with previous speakers. A lot of work went into developing the R4C/R2A recommendations. He said he went to all but one of the advisory committee meetings, as well as many of the ORC meetings. The work had been done in part to respond to what was happening in near downtown neighborhoods. There had been a plan on South Fifth Avenue to remove seven houses and build something to increase density. [Detter was referring to the City Place apartment project, which is now completed.] More and more people are recognizing that they don’t want to increase density in those neighborhoods or to replace houses, he said. What’s wanted is to preserve the character and scale of those neighborhoods, and make it livable for students or non-students.
Detter noted that the planning commission has been tasked with reviewing the D1 zoning for downtown, which he said came from that same motivation. The citizens advisory council supports density downtown, he said, but doesn’t want to see projects that are destructive of near downtown neighborhoods. He joked that every time he sees city planner Matt Kowalski, he thinks “character and scale, character and scale” – because that needs to be the emphasis of these recommendations.
Detter indicated that the city is also looking to make design guidelines stronger for the same reason. Limits on lot combinations are also important, he added. What happened on Fifth Avenue shouldn’t happen again. He contended the only person he knows who doesn’t agree with that is Scott Munzel [a local attorney who works with developers]. Detter also didn’t support the group housing district.
R4C/R2A Revisions: Commission Discussion
Commissioners asked a wide range of questions during their April 16 deliberations. This report organizes their discussion thematically.
R4C/R2A Revisions: Commission Discussion – General
Bonnie Bona noted that there was a lot of rich thought and information in the feedback that the commission has received, both in written form and during the public hearing. As a member of the ORC, she said that the idea of protecting the scale and character of existing neighborhoods was an intent throughout their discussions. She didn’t know how people got the idea that the result would be tearing down a lot of houses. “The idea was to find creative ways to enhance or complement the existing character of those neighborhoods,” she said. It’s extremely difficult when the charm of those neighborhoods rests in the fact that everything is so different.
She hoped everyone could “stay on the same page relative to our intent,” though there are several ways to solve these problems. She observed that the approach using “black-and-white numbers” hasn’t proven helpful in the R4C district in the past. Every time the city sets maximum lot size or setbacks or height limits, then it creates buildings that are non-conforming or it encourages something that had been small to become bigger, she said. Bona also pointed out that maximum height and setback requirements aren’t being eliminated.
Bona asked the people who spoke during the public hearing to “bear with us” as this process unfolds. “We’re really trying to solve this problem.”
Eleanore Adenekan thanked Kowalski for delivering a draft report that’s clear, even though the issue is very complicated. She contended there wasn’t a lot of difference between the recommendations of the advisory committee and of the ORC. She thanked everyone for their work.
Tony Derezinski noted that he had put forward the original city council resolution in 2009 that directed the planning staff and planning commission to undertake the R4C/R2A overhaul. [Derezinski served on city council at the time, representing Ward 2. He was defeated in the 2012 Democratic primary by Sally Petersen.] He noted that the work has been contentious, because there are a lot of different opinions. The scope of input had been expanded to include a wider range of stakeholders, including University of Michigan students. There were a lot of compromises, he said – “that’s the democratic process.”
But decisions have to be made, Derezinski said. He also thanked Kowalski, saying “sometimes he was not treated with the respect that he should have.” Nobody gets the “whole loaf,” Derezinski said. It’s a balance between no change and a preservation of what currently exists on the one hand, or accommodation for change on the other. Nobody is getting all that they want, he noted, but they’ve reached a compromise, “which civility requires that we do.”
Ken Clein advocated for adding a statement to the report that describes why the city is making these changes. One reason is the community’s desire to maintain the character and scale of these neighborhoods, he noted. It would be good to state that clearly, he said, as well as to indicate the intent to preserve the rights of property owners to develop their property. “There’s a balancing act there.”
R4C/R2A Revisions: Commission Discussion – Lot Size
Sabra Briere asked whether maximum lot size is an even option. The city code includes minimum lot sizes, but does it allow for maximums? Matt Kowalski replied that the code does not currently have maximum lot sizes in any zoning district. Briere wondered if maximums are prohibited by state law. Kowalski didn’t think so, but noted that it would create non-conforming lots that are larger than the 6,525 square feet that the advisory committee proposed. [One of the goals in revising the zoning ordinance is to reduce the number of non-conforming parcels in the R4C district.]
Noting the goal of reducing non-conformance, Briere pointed out that there will be non-conforming lots that are smaller than the minimum lot size that’s proposed. “I’m trying to determine if the goal is an appropriate one.”
Ken Clein referenced a section of the recommendations related to lot size and lot combinations, reading from the draft report:
As a result, the ORC recommends that lot combinations be required to receive Planning Commission approval as part of an associated site plan review. Review standards would be developed that the Commission would apply to determine if the combination and associated redevelopment is compatible with the surrounding area. Design and massing standards would also be developed.
He clarified with Kowalski that the standards referenced in the report will be developed in the future. Kowalski said that if the council approves these recommendations, then many details – including review standards, and design and massing standards – will be developed by the planning staff, the ORC and the planning commission.
Bona gave the reason she opposes having a maximum lot size. Initially, she’d thought about setting a maximum lot size as the size of the lot’s original plat. But Kowalski had shown the ORC an example of a city that had allowed lot combinations, while requiring that the structures on those lots respect the original lot lines. It simply meant that there could be connections between buildings, similar to the “candy-colored” duplex development on Summit Street “that everybody likes,” she said.
That Summit development still looks like separate houses, but the side setbacks for each structure are eliminated because it’s on one larger lot. It’s just an idea, she said, and something that a special exception standard could require. “This is where we can protect the scale and massing,” she noted, if the city can put in place a more flexible approach.
Bona said it would have been nice if City Place had seven connected facades. “It’s amazing how the scale of those buildings changes the scale of the street,” she said, referring to the newly constructed two large apartment buildings on South Fifth Avenue, which were built on the land where seven older residential houses had been located.
R4C/R2A Revisions: Commission Discussion – Group Housing District
Bona highlighted the fact that the idea for a group housing district came from the city’s Central Area Plan, which talked about a student housing district. [.pdf of Central Area Plan]
By way of background, one of the Central Area Plan’s recommendations explicitly uses the term “group housing”:
Action F – Reinforce residential neighborhoods in the area south and west of Central Campus by developing new zoning definitions and standards that support organized group housing opportunities. Examples of ordinance revisions include amendments to reduce nonconformities, elimination of special exception use approvals and minimum house size in some areas. Additional buffer areas between single-family and student areas may be needed. Off-street parking requirements and density limitations, however, should not be reduced in these areas.
Bona wasn’t sure “group housing” was the right name for such a district – maybe “flexible housing” would be more appropriate. For her, flexibility means not creating arbitrary areas where certain amounts of density – three or four or five bedroom units, for example – would be encouraged. The concept is to use setbacks, height and potentially an overlay district to affect massing, and to potentially use floor-area-ratio (FAR) instead of a number of units. This approach, Bona said, will provide greater flexibility and give the city a greater chance of seeing new buildings, as well as additions, that meet the scale and character of the neighborhood.
Bona then asked Kowalski: Would a homeowner in the city’s current six-bedroom R4C district be allowed to rent out rooms within their home? Yes, he replied. So in the proposed new district, Bona continued, the nuance would be that you wouldn’t have to live in the home in order to rent out rooms.
Bona also noted that it was the R4C/R2A advisory committee that had suggested using overlay districts to enforce the scale and character of different neighborhoods, but that’s not part of the final draft recommendations.
Perhaps a phase-two group housing district could be a first attempt at something like an overlay, before rolling it out to a lot of neighborhoods, Bona ventured. She again emphasized that the proposed new district was not intended to change the scale and character of the neighborhood. Rather, the intent is to give flexibility for how the houses are laid out inside, she said. It would allow landlords to respond to the market demands, and not to push developers toward arbitrary standards that encourage six-bedroom units.
Diane Giannola felt some people might be confused about the label of “group.” It has nothing to do with fraternities or sororities, she said. It was simply a term used in the Central Area Plan. She noted that when the ORC first started discussing it, she had been interested in finding ways to encourage owners to fix up the exterior of the student rental houses. A lot of people, including her, think some of these areas look “slum-like,” Giannola said. She wanted some kind of incentive for people to fix up the outside of houses, such as providing a premium that eliminates the parking requirement in exchange for fixing up the exterior.
But that won’t necessarily work in some of the “nicer” R4C areas, Giannola added. She wanted people to open their mind to ideas that might work in this area, and noted that it’s not an intent to encourage high-rise apartments buildings.
Giannola said that students are “flocking” to the new high-rise apartments being built downtown, because they don’t want to live in these student neighborhoods. Students don’t like the houses there, she said. “If we can get the housing stock to be upgraded a little bit, maybe they won’t flock to the high-rises as much.”
Incentives could also be used to upgrade garages into carriage houses, she said. There are a lot of garages in the R4C neighborhoods that aren’t used, or that are only used for storage. A new structure could be built on the same footprint as the original garage, which would add density without adding more buildings. “We can do a lot of good things if people just open their mind and become a little creative,” she concluded.
Ken Clein asked how the boundaries for the proposed new district were determined. Kowalski replied that the boundaries were determined using the Central Area Plan as a base, then looking at the existing patterns of student rental housing in that area. It’s meant as a starting point for discussion, Kowalski said, and bears further study. In recent days he’s heard from residents of Lower Burns Park with some concerns. If the city council eventually approves moving toward forming this new district, those boundaries will be explored in much more detail, he said. “I would imagine that this boundary is going to change.”
Briere observed that one of the tensions that a group housing district will create is in areas that are a mix of owner-occupied and rental properties. People in areas that are almost exclusively rentals might not have the same concerns. She also expressed puzzlement that part of the proposed district extends into Lower Burns Park, but doesn’t include the student rental area that’s adjacent to the UM athletic campus. She doesn’t know of a single property owner who lives in a house in that area near the athletic campus. She questioned the rationale behind the boundaries, and noted that some residents of houses on Dewey Street – in Lower Burns Park – are also questioning it.
Briere said she has a problem with the term “group housing,” and doesn’t care that it was used in the Central Area Plan. “It does not sound like something this community wants to encourage. I really think we need to be careful about that. We’ve created, in my view, a bit of an interesting backwards monster.” It seems that these recommendations would encourage six-bedroom suites, she said, and that’s the kind of thing that many people in the community don’t want. People don’t mind a family unit or a group of friends living together, Briere noted. But they have a problem with bedrooms being rented out individually in developments like this.
The city needs to be careful about trying to create zoning that “may have been outgrown already. “I’m not seeing a positive future outlook for these areas,” she continued – if they’re turned into an area called group housing. Even if that’s how things are today, it might not be how the city wants things to be in the future, Briere noted. The university acknowledges a declining undergraduate population, she said. Meanwhile, the city has encouraged building dense, student-oriented housing in the downtown. Does the city want another area of dense, student-oriented housing encouraged as in-fill development in R4C?
As a city councilmember, Briere said she doesn’t like being told she has no choice about voting for something. On the other hand, she doesn’t like criteria that are so loose and undefined that they can’t be applied to a project. For her, that’s a concern. She wondered if the city is opening “another can of worms” with this recommendation. There are frequently unintended consequences when there are incentives to build new projects by tearing down what’s already there. “I’m looking for disincentives to do that,” she concluded.
Giannola suggested amending out the term “group housing” and replacing it with “flexible housing.” Kowalski indicated that he could make that change.
Derezinski wondered if “group housing” was a “term of art.” Kowalski characterized the term as “entirely disposable.” The only reason it’s being used in this draft report is because it’s a term used in the Central Area Plan.
Clein noted that in the city’s building code, there’s an occupancy category for “group housing” that refers to rooming houses, sororities or fraternities, people who are disabled, or people who are incarcerated. So perhaps there’s some confusion about the term in that regard, he said.
Wendy Woods suggested that the report should explicitly note the term’s connection with the Central Area Plan. She also said that commissioners need to be careful about how they’re using the language. She referred to a letter that Eleanor Linn had sent to the commission, which stated: “The so-called Phase 2 New Zoning District is highly problematic. At the ORC meetings, it was routinely called ‘The Student Slum,’ ‘The Ghetto,’ ‘The Group Housing Area,’ and ‘the area to be torn down.’”
Woods said she’d been taken aback, because she found those terms to be fairly offensive. Giannola responded that she’d only used the word “slum” one time earlier in the April 16 meeting. Woods said she wasn’t trying to chastise Giannola, but said they had a difference of opinion.
Bona reiterated her view that the goal of a flexible housing district is to ensure that the city isn’t predetermining a number of bedrooms in an apartment by the way that the ordinance is written. The idea is to make it just as easy to have a studio apartment as it is to have a six-bedroom unit, so that landowners can respond to the market.
Briere pointed out that the commission is caught up in discussing use-based zoning versus form-based zoning. Use-based zoning indicates how an area can be used, whether it’s for group housing or something else. But for many people, their main concern is form-based, she said – the way that a building looks from the outside, not necessarily what’s inside.
Clein agreed, but noted that the forms currently are inconsistent. It might be that as the city develops more detailed zoning ordinance changes, the end result is a series of different zoning districts – R4C1, R4C2, R4C3, etc. There are clusters of houses, sometimes just a block, that are very consistent in form. There are other areas that are wildly inconsistent, he said. That might be one way to approach the zoning with flexibility, by using the right tool for smaller areas. “You don’t want to use a big hammer to pound in a trim nail,” he said.
Bona said she thought of phase two as the “area that we can test.” It’s way too complicated to do more initially than what’s proposed for phase one, which fixes some of the general R4C issues. Phase two would be a good place to test these other ideas, “without going out there too far,” she said.
R4C/R2A Revisions: Commission Discussion – Parking
Bona said she didn’t think the city would solve the parking problem in these neighborhoods by turning yards into parking lots. “I’d like to see more open space and fewer cars.” It’s a complicated problem to solve, but she wanted to move in the direction of reducing parking requirements, potentially through a payment-in-lieu-of-parking program. For example, she said, if a property owner wanted to permanently eliminate parking on a site, they could buy out of the parking requirements in a way that’s beneficial to the neighborhood. Bona said that filling yards with cars doesn’t contribute to the character of the neighborhood.
R4C/R2A Revisions: Commission Discussion – Misc. Comments
Bona noted that someone during the public hearing had raised the issue of duplexes and dormers. She pointed out that those are part of the definitions written in the city’s zoning ordinance, and the R4C/R2A revisions don’t address it. First, the ZORO project (zoning ordinance reorganization) needs to be completed, and at that point the city will address substantive changes in the zoning ordinance that affect all districts, not just R4C, she said. The issue of duplexes and dormers are on the commission’s radar, she added.
Outcome: In a unanimous vote, commissioners recommended that the city council approve the set of changes to the city’s R4C/R2A residential zoning districts. The commission also recommended that the city council direct the planning staff and commissioners to develop ordinance language that would implement these recommendations.
R4C Coda: What’s Up With ZORO?
On April 23, planning commissioners and staff gathered for a five-hour retreat at the Traverwood branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. The focus was on collaboration, and included presentations from several people, including: Mary Jo Callan of the Washtenaw County office of community & economic development; Jim Kosteva and Sue Gott of the University of Michigan; and Paul Montagno, a Pittsfield Township planner.
The session also included goal-setting for the coming year, and a wide-ranging discussion that included prioritizing areas related to the city’s recently adopted sustainability framework.
The work on R4C/R2A revisions came up in the context of the commission’s work plan, because planning staff and commissioners will be involved in writing ordinance language to implement the general recommendation in the R4C/R2A report. That assumes the report is approved by the city council.
There was some discussion about whether those R4C/R2A ordinance revisions would be held up until the city completes the ZORO project. ZORO stands for zoning ordinance reorganization, and is a comprehensive zoning code review aimed at streamlining the code, clarifying terminology, and eliminating inconsistencies and outdated material.
The project covers 11 chapters of the city code that relate to development:
- Chapter 26: Solid Waste
- Chapter 47: Streets and Curb Cuts
- Chapter 55: Zoning
- Chapter 56: Prohibited Land Uses
- Chapter 57: Subdivision and Land Use Regulations, and the attached Land Development Regulations
- Chapter 59: Off-Street Parking
- Chapter 60: Wetlands Preservation
- Chapter 61: Signs and Outdoor Advertising
- Chapter 62: Landscaping and Screening
- Chapter 63: Soil Erosion, Sedimentation Control and Storm Water Management
- Chapter 104: Fences
Several commissioners expressed frustration that the ZORO project – which started in 2009 – seems to have stagnated. Eric Mahler, who worked on the project as a member of the commission’s ordinance revisions committee, said he’d been under the impression two years ago that it was almost done.
City planner Alexis DiLeo described it as an “elaborate cut-and-paste” project, but with so many interconnections that making one change can have unintended consequences in other parts of the code. It’s like pulling on a thread and watching a sweater unravel, she said. Last year, the consultant hired by the city to do this work – Don Elliott of Clarion Associates – had completed a draft, but there were many unanswered questions that the staff then had to address, DiLeo said.
Another issue is that the project is being overseen by the city attorney’s office, with Kevin McDonald, senior assistant city attorney, taking the lead. Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, noted that there have been a lot of major projects requiring legal review, which have taken priority over ZORO. DiLeo agreed, citing issues related to medical marijuana, the City Place project on South Fifth Avenue, and more recently the 413 E. Huron project.
Mahler, an attorney, pointed out that there will always be some kind of legal crisis on the horizon. ZORO simply has to take priority at some point, he said, or it will never get done. Rampson noted that perhaps the city attorney’s staff can be convinced that it doesn’t have to be perfect, and that revisions can be made later as needed.
Mahler suggested recommending to the city council that ZORO be completed before action is taken on R4C ordinance language. [The draft report that was recommended for approval by the planning commission on April 16 is just the first step. If approved, it would be followed by a much lengthier process of drafting actual ordinance language to implement the recommendations.]
Rampson noted that there’s another reason for urgency to complete ZORO: DiLeo, the planning staff’s point person on that project, will be taking maternity leave starting in July. If ZORO is not done by then, the project would definitely lose momentum while DiLeo is gone, Rampson said.
Bonnie Bona pointed out that ZORO is also more important because it affects the entire city, while R4C just affects some of the residential areas in the city.
DiLeo advocated for keeping the R4C zoning revisions separate from ZORO at this point, rather than rolling R4C ordinance revisions into the ZORO overhaul. Because R4C has been controversial, she didn’t want the work on ZORO to be “tainted” because of issues related to R4C.
Wendy Woods said the planning commission could communicate with city council about its desire to complete ZORO. But the council is always in crisis, she noted, and she wasn’t sure how much weight the councilmembers would give to the commission’s opinion on this, in terms of making ZORO a priority
Bona expressed concern that ZORO is already backed up, and then R4C could get backed up, too. “What should we do – stop? And let them catch up?”
Sabra Briere, who also serves as a Ward 1 representative on city council, pointed out that R4C should not be held up – depending on what development proposals came forward, it could become a crisis, as could the D1/D2 zoning review. Mahler pointed out that ZORO could become a crisis as well, if someone sued the city over inconsistencies and internal conflicts in the code.
DiLeo felt that commissioners would see a lot of progress in the next 45 days, as the “new crop” of interns start working in the city attorney’s office. It’s also possible that the city attorney could ask the council for additional funding to pay the consultant to do more of the final work, she said.
Kirk Westphal, the commission’s chair, wrapped up that part of the retreat’s discussion by indicating that there would be some kind of communication from the planning commission to the city council about the status of ZORO.
Barton Pump Station
On the commission’s April 16 meeting agenda was a resolution stating that, aside from one exception, the city’s Barton Pump Station project meets the Ann Arbor standards of private development. Although the city isn’t require to follow its own standards for private development, city projects must be reviewed by the planning commission before being approved by the city council.
The exception is that the project doesn’t meet the “first flush” detention that’s required for a site with more than 5,000 square feet of impervious surface. Because the site is severely sloped and adjacent to the Huron River, there isn’t a practical solution to dealing with first-flush detention on site, according to city staff.
The city-owned pump station is located on public land on the east side of West Huron River Drive, south of Bird Road. It’s used to draw water from Barton Pond and pump it to the city’s water treatment plant. Treated water from Barton Pond is used by residents of the city and parts of Scio and Ann Arbor townships.
According to a staff memo, the project includes interior electrical work, removal of five transformers from the east side of the pump station, and installation of one new 1,200-square-foot transformer pad supporting two new transformers on the north side. The new transformers will be surrounded by a 12-foot high fence. The project also involves removing an existing 1,250-square-foot storage shed on the eastern property line, and building a new 2,100-square-foot storage building.
The site is adjacent to a 100-year floodplain, but no work is being proposed within the floodplain area. A large landmark cottonwood tree is located on the site, and about 3% of the new storage building is within the tree’s critical root zone. No mitigation is required, however, because the building will not be within 10 feet of the tree itself.
The project is estimated to cost between $2.75 million and $3 million. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2014 and completed by the fall of 2015.
The staff memo notes that no one attended a public meeting held on April 3 about the project. No one attended a public hearing at the April 16 meeting.
Barton Pump Station: Commission Discussion
In response to a question from Tony Derezinski, Glen Wiczorek of Stantec Consulting – the project manager for this work – explained that stormwater doesn’t flow toward the nearby railroad tracks. It flows through the fenceline and directly into the Huron River.
Ken Clein asked for more background about the project’s purpose. Wiczorek replied that the storage building is only a small portion of this project. The main effort is to replace outdated electrical equipment at the pump station, which pumps water from Barton Pond up to the city’s water treatment plant. It serves an extraordinarily critical purpose, he said, and the reliability of the equipment is significant.
The pump station is located in the hills near Barton Pond and near the pond’s embankment/dam. Water is drawn through two large-diameter pipes. That water is pumped about two miles through a 42-inch pipe to the water treatment plant at 919 Sunset Road – one of the high points of the city, Wiczorek noted. It’s a significant task for the pump station to pump the water that far, he said. Sabra Briere pointed out that this is why the new motors and other upgrades are important.
In a break from the meeting’s usual protocol, Wendy Woods – who was chairing the session – allowed a member of the public to ask Wiczorek some questions. Eric Preissner, a resident who was at the meeting for a different agenda item, explained that he is an engineer. He asked whether the electricity generated at the dam is used to power the pumps. He also wondered how old the pumps were, and whether this work related to the ongoing improvements at the water treatment facility.
Wiczorek replied that the pumps aren’t powered by electricity generated from the dam. DTE has two separate feeds that serve the pump station, so there are redundant power sources for reliability. Interruption of power would be a problem, he noted, so there is also backup power through a natural gas engine that could operate one pump if there’s a total power outage of both electrical sources.
The pumping equipment and valves have been replaced in the relatively recent past, but the electrical equipment is original to the pump station, and some of it dates back to the late 1940s. “It’s well past its prime,” Wiczorek said. The city staff at the water treatment plant conducts significant routine maintenance, he added.
The Barton Pump Station project is separate from the more extensive work at the water treatment plant. A new high-service pump station is being built at the treatment plant. However, both projects are interrelated, he said, and are being funded partially through the state of Michigan’s Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund.
Briere asked about mitigation for the landmark tree. The city would expect a private developer to mitigate any damage to the tree, she said. Is the city going to plant additional trees? City planner Chris Cheng replied that no mitigation would be required, even for a private developer. Mitigation would be required if the construction comes within 10 feet of the tree. In this case, that doesn’t happen. The construction does impact a small portion of the tree’s critical root zone, Cheng noted, but that impact is located more than 10 feet from the tree.
Outcome: Planning commissioners unanimously approved the resolution related to the Barton Pump Station project.
Victoria Circle Annexations
Planning commissioners were asked to recommend annexing two adjacent parcels into the city from Ann Arbor Township, and to zone the land for residential use. Both properties would be located in Ward 1.
The 21,888-square-foot lot owned by Derek & Anna Weller is located at 2119 Victoria Circle, between Springwood Court and Alexandra Boulevard. Currently vacant, it would be zoned R1A (single-family residential). The owner plans to build a house on the site.
The second property at 2121 Victoria Circle, owned by William & Maura Higgins, is a 22,256 square foot parcel located north of the other lot. It is also vacant and would be zoned R1A.
Victoria Circle Annexations: Public Commentary
Eric Preissner, who represented the homeowners association for property adjacent to these sites, wondered what kind of stormwater management would be done. Chris Cheng of the city’s planning staff replied that there is no access to the city’s storm sewer system at this time. He read from the staff report: “Storm sewer is not available. Connection to sewer may require detailed design by an engineer. No representation is made as to ability to connect.”
Preissner asked whether the city was concerned about drainage, noting that the area includes recovered wetlands. Cheng said the sites will need to be graded so that there are no adverse effects on surrounding properties.
Annexations: Commission Discussion
Bonnie Bona asked for an explanation of the city’s process for adding storm sewers to city streets in general, and whether there’s a policy on it. City planner Chris Cheng replied that such projects would be included in the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP). He wasn’t sure if this area was already included in the CIP, and said he’d have to get back to her about it. If the city did install storm sewers, it would be for the entire neighborhood, not just for individual properties.
Bona indicated that one house wouldn’t make much of a difference, but because there are several vacant sites it’s worth finding out if the city has a plan in the longer-term.
Diane Giannola clarified with Cheng that a storm sewer plan isn’t required for single-family homes. Cheng noted that if the city builds out the storm sewer system to that neighborhood, the homes would be required to hook up to it.
Ken Clein asked if there were any natural features on the site, like wetlands. Cheng wasn’t sure, but noted that single-family zoning is exempt from mitigation.
Sabra Briere clarified with Cheng that the nearby properties fronting Newport Road are already within the city. The remaining vacant lots are township “islands,” and Briere wondered why the other vacant properties aren’t being annexed, too.
Annexation requests typically come from the property owners, Cheng said, and the city isn’t forcing annexations. Briere noted that the city has had a plan for annexing “clusters” of properties, but she didn’t see indications that this plan was being implemented. Cheng reported that city planner Jeff Kahan has been working with the city’s systems planning unit on this issue. Kahan would be able to provide greater detail, Cheng said.
Tony Derezinski indicated that about two years ago, the city had discussed the annexation issue with surrounding townships and had identified general areas that would be annexed into the city, based in part on the availability of city utilities and services. But he thought the understanding was that the parcels would come forward on an individual basis.
Outcome: In separate votes, both annexations were unanimously recommended for approval. The recommendations will be forwarded to the city council for consideration.
Non-Motorized Transportation Plan
Commissioners were asked to recommend that the city council authorize distribution of Ann Arbor’s draft non-motorized plan update. [.pdf of staff report and draft non-motorized plan]
This is an update of a plan that was initially approved in 2007. It makes policy recommendations as well as specific project proposals, primarily related to pedestrian and bicycle travel.
Planning commissioners had been briefed on the draft update by Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, at a March 12 working session. The recommendation calls for the plan’s distribution, per state mandate, to about 40 adjoining jurisdictions and stakeholders, including the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, DTE Energy, the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
No one spoke during a public hearing on the item.
Bonnie Bona asked that the distribution list be reviewed to make sure that it’s up to date. For example, Norfolk-Southern is on the list but it no longer owns the railroad running through Ann Arbor – as it was purchased by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. And the owners of the former Ann Arbor Railroad aren’t on the list, but should be, she said.
Wendy Woods also suggested adding Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to the distribution list.
Outcome: Commissioners approved the recommendation regarding distribution of the non-motorized plan update. It will be forwarded to the city council for consideration. After the council approves it for distribution, adjoining jurisdictions and stakeholders will have 42 days to submit their comments.
Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler (arrived at 8:40 p.m.), Wendy Woods.
Absent: Kirk Westphal.
Next regular meeting: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]
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