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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.