Zoning 101: Area, Height, Placement

Next public meeting: July 30 at Forsythe Middle School
contrast between pedestrian-oriented development and sprawl Ann Arbor public meeting

City planner Jeff Kahan shows a slide demonstrating the contrast between sprawl and pedestrian-oriented development – the top and bottom images are of the same corridor. (Photo by the writer.)

At Cobblestone Farm on Thursday evening, planning staff from the city of Ann Arbor presented proposed changes in the area, height, and placement specifications for various zoning districts throughout Ann Arbor.

The proposal is not a “rezoning” of all the area outside of Ann Arbor’s downtown – it’s a proposal to adjust the density, height, and setback requirements of existing zoning districts. There are no parcels designated for rezoning as a part of the AHP project. The project is thus different in character from the A2D2 project, which will result in a rezoning of the downtown.

The AHP proposal was actually intended to come before city council for approval in the fall of 2008, but on direction from the council, city planning staff were asked to get more community input.

About two dozen people attended Thursday’s meeting, the fifth in a series of at least seven public meetings to be held over the summer months – one meeting for each of five wards, bookended by community-wide meetings. Though divided by ward, anyone from any ward can attend any of the meetings, including the Ward 5 meeting to be held from 6:30-8 p.m. on July 30 at Forsythe Middle School Media Center.

So what is the AHP proposal? It’s not simply meant to clean up ordinance language in a way that has no material impact on future development. The proposal is meant to have an impact on how land gets used throughout Ann Arbor. What specifically is being proposed? What’s the zoning for where you live and work? What is zoning, anyhow? More after the break.

Zoning Basics: No Printing in My Backyard

All other things being equal, it is expected in the U.S. tradition that property owners have the right to use land in whatever way they see fit. Zoning is one way in which not all other things are equal. The basic idea of zoning is that property owners cede certain rights to use of their property, in exchange for a certain orderliness in the evolution and use of the land – that’s considered to be for the public good.

For example, The Chronicle owns a parcel measuring 40 x 90 feet in the Old West Side of Ann Arbor. We might contemplate the possibility of operating a small iron smelting operation in the backyard. Or perhaps more plausibly, we could contemplate operating a printing press somewhere on the lot for the not-yet-real printed edition of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

In any case, it’s reasonable to think that large-scale printing is not in the public interest in our current location – in the middle of a neighborhood where the primary activity here is just people living: eating, sleeping, walking around, falling in love, and the like. Through their clatter and vibrations, not to mention the semi-trailer deliveries of ink and paper, large-scale printing on big presses would impose an unreasonable  burden on adjoining property owners, who’ve chosen to do no more than just live on their property.

So what’s to stop us? Zoning. How specifically does zoning stop us from printing The Chronicle in our backyard on gigantic printing presses?

The city code of Ann Arbor specifies that:

Ann Arbor shall be, and hereby is, divided into zoning districts as enumerated in the schedule of use regulations and schedule of area, height and placement regulations.

What’s our zoning district? The city of Ann Arbor’s property tax portal allows access to a wealth of information about properties in the city – no need to be the owner of a parcel to check its taxable value, owner information, purchase price of the property, acreage, photograph from the street, or zoning district.

According to that online source, The Chronicle’s parcel is zoned as an R2A district.

What uses are allowed for a parcel that’s been zoned R2A? One place to check what an R2A district allows is the city code, accessible through the Ann Arbor city code gateway.

Chapter 55 Article 2 Use Regulations

5:10.3. R2A two-family dwelling district.
(1) Intent. This district is intended to provide residential areas in the City which are suitable for 2 single-family attached dwellings occupying 1 lot. The district is intended to create areas of essentially single family residential character utilizing 2 single-family dwelling units which are attached either side to side or vertically. The district is intended to be similar to the R1D district, except for the different type and slightly higher density of dwelling units. Locational criteria for the application of this district should include the availability or provision of adequate services to serve such higher densities. It may be used as a transition zone between single-family areas and other areas.
(2) Permitted principal uses.
(a) Any permitted principal use or special exception use allowed in the R1 districts, subject to all the regulations that apply in that district.
(b) Two-family dwelling.
(3) Permitted accessory uses.
(a) Those allowed in the R1 districts.

The permitted principal use for The Chronicle’s R2A parcel thus includes living in (up to) a two-family kind of way, which is what we currently use it for. What the city code doesn’t say, however, is that we can’t use the land to operate presses for printing The Chronicle by including, for example, language like: “No use shall be made of an R2A area for commercial or industrial purposes.” There is no statement expressly prohibiting that commercial or industrial use. However, the “it doesn’t say I can’t” argument founders on this line from the city’s zoning code:

Uses not expressly permitted are prohibited.

Otherwise put, the permitted uses for zoning districts that are specified in the code should be understood as meaning: “Here’s the only things for which the land in this kind of zoning district can be used.”

Jeff Kahan showing the Armory in downtown Ann Arbor

Jeff Kahan illustrating the idea of redevelopment of existing structures, with the example of the Armory condo building on Ann Street in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photo by the writer.)

What’s AHP?

In addition to the “use regulations” for each zoning district, the zoning code specifies “area, height, and placement” standards for each zoning district. That’s what the AHP project is intended to address for the area outside of downtown – the part of the city not covered by the A2D2 project for the city’s downtown. Around a year ago, it was common to hear the AHP project described as addressing the city’s “donut” corresponding to the A2D2 “hole,” but that description seems to have fallen out of favor.


For AHP, “area” is a measure of density, specifically floor area ratio (FAR). FAR 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 an FAR of 100%. A similar structure built two-stories tall would result in an FAR of 200%. It’s worth resisting the inclination to think of FAR percentages as corresponding to stories – as in 100% is one story, 200% is two stories, 300% is three stories, etc. For example, imagine a building constructed on a footprint covering just one-quarter of the lot. If it were built four stories tall, such a building would have an FAR of only 100%.


If the “area” in AHP is an indirect measure of a building’s height, then the “height” in AHP is a direct measurement. Instead of the percentages specified in the “area” regulations, the height regulations are expressed in terms of feet. The interpretation of those height limits has come under close scrutiny over the last several months in connection with the “matter of right” version of the City Place project proposed for South Fifth Avenue.

The height definition for a perfectly rectangular building with a flat roof is straightforward: measure from the ground to the top of the roof. For a structure with a pitched roof, the “top of the roof” is by code definition not the peak of the roof, but rather the midpoint between the eave of the roof and its peak. Critics of the City Place project – located in an R4C zoning (multi-family dwelling) district – have argued that the correct interpretation of that proposed building’s eave corresponds to a “dormer’s” eave, which is higher than the building element identified by staff as the building’s eave.


For a given piece of land and a given permitted use, it’s reasonable to think that adjoining property owners might care about where a structure is built on that land right next to them. It’s one thing to have a printing plant located in the middle of the piece of land next door, with nice buffer areas all around, but it’s quite another to have a printing plant right on the lot line next door.

It is the “placement” regulations of the zoning code that govern where a building can be constructed within a particular lot. Placement regulations are expressed in terms of “setbacks.” For example, a 25-foot minimum front setback would mean that a building needs to have a 25-foot buffer between it and the front lot line.

Goal of the AHP project, Jeff Kahan standing in front of a slide

City planner Jeff Kahan presents the goals of the AHP project. (Photo by the writer.)

What’s the Goal of the AHP Project?

The idea behind the update of area, height, and placement standards is not just to “freshen” them up with new planning vocabulary, but rather to create development standards that accurately reflect current values for land use, instead of the prevailing values at the time the area, height, and placement standards were established – some 50 years ago.

What were the development values of the 1950s and ’60s? They’re summarized by the city of Ann Arbor as: “… segregated land uses, wide streets, large parking lots, large setbacks, single-story buildings, auto-oriented retail centers, and low-intensity employment centers.”

So one stated goal of the AHP project is to establish area, height, and placement standards more consistent with transit-oriented development – which encourages new development, including residential uses, along major transportation routes. After Thursday’s meeting, Jeff Kahan, a city of Ann Arbor planner and manager of the AHP project, told The Chronicle that he’d coordinated the AHP project with Ann Arbor’s recent Transportation Plan Update. In public presentations of the TPU, Eli Cooper, the city’s transporation program manager, consistently emphasized that  transit-oriented development was crucial to the TPU’s success.

Another stated goal of the AHP project is to improve access to facilities by non-motorized transportation and to encourage more efficient land use – providing an environmental benefit.

How Are Current Values Reflected in Proposed Changes?

In broad strokes, the changes to area, height, and placement regulations across various districts can be summarized as follows:

  • Area: Allow increased floor area ratios (FAR) – i.e., increased density – for office, research, local business, fringe commercial, and limited industrial districts. Summarizing the proposed changes across all those zoning districts, they would increase FAR from 40-60% currently, to 75-200% as proposed. To the extent that these districts are located along major transportation routes, it’s straightforward to see how proposed changes fit the notion of transit-oriented development.
  • Height: Allow increased height in order that a given density can be “captured vertically” – resulting in more open space – or allowing for parking of cars under a structure, which results in less impervious surface, compared to an ordinary surface parking lot. The proposed height increases range from a 5-foot increase (from 30 to 35 feet ) in some residential districts, to an 80-foot increase (from 40 feet to 120 feet) in hotel districts. There is no height increase proposed for R4C – worth noting for the controversy over the height of the City Place project, which is located in an R4C district.
  • Placement: Allow decreased minimum setbacks and/or introduce maximum setbacks across a wide range of residential and other districts. For example, under the AHP proposal, the R2A district would keep its minimum front setback of 25 feet, but add a maximum front setback of 40 feet. For local business districts and community convenience center districts, their 25-foot minimum front setbacks would be eliminated. Moving buildings closer to sidewalks would mean that pedestrians would have easier access to them.

We refer readers to a comprehensive summary all proposed AHP changes for details of each zoning district. Note: At Thursday’s Cobblestone Farm meeting, Kahan indicated that the proposed uncapped heights for office and research districts had already been revised, based on public input from the first four AHP meetings – the uncapped height would likely be scrapped in favor of some specific height limit. More revisions to the proposal could be undertaken, said Kahan, depending on public feedback.

notes taken by planning staff at the Cobblestone Farm meeting

Notes taken by planning staff at the Cobblestone Farm meeting. (Photo by the writer. Photo links to higher resolution image.)

Meeting Feedback

Meeting format

Several of the comments from the public focused on the meeting format. One resident suggested that questions be allowed during the staff presentation so that residents did not have to refer back to previous slides. At the conclusion of the meeting, some residents expressed frustration that time had run out for questions – as it had at previous meetings.

One resident requested contact information for the citizen representatives from each ward to the AHP committee.

Marcia Higgins, one of Ward 4′s city councilmembers, noted that the entire process of the AHP project could always be extended – it wasn’t just a matter of possibly extending individual meetings.

One critique of the meeting was that although there’d been a presentation and time for question and statements, there had been no time allotted for a discussion among the community members.

City planner Connie Pulcipher, who along with Kahan facilitated the AHP presentation, noted that the final community-wide meeting had not yet been scheduled, so perhaps changes to the format could be considered for that meeting.

Some residents questioned whether there had been adequate efforts to really engage the community – given the time of year when many people are away.

Some attendees were unclear about the origins of the project. Kahan explained that the initial draft of the proposal had been developed by planning staff working with the planning commission. The draft had been reviewed by a technical advisory committee with representatives from various stakeholder communities – environmental, design and development. The planning commission’s ordinance review committee had then reviewed the draft and made changes. The revised draft was then reviewed at two meetings of a wider group of stakeholders.

That  proposal had been presented to the city council at a work session in September of 2008. The council directed the planning staff to take it back to the public at large for a greater amount of citizen involvement.

This inclusion of stakeholder groups, but without the engagement of the public at large, was a point critiqued at Thursday’s Cobblestone Farm meeting.

R4D and Implications for Other Districts

The proposed changes for area, height, and placement in the R4D district – which is a multi-family residential district – includes an increase in the existing maximum height from 60 feet to 120 feet. Staff were asked to explain where these districts are located throughout the city. There are three sites citywide that are zoned are R4D, Kahan said. One of them, along Traver, is vacant. Kahan explained that there was no proposed increase in density for those districts, but the idea was to capture the current level of density in a possibly greater height, which would increase the amount of open space.

Noting that R4D is proposed to have its maximum height limit increased from 60 feet to 120 feet, one resident asked what would prevent a different district – say for example, R4B – from being rezoned to R4D, so that the parcel could benefit from the increased height limit. Kahan noted that in any actual rezoning decision, the first question to ask was: Is there any justification for the rezoning? He also pointed out that any rezoning required a planning commission process and permission from the city council, stressing that a rezoning decision was “not a backdoor decision.”

Comparisons to Other Communities

One resident wanted to know if there was an optimal ratio of residential/office/commercial zoning districts that seemed to present itself after city of Ann Arbor staff had studied comparable communities. Kahan rejected the idea that there was some kind of “magic formula,” saying that each city pursues its own path. What was important, Kahan said, was to move away from an automobile-centric model to a pedestrian/transit-based model. Key to that move, he continued, was increasing the floor area ratios along transit corridors.


Connie Pulcipher, a planner with the city of Ann Arbor, sketches a mid-block cut-through in response to a question. (Photo by the writer.)

Mid-block Cut-throughs

One attendee wanted to know if there were any incentives for creating mid-block cut-throughs – ways to get through what would otherwise be a solid frontage of buildings across an entire block. The context of the question related to the idea of moving retail buildings very close to the street and locating parking for those retail establishments behind the buildings.

A mid-block cut-through, suggested the attendee, might facilitate easier access from the parking to the retail establishments. Kahan replied that there was no specific incentive for that within the AHP project. He characterized the issue of establishing incentives for mid-block cut-throughs as relating to a second phase of master planning that would eventually be undertaken by the city.

Dicken Woods

One resident expressed concern about the impact of the proposal on Dicken Woods. Present at Thursday’s Cobblestone Farm meeting was Jack Eaton, president of the Friends of Dicken Woods, who clarified that Dicken Woods was currently still a township island. Marcia Higgins, a Ward 4 city councilmember, added that the area still needs to be annexed to the city. Connie Pulcipher, senior planner with the city, confirmed that the only thing that would change with respect to Dicken Woods is that it would be annexed – it would not be rezoned by the AHP project.

What Will Ensure Mixed Use?

One resident had concerns about situations where a residential zoning district abutted a commercial zoning district – which was slated under the AHP proposal to be allowed a greater floor area ratio. His question: What keeps a developer from simply building a bigger gas station with bigger lights instead of a nice mixed-use building with residential units? Kahan noted that it was impossible to dictate to developers exactly what they built, but that the zoning code helped enforce reasonableness through its list of principal permitted uses.

Given where the questioner lived, the conversation focused on the intersection of Packard and Stadium and the four corners of that intersection. What would happen if the owners of those parcels simply started “packing stuff in”? Kahan noted that there were various practical considerations that mitigated against the “packing of stuff into the parcel.” Among those practical considerations was the requirement of stormwater detention on site for new development. In addition, “conflicting land use buffers” would help ensure a certain protection for adjoining residential parcels. [See Chapter 62 of the city code for discussion of conflicting land use buffers.]

On hearing “conflicting use buffer,” the resident allowed that this made him feel a little bit better that the new proposal would not lead to the creation of an “Über-gas-station.” Pulcipher, for her part, sought to elicit from the resident his views of a facility next door that would not be an “Über-gas-station,” but that would include parking underneath the building, some retail, and residential. That was something that the resident seemed not prepared to express a view on, given the hypothetical nature of the question.

Truth in Advertising?

One resident said she liked the images included in the presentation of the kind of development that these regulations were meant to promote, but asked how the city could ensure that the final built product matched up to what was approved as a part of a developer’s site plan. Kahan said that many of the elements that had caused frustration in the past were now made explicit in the development agreement.

The questioner was possibly alluding to the case of the Corner House Lofts building – also known commonly as the Buffalo Wild Wings building – in which the final built product did not measure up to expectations by some, based on drawings and site plans. One notable feature that is frequently cited anecdotally as missing are balconies on the building. Kahan noted that developers were now required to show elevation drawings that included proposed vegetation and drawings that excluded it for greater ease in evaluating what exactly was being indicated in the site plan.

One Size Fits All?

One resident expressed concern that two parcels with the same zoning district classification might exist in completely different contexts, so that “one size fits all zoning” might not be appropriate. For example, the M1 zoning district along North Main and the Huron River is a different context from the M1 zoning districts that exist south of town.

Parking Area In Exchange for Bus Stops?

One resident suggested that in the interest of transit-oriented development one could perhaps imagine allowing developers to retain surface parking lots if they would guarantee that the parking spots could be used as park-and-ride lots for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. This suggestion relates specifically to AATA’s recent eviction from the Arborland shopping plaza.

Timeline for Impact?

In response to Kahan’s expressed expectation that there would not be a rush of development as a result of the proposed changes to area, height, and placement, one resident expressed skepticism. “Developers are constantly sniffing around,” he said. In an allusion to the City Place project, the resident noted that the result of the “sniffing around” was that all of a sudden seven houses on one block are owned by one person. If not developers, continued the resident, then the University of Michigan is sniffing around. Responding to the quality of the kind of development shown in the slides, the resident suggested that the proposal would result in the “Southfield-ization” of Ann Arbor.

Easing the Process for Developers?

One resident expressed shock and dismay that these proposals would be undertaken, contending it would make things easier for developers. After hearing the frequently-repeated principle that if a project met the code, that made it a “matter of right project,” for which the city council could not deny approval, she concluded the AHP proposal would make it more difficult for the council to say no to a new development.

How Many Unrelated People Can Live Together?

Regulations on residential occupancy in the city code specify that:

(2) A dwelling unit may not be occupied by more persons than 1 of the following family living arrangements:
(a) One or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship living as a single housekeeping unit, in all districts.
(b) Four persons plus their offspring living as a single housekeeping unit, in all districts.
(c) Six persons living as a single housekeeping unit in R4 districts. [Emphasis added]
(d) A functional family living as a single housekeeping unit which has received a special exception use permit pursuant to section 5:104.

This part of the code has often led to controversy in the case of projects proposed that essentially target the student rental market. Crtitics contend that the six people occupying the dwelling units of such a private dorm do not in fact constitute a housekeeping unit.

On Thursday, one attendee wanted to know when and how the six-person rule came about. Kahan said he wasn’t sure. The attendee suggested that this part of the code should simply be revised downward to four people, which would have the effect of preventing the creation of “mini-dorms.”


Heading home along Packard, Hatim Elhady – an independent candidate for Ward 4 city council representative who’d attended the AHP meeting – gave The Chronicle a friendly beep on the horn as he drove past. Chalk one up in the positive car-bicycle interaction column.


  1. By Dan Ezekiel
    July 27, 2009 at 8:43 am | permalink

    An extremely well-written and helpful summary of the issue and the discussion at the meeting. Thanks, Dave!

  2. By Bob Martel
    July 27, 2009 at 10:51 am | permalink

    Dave, I agree with Dan, an excellent article that clearly lays out the issues surrounding this subject. As a member of the AHP Advisory Committee, I appreciate your effort to set the table for the community discussion. The role of the Advisory Committee, by the way, was not to help in formulating the proposal itself but rather to advise the City on the best way to present this to the community and to gather feedback. In recognition of the concerns raised in the article about the process, I have full confidence in City Staff’s commitment to adjust the feedback process going forward to make sure that all opinions are heard.

    I was placed on the committee as a representative of the developer community (boos and hisses hereby acknowledged!) For what it’s worth, I personally support the majority of the elements of this proposal. If implemented, we will not see immediate changes in the landscape as most of the parcels affected are already developed and those that are not will be impacted for years to come by the reality of economic conditions. But rather, we will see a gradual and natural phasing of new developments over the next fifty or so years in this direction. The end result for those of us who live long enough to see it, will be a more pedestrian and mass-transit friendly environment in the non-downtown commercial (e.g., retail and multi-use) developments that will be completed in the future.

  3. July 27, 2009 at 10:56 am | permalink

    Great article! I think the AHP process is moving in the right direction, and I’m glad to see this kind of forum for fine-tuning the proposal. I plan to be at the Thursday presentation.

  4. By Jack Eaton
    July 27, 2009 at 1:18 pm | permalink

    The Area, Height and Placement proposals are based in “New Urbanism” theory. Much of that is based on the premise that if you build cities densely, it will prevent urban sprawl. There is no example of the introduction of new urbanism principles in a midwest town like Ann Arbor making a measurable reduction in reliance on automobile use.

    The planning staff talks about encouraging “transit-friendly” development. In fact what is needed is development-friendly transit. Ann Arbor does not have transit service the can reasonably displace automobile use. Buses are scheduled with 30 or 60 minute intervals. Reliable transit requires service every 10 minutes or less. Further, Ann Arbor transit service is based on a “spoke” system, where buses originate downtown, follow routes that radiate from downtown and meander in loops at the edges of town and return downtown. To travel from one destination to another on the edge of town (for example from Maple and Stadium to Packard and Stadium) one must go downtown, change buses and then travel back out to the destination.

    The recently approved transportation plan does not address improved perimeter routing or scheduling frequency. That plan does call for train service to outlying areas. Thus, the transportation plan provides further encouragement for urban sprawl without seeking improved service inside the city.

    The idea that tall, densely situated development will curb urban sprawl is a silly idea. No one moves to Scio Township, Chelsea, Saline or Brighton because there were not enough high-rise developments in Ann Arbor. Nothing about luxury condos in town will satisfy the desire for a half acre lawn outside the city. Dense development appeals to a different demographic than suburban sub-developments do.

    On the other hand, the Area, Height and Placement proposals will impact residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The corner store can be replaced by a 50 foot tall multi-use building that towers over neighboring homes. Taller apartment or condominium buildings with parking underneath will allow for more buildings on a site because the minimum open space requirement is unchanged but the under-building parking frees up new space.

    Every contentious project in town has been opposed because it was too extreme for the surrounding neighborhood. Each has been approved because the Council believes it has no authority to reject a “by-right” project. The Area, Height and Placement proposal would simply allow more extreme projects to fit within the so-called “by-right” designation. Is that really what we want?

    Jack Eaton
    South Maple Neighborhood Group

  5. By Dave Askins
    July 27, 2009 at 1:35 pm | permalink

    Re: [2] “The planning staff talks about encouraging “transit-friendly” development. In fact what is needed is development-friendly transit. Ann Arbor does not have transit service the can reasonably displace automobile use.”

    This relates to a theme that Jim Mogensen often raises in various contexts during public commentary — mostly at AATA board meetings, but sometimes also at city council meeting: commuter-oriented transit versus locally-oriented transit. Otherwise put, there’s transit that’s designed for people to get to their jobs (who live somewhere else), but there’s also transit that’s designed for people who live round these parts to get around town.

    Much of the recent focus on transit development (WALLY, east-west rail, park-and-ride) has been centered on commuter transit, as opposed to local transit.

  6. By Julie
    July 27, 2009 at 1:52 pm | permalink

    Jack, great post. I could not agree more. Especially re AATA. The bus comes near my house every 30 min at peak times, and every HOUR at non-peak times. How can I use the bus? If I miss it, I wait an HOUR? If a bus came to my street every 15 minutes, my car would rarely leave the driveway. And I also agree about the massive scale of projects proposed for neighborhoods. If this is what the re-zoning will encourage, I can’t understand why we’re even talking about it.

  7. By Bob Martel
    July 27, 2009 at 3:07 pm | permalink

    With respect to mass transit, we all need to be realistic. Ann Arbor is not, and never will be, Manhattan or the Loop area in Chicago. The density required to support effective mass transit for cross-town trips is not likely going to be achieved in Ann Arbor in the lifetime of anyone currently alive (and thank goodness for that!) Therefore, unless someone develops some as of yet unknown technology, mass transit is not going to be much help for cross-town trips unless one’s trip coincides with an existing bus route, or is on a very limited budget and/or has a lot of time. For most of us who can afford it, personal transportation in some form or another is going to be the mainstay for the foreseeable future. This might take the form of electric cars or scooters rather than gas powered cars which could be a good thing.

  8. July 27, 2009 at 3:07 pm | permalink

    Dave, thank you for making the point about the AATA focus. The board has specifically set a goal of enhancing commuter access to Ann Arbor and I believe that this is at the cost of enhancing local transit. Further, last summer the AATA board set a goal of becoming a “regional” authority.

    I believe that many of us would use the bus a great deal more with improvement of scheduling. My route does not run on weekends or evenings, and very nearly had the service during the day canceled. I’m grateful that we do still have that daytime service.

  9. July 27, 2009 at 3:56 pm | permalink

    It’s not easy to write any sort of primer for the Area, Height and Placement zoning changes. I am so grateful to the Chronicle for covering this penultimate meeting, and for dealing with a complex issue so well.
    I’ve asked that those on my mailing list take the time to read this article, and then ask me questions. Zoning has been the focus of so much of Council’s attention in the past few years. This piece of the puzzle is nearly ready for Council to look at again, and I want to be certain we in the City understand the impact it will have.
    Thank you for providing this very thorough coverage. It IS like being there.

  10. By Jack Eaton
    July 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm | permalink

    In my haste this morning to respond to the content of the meeting, I forgot to say what a pleasure it is to have the Chronicle report at length about such meetings. It is great to have such comprehensive reporting about these meetings.

    The City planning staff has an Area, Height and Placement project web page that includes the proposed zoning amendments, a good summary of the height and placement changes and a video of the first presentation of this slide show. The slide show is pretty much the same each time. Here’s the link.

    As mentioned in the article, the final neighborhood meeting is Thursday July 30 from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at Forsythe Middle School Media Center, 1655 Newport Rd. Planning staff promises to have a final city-wide meeting in the near future. Anyone can attend any of the neighborhood meetings.

  11. July 28, 2009 at 3:34 am | permalink

    @Jack Eaton:

    It’s quite reasonable for you to opine that various development proposals have been “too extreme” for their neighborhoods – and I’d certainly agree in some cases – but I think that a lot of what you write up to that point is either not quite accurate or else just not related to that point. If what you mean is just that you think particular developments are too extreme, and that the proposed zoning amendments would allow more such “extreme” plans, focus on that – it’s a perfectly valid sentiment. Meanwhile, I’ll respond to some of your unrelated points:

    You write that “much of [New Urbanism] is based on the premise that if you build cities densely, it will prevent urban sprawl.” I think you’re over-emphasizing one piece of the puzzle. The primary premise of New Urbanism is that it creates better places to live. Reducing sprawl is in some ways just a side benefit to the “better places” goal – but it’s more significantly a *cause* of the “better places”. By putting the coffee shop four blocks from your house, rather than having to get in the car and drive to Arborland Starbucks, the hope is to make better neighborhoods by reducing sprawl – bringing the cafe to you. If we happen to reduce the number of strip mall Starbucks in the process – reducing sprawl – bonus points. I won’t get into the number of institutional barriers (regulatory and financial) that drive suburban sprawl, except to note that we’ve spent 60 years building up momentum on suburbanizing – if we’re to reverse that, it’s not going to happen in a few years. I’m hardly a card-carrying New Urbanist, but you certainly can’t write off the ideas because they’ve not yet produced a sprawl-free city.

    You note that “Ann Arbor does not have transit service the can reasonably displace automobile use,” and I’d agree – but note that the transportation and land use components need to be addressed simultaneously, as a single system. Mass transit cannot function without a critical mass of users, and a critical mass of destinations. Service levels and user/destination supply need to be addressed in tandem – else you get either wasted service or congestion. Even if AATA could afford to double their service hours (running buses twice as frequently), gaining some ridership from the added convenience, it wouldn’t be a panacea. I referred above to bringing the cafe to you, and that applies here as well – you still need the critical mass of destinations to make transit work. A five minute bus ride to the grocery store is perfectly doable (trust me), but a 20 minute bus ride, with a dozen intermediate stops, because the grocery store is way over there, is a problem no matter how frequent the service. (Note that I’m not using the word “density” in the above because it’s not the point – the point is putting people where they need and want to be, and “critical mass” is a better word for it. Or “accessibility”.)

    You further note that, “Nothing about luxury condos in town will satisfy the desire for a half acre lawn outside the city.” You’re right – it would be pretty silly if we built nothing but downtown condos and expected everyone to be happy living in them. On the other hand, nothing about a half-acre lawn will satisfy the desire for a downtown condo, or a near-downtown townhome, or a small house on a small lot in walking distance to downtown.

    Do not mistake the prevalence of large lot suburbanism for a preference for large lot suburbanism – various research has shown that many more people are stuck in suburban homes for lack of more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods than vice versa. (see, e.g., Levine, Jonathan, Aseem Inam and Gwo-Wei Torng. (2005) A Choice-Based Rationale for Land-Use and Transportation Alternatives: Evidence from Boston and Atlanta. Journal of Planning Education and Research 24(3):317-330.) Certainly, anybody who wants a home on a quarter- to half-acre lot in a new auto-dependent subdivision can find any number of choices in the area, at any price range. The supply of housing in neighborhoods with good transit service and lots of amenities within walking distance is woefully smaller.

  12. July 28, 2009 at 8:56 pm | permalink

    Thanks again, Dave for a wonderful article and thanks to all for the great comments.

    A couple thoughts here. First of all, I personally met and chatted with Jeff Kahan about the AHP plan and to me it sounds very promising.

    Think about this . . . there are office buildings in Ann Arbor (like by Briarwood, on State Street and Eisenhower and around Plymouth) that are surrounded by lawn and other offices. Many of these lawns are treated with chemicals so they are weed-free, which can harm the environment, and many of the lawns are mowed by mowers that spew exhaust. Most of the people that work in these office parks have to drive there because they are in a circuitous area surrounded by roads and grass. There is no other real choice. And to top it off, if the person wanted to walk to a coffee shop or a place to grab some lunch, they either have to deal with limited options in the form of a cafeteria, or they have to get in their car to drive to a place to eat.

    This is a challenge with some of the current zoning. Because of this zoning, these office parks exist. So what’s the alternative? Imagine an office park where you can actually use more of the land to put in some apartments, or a coffee shop, or a restaurant. Now that office worker who had to drive to work can live next door, grab a coffee on the way to work, and then stop at the local bar on the way home. Some of the point of the AHP proposal is to allow for these mixed uses so we don’t just have these big office buildings surrounded by nothing but a sea of grass and parking. That was the old model.

    Now I do agree that some of the development issues become more complex when you get closer to residential areas (like Stadium and Packard or even by Westgate, where I live). But there are also many places in Ann Arbor that could be vastly improved by allowing for some more development that creates a walkable space by using existing land that is just sitting there because of the zoning. Who knows, maybe if there were some residential units in some of these areas, some of that former lawn could be used for an urban garden? There are a lot of positive possibilities to consider.

    I appreciate people’s concerns about these issues. I would also encourage you to get to know some of the people behind these plans. Both Jeff Kahan and Connie Pulcipher live in Ann Arbor and are very interested in keeping Ann Arbor a very walkable community. They are not shills for developers and in fact are very progressive in their views about development and urban planning.

    One last thing . . . on the transit issue. I agree that our service could be much better, but we do have to understand the context we are in. We are in a state with decreasing revenues that makes it hard to get money for transit. We are in a state that does not allow for transit funding in a way other states can. And yes, we still lack the true critical mass in some areas to support the kind of transit we want. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can shape this community for the better. I think the AHP plan can help.

  13. By Julie
    July 30, 2009 at 8:35 am | permalink

    I’m relatively new to this community and entirely new to discussions of zoning. From my perspective, what this discussion lacks is a kind of strategic plan, am overriding vision of what we want our community to be. I think we need to articulate that vision first and then work to establish codes that serve the vision.

    Ann Arbor is a healthy, thriving community that is highly desirable to developers. That desirability puts community members in a position to expect more from developers. There’s no reason why Ann Arbor can’t be transit-friendly, reasonably dense, family-friendly, and beautiful to boot. I think many of us have been disappointed by recent developments. I’m interested to attend a forum on these topics, but I’m also interested in seeing strong city leadership on this issue to prevent future disappointments.

  14. By john
    July 30, 2009 at 4:10 pm | permalink

    great post, murph.

  15. By Julie
    July 30, 2009 at 7:45 pm | permalink

    Hey, we have two Julie’s here now! Hi other Julie. Shall we distinguish ourselves with last initials, or some other way?

  16. July 30, 2009 at 8:56 pm | permalink

    @Julie 13: Good observation on vision.

    For my part, I can look at the proposed zoning changes and think, “Fewer strip malls, more places that feel like village centers along important nodes and corridors around town – yeah, I can get behind that!” (But that’s because I’ve spent enough time poring over zoning ordinances to grok the picture.) And I also think that’s the loose vision that I’ve heard from all sorts of people around Ann Arbor over the ~8 years that I’ve been involved in the discussion. But that’s not something that’s necessarily transparent in this summary.

    I haven’t been to any of the meetings on this – but I’ve seen the project summarized more like that in previous coverage. I actually think the Chronicle is so thorough in the background foundations of zoning here that they’ve skipped over the part where, “We want to transform car-commerce strips into neighborhood centers.”

    So, I’d say there is some vision around this, but it may not be as explicit as it could/should be.

  17. July 31, 2009 at 10:52 am | permalink

    I was at last night’s 5th ward meeting, here are my thoughts:

    1. I am totally behind the idea of “let’s make sure that new commercial, light industrial, and research development is not these sprawling, pedestrian-and-transit hostile, strip-mall-type developments;

    2. There are areas where the revised zoning changes may require a look at if we should re-zone the area. In particular, there is a pocket of red “Zoning Districts Affected by Major AHP changes” in the middle of a residential area at Maple and Miller that has residents concerned. There is also a pocket of what I believe is residential areas on Plymouth that is surrounded by these highly-affected areas. I haven’t gone over the maps and neighborhood characters enough to have a firm opinion about them, except to say that they deserve a look.

    3. I think this process may be trying to do too much at once. I think it would be easier to separate out the proposed minor changes to the residential zoning from the moderate and major changes to commercial, research, and industrial zoning. It may be hard to get this all approved in one package.

    4. There is significant mistrust by some community members of this process. I heard a lot of table talk along the lines of, “they are out to screw us.” I am not going to assign ill intent to the staff and volunteers who worked on this, and I think it’s a good direction to move, but this mistrust will make their process much more difficult.

    5. Related to the mis-trust, there is an activated group of people who are fighting some projects around the city who are using this existing mobilizing base to come out to critique these proposed changes. There has not been any similar organization of pro-mixed use, anti-strip mall residents to support changes like this. My point here is that the vocal commentary on these proposals may not represent the full range of community thought. That’s fine. That’s democracy. Those who show up get to be heard. You just need to know what you’re getting in to.

    6. I think some of the opposition to these changes comes from people concerned that it will threaten their nice neighborhoods. That’s understandable. What I like about this is that creates an alternative to all these ugly strip malls, and things like the maximum setback requirements force developers to stop burying their stores behind a sea of asphalt.

  18. By John Floyd
    July 31, 2009 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    @ Julie 13

    A year ago, after the primary election, the Ann Arbor News reported that Mayor Hieftje had spoken at the majority/machine election night party, to the effect that” We have elected here five candidates who share a Big Picture vision of the future of Ann Arbor. They have the will to implement it”.

    Neither the mayor, nor any of The Five, have ever been willing to tell the public what that vision, that “It”, is. A few weeks ago, at Public Comment time at a council meeting, I repeated my year-old request for the mayor or council to tell us what ‘it” is. David Askins asked the mayor, the mayor was unwilling to tell him, and claimed that council had no vision (suggesting, to me anyway, that they now claim they are just making things up as they go, merely lurching reactively from one crisis to another, with no vision at all). Why don’t you try the mayor or your councilmen, perhaps one will respond to you.

    – John

  19. By John Floyd
    July 31, 2009 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    Mr. Warpehoski,

    Some people have, in addition to policy differences with the current political class, differences over how our various public processes – not merely zoning processes – are implemented by this political class. Differences – even arguments – over policy are the stuff of democracy, and of politics, and are wholly legitimate. When discussions are in public, are complete, include how proposed change fits into an over-riding end vision for the city, let the public know WHAT that vision is, and take place at the BEGINNING of change processes, the community has a greater sense of trust in its officials, regardless of the policy outcome. When discussion appears to have gone on long before issues are brought to the public, when public hearings are scheduled at the END of a process, and when public officials behave as if public hearings are merely pro-forma and perfunctory (e.g. by e-mailing each other during them, not looking at speakers, offering non-responsive “responses”, treating speakers with contempt, etc.), government officials invite suspicion of their motives, words, and actions. Perversely, much of our current public process, and political words and actions by council, seem as if intended to maximize public distrust of public officials. It is indeed sad to begin any discussion from the premise that nothing said by the 9-out-of-11 council majority, and those the city employs, can be taken at face value. That, however, is the corner into which this government has painted itself for many people. When credibility is gone, there really is no place for discussion to go, and the community is fractured. There might be parts of various zoning and “density” proposals to which many of the disillusioned might agree – but for the mistrust that this government has invited upon itself. Process matters, and its foundation is trust. “Density” is but one of the arenas in which trust of this government has eroded

  20. By John Floyd
    July 31, 2009 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    Ms. Shore,

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

  21. July 31, 2009 at 3:36 pm | permalink

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

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

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

  22. By Jack Eaton
    July 31, 2009 at 4:33 pm | permalink


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  23. July 31, 2009 at 5:25 pm | permalink

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

  24. July 31, 2009 at 5:31 pm | permalink

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

  25. August 1, 2009 at 10:19 am | permalink

    As I read through the comments I seem to see some places where many of us can agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  26. By Chuck Warpehoski
    August 1, 2009 at 1:39 pm | permalink

    Great discussion! Thank you Chronicle for providing a venue for it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  27. August 1, 2009 at 2:10 pm | permalink

    This comment thread is paralleling a thread on Arbor Update on “what kind of city/development do we want”. I’m not sure that this is the place for expounding different competing visions at length, though that question underlies the response to the AHP revisions. Clearly that is the discussion that we need to have as a community.

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

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

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

  28. By John Floyd
    August 1, 2009 at 6:02 pm | permalink

    Mr. Warpehoski,

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

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

  29. By jay
    August 4, 2009 at 8:31 pm | permalink

    I always thought placement of structures with setbacks were also to protect home owners having homes built in front of them. For instance, a 25-foot minimum front setback would mean that a building needs to have a 25-foot buffer between it and the front lot line that separates it from a public right of way or street. This apparently is not the case in the neighborhood of Garden Park Homes where a home was built in front of another without any rezoning of the parcels such as a Planned Development.