No Consensus on Residential Zoning Changes

Ann Arbor planning commission to tackle R4C/R2A issue

A committee that’s worked for a year and a half to develop recommendations for zoning changes in Ann Arbor’s near-downtown residential neighborhoods has been unable to reach agreement. So it’s now likely that the city’s planning commission will weigh in on the controversial issue. The outcome of changes – if approved by the city council – could affect the density of residential development in the city.

R4C City of Ann Arbor Zoning

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

At a recent working session, planning commissioners were briefed on a draft report from the R4C/R2A advisory committee, which has been meeting since December 2009. Both kinds of zoning district were established in the 1960s: R4C allows for multiple-family residential dwellings, such as apartment buildings, while R2A zoning limits density to two-family residential structures. The committee was unable to reach consensus on its recommendations, nearly all of which relate to the R4C districts.

At the June 14 planning commission working session, two commissioners who serve on the committee – Jean Carlberg and Tony Derezinski – expressed frustration at the outcome. The draft recommendations don’t provide any guidance about where the city might encourage greater density, Carlberg said.

Derezinski, who is the city council’s representative to the planning commission, added that many committee members worked hard, but were interested in protecting what they’re used to, especially concerning density and parking in their neighborhoods. As it stands, he said, the report won’t be helpful to the city council. Derezinski supported the idea of having the planning commission study the issue and make its own recommendations.

Commissioner Evan Pratt suggested that the first question to ask is whether there should be greater density, and where – the answer to that would guide the recommendations.

In a follow-up phone interview with The Chronicle, Wendy Rampson – the city’s planning manager, who also attended the working session – said there are several possibilities that planning commissioners might pursue. They could discuss the report at one of their regular meetings and make their own recommendations or comments about it. Those recommendations and comments could be made either informally – communicated to the council via Derezinski – or through a formal resolution or memorandum.

Another option would be for the commission’s ordinance revisions committee to tackle it first, developing specific ordinance language that the full commission could then review and possibly recommend to the city council. Or commissioners could ask to hold a joint session with the council, she said, to talk through these issues directly.

Regardless of how the planning commission proceeds, Carlberg will no longer be at the table. The June 14 working session was her last meeting as a commissioner. Her term ends on June 30, and she did not seek reappointment. The former city councilmember served 16 years on the planning commission, overlapping with her 12 years (1994-2006) as a Democrat representing Ward 3 on the council. Eleanore Adenekan was nominated during the council’s June 20 meeting as a replacement for Carlberg – her nomination is expected to be confirmed at the council’s July 5 meeting.

R4C/R2A Zoning: Background

In recent years, the city of Ann Arbor has undertaken several major initiatives to overhaul regulations related to development. Two of those – A2D2 (downtown zoning) and AHP (revisions to area, height and placement requirements) – are completed. Still in the works is ZORO (zoning ordinance reorganization), a comprehensive zoning code review.

Another major initiative has been the review of R4C (multiple-family residential dwelling) and R2A (two-family residential dwelling) districts, which were set up in the 1960s. Though a formal review process started about two years ago, the issue has been around since at least the mid-1980s. At that time, city planning staff conducted a review of the North Burns Park area, which ultimately led to a downzoning of that neighborhood from R2B – a zoning category that allows for group housing like fraternities and sororities – to R2A. The sense at that time, according to Rampson, was that R4C districts were appropriate places for greater density and student housing.

Rampson said that sentiment is reflected in the city’s central area plan, which was developed in the early 1990s and later incorporated into the city’s master plan. [.pdf of central area map] The central area plan included several recommendations related to zoning, but the planning commission at that time didn’t act on those proposed changes.

The issue emerged again a few years ago – Rampson said there seemed to be a change in attitude about whether R4C was still appropriate for certain areas in the city. In particular, residents in Lower Burns Park lobbied for rezoning of R4C districts to R2A or R1A (single-family houses), and in October of 2007, the council passed a resolution directing planning staff to explore rezoning in that neighborhood. According to reports in the Ann Arbor News, in late 2007 the planning commission recommended that only Golden Avenue be downzoned to R2A R1D (single family) – a recommendation that the council approved on Feb. 19, 2008. Other parts of Lower Burns Park were not rezoned.

At that same Feb. 19, 2008 meeting, the council unanimously passed a resolution directing the planning commission and planning staff to do a more comprehensive review of residential zoning in the central area. However, no action resulted from that resolution. A nearly identical resolution was introduced a year later by Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) – which the council passed at its March 2, 2009 meeting.

The resolution identifies the rationale for undertaking this effort:

Whereas, the Central Area Plan, dated December 21, 1992, recommends four Implementation Program “Priority Action Strategies” as follows:

  • HN1 – Analyze zoning nonconformities related to area, height and placement regulations for the Central Area neighborhoods and determine if amendments are needed to make the regulations more consistent with established development patterns;
  • HN12 – Amend the zoning ordinance and map to clearly identify areas to be maintained or encouraged as housing;
  • HN14 – Reinforce student neighborhoods in the area south and west of Central Campus by developing new zoning definitions and standards that support organized group housing opportunities;
  • HP17 – Develop site design standards that encourage creative design while maintaining sensitivity for existing neighborhood character;

Whereas, The Non-Motorized Plan, dated December 6, 2006, provides guidance for land use and zoning to support walking, bicycling and transit;

Whereas, The Downtown Plan, amended December 1992, recommends in Section III to protect the livability of residentially-zoned areas adjacent to downtown;

Whereas, A majority of the lots in the residential districts in the Central Area are non-conforming due to lot size and lot width, and a significant number require variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals to make modifications or additions to the existing non-conforming structures;

Whereas, The resolution of October 15, 2007 directing the City Planning Commission to review rezoning in the Lower Burns Park neighborhood revealed (through the staff report, public hearing, written public comments and Planning Commission discussion) the need to review the R2A and R4C zoning districts more comprehensively within the Central Area rather than one isolated neighborhood at a time;

Whereas, The City Planning Commission believes that modifications to the zoning and ordinance requirements for residential districts in the Central Area could enhance the livability of these neighborhoods for owner-occupants and renters through a comprehensive review and appropriate changes to the minimum lot size, minimum lot width, setback, density, building height, open space, parking, landscaping and possibly other site related issues; and

Whereas, The City Council has requested that the Planning Commission and City staff find ways to reduce the need for developers to utilize Planned Project development applications as a way to accomplish the City’s goal to ensure that development proposals are more sustainable and that all efforts involving changes to City Zoning regulations involve extensive public involvement …

That resolution led to the formation, in the summer of 2009, of an advisory committee that was charged with studying the R4C/R2A issue, getting input from the public and community stakeholders, and presenting recommendations to the planning commission and city council for possible changes in these zoning districts.

Underpinning discussions of changes to R4C/R2A is the question of how much density should be allowed in these areas. Though there were smaller projects that caused concern, two large housing proposals in particular – The Moravian, and City Place – brought the debate to the forefront for people on both sides of the issue.

The Moravian, a five-story, 62-unit building proposed for the section of East Madison Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues near downtown Ann Arbor, was rejected by the city council in April of 2010. It was proposed as a planned unit development (PUD), located in an area zoned R4C. City Place is a “by right” housing project proposed in an R4C district on the east side of South Fifth Avenue just south of William. Approved by the council in September 2009, it called for tearing down several older houses and constructing two new apartment buildings. However, its developer, Alex de Parry, subsequently proposed a different project on that same site – Heritage Row – which would renovate the houses and build new apartment buildings behind them. That project, a planned unit development (PUD), has been rejected by council. City Place has not yet been built.

In July 2009, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) proposed a moratorium in R4C/R2A districts, with the intent of halting the Moravian and City Place projects until the advisory committee work was completed. The moratorium was voted down at the council’s Aug. 6, 2009 meeting, though a different moratorium was approved at that same meeting. It applied to demolition only in a limited geographic area. It was the assigned area of study for a committee appointed by the council to weigh the possibility of establishing a historic district there – a two-block area just south of William Street on Fourth and Fifth avenues. The study committee recommended establishing a historic district in the area, but that recommendation was rejected by the council, and the moratorium expired.

The R4C/R2A advisory committee was initially expected to complete its work by September 2010.

Committee members are: Tony Derezinski (city council representative), Jean Carlberg (planning commission representative), Chuck Carver (rental property owner representative), Ilene Tyler and David Merchant (Ward 1 residents), Wendy Carman and Carl Luckenbach (Ward 2 residents), Ellen Rambo and Michele Derr (Ward 3 residents), Julie Weatherbee and Nancy Leff (Ward 4 residents), and Ethel Potts and Anya Dale (Ward 5 residents).

R4C/R2A Zoning: Draft Committee Report

The introduction to the nine-page draft report of advisory committee recommendations includes this caveat:

Due to the complexity and extent of the issues identified during the study, it was not possible to reach a consensus on all of the recommendations listed below. The draft recommendations are the best effort at addressing all Advisory Committee concerns and represent the majority opinion of the Advisory Committee.

The report includes seven primary recommendations, with accompanying analysis. [.pdf of draft recommendations] Recommendations relate to: (1) rebuilding structures that don’t conform to existing zoning; (2) rezoning certain areas from R4C to R2A; (3) reducing minimum lot sizes and eliminating minimum lot widths; (4) revising density calculations; (5) exploring the creation of zoning overlays; (6) revising parking standards; (7) changing requirements for lot combinations.

Aside from a general recommendation regarding non-conformance, the recommendations all relate to R4C districts. Although R2A zoning was also discussed, the report noted that the committee felt the issues for that zoning district were minimal. No changes to lot area, lot width, density or parking were proposed for R2A, though the committee suggested downzoning some current R4C districts to R2A.

Draft Committee Report: Non-Conformance

The report states that committee members, backed by public feedback, wanted to keep the existing streetscape in the residentially-zoned,  R4C/R2A areas, including the size and massing of current buildings there. This was of primary importance, more so than facilitating greater density. Many of the current buildings were constructed before existing zoning standards, and are non-conforming – especially related to lot size and setbacks. If a building is destroyed, current ordinances would require that whatever is rebuilt would need to conform to existing zoning.

The committee supported allowing buildings to be reconstructed, under certain conditions, with a similar size and dimensions as the original structure, even though it would not conform to zoning.

Recommendation: The Advisory Committee recommends that Chapter 55, Section 5:87 (Structure Non-Conformance) be revised to allow reconstruction of non-conforming structures in R2A and R4C districts according to the following standards:

  • Allow the ability to re-construct structure if damaged due to fire, flood, or other calamity.
  • Reconstruction should not be allowed in case of voluntary destruction or demolition by neglect.
  • Establish time limit (18 months) on how long after destruction the reconstruction of nonconforming structure is permitted.
  • Establish time limit on building completion, once construction has started.
  • Require that replacement structures must be of similar style, massing and character.
  • Allow non-conforming multiple-family structures to add units and floor area without ZBA [Zoning Board of Appeals] approval, if the additional units or floor area is located within the existing building footprint. Additional units must meet density requirements; however structure can be non-conforming for lot area and setbacks.
  • Allow for additions to existing multiple-family structures without ZBA approval if the addition complies with all setback and required open space standards for that district. This is currently permitted for single-family houses ONLY.

Draft Committee Report: Rezoning

Two areas – Hoover/Davis, and Dewey/Packard/Brookwood – were identified by the committee as priority areas for rezoning. The areas had been previously recommended for rezoning as part of the city’s central area plan, to help maintain the existing pattern of development in those neighborhoods. According to the report, the committee felt there might be other areas that should be rezoned as well, but that more research is needed.

Recommendation: The Advisory Committee recommends that select areas [Hoover/Davis and Dewey/Packard/Brookwood] be rezoned from R4C to R2A.

Draft Committee Report: Minimum Lot Size/Lot Width/Setbacks

The existing minimum lot size in R4C districts is 8,500 square feet, but 83% of parcels are non-conforming for this requirement. The majority of these parcels are also non-conforming for lot width, which is about 40 feet. The committee felt it was important to bring zoning closer to the established development in these areas, according to the report.

Recommendations: The Advisory Committee recommends the reduction of minimum lot sizes to 4,000 square feet for all parcels in R4C zoning district and elimination of the minimum lot width requirement. No changes to existing setbacks are proposed.

This change would bring 985 parcels into compliance, out of a total of 1,633 R4C parcels that currently don’t comply with existing zoning. The changes would allow for more flexibility in configuring new building and in remodeling existing structures, according to the report.

Draft Committee Report: Density Calculations

The report notes that the city’s current method of calculating density encourages the construction of six-bedroom units – the same minimum lot area is required, regardless of the number of bedrooms in a unit. This type of apartment appeals primarily to students, the report states, and the committee wanted to encourage a mix of bedroom types that would appeal to a broader range of renters.

Recommendations: The Advisory Committee recommends instituting a graduated scale of calculating density based on the total number of bedrooms provided in each unit. Existing density is calculated based solely on lot area per unit, regardless of the number of bedrooms within unit.

Regulations were proposed for three different unit types: 0-2 bedrooms, 3-4 bedrooms and 5-6 bedrooms. [.pdf of draft density calculations] No changes were proposed for rooming houses or group housing, such as fraternities, sororities and co-ops.

Draft Committee Report: Overlay District

The committee was interested in protecting the existing pattern of development and streetscape in R4C neighborhoods. The most feasible way to do that, according to the report, would be to form guidelines that would protect against: (1) out-of-scale buildings; (2) design that’s incompatible with the neighborhood; and (3) inappropriate lot combinations. An overlay could also allow for flexibility in the site design – for example, possibly modifying area, height and placement (AHP) standards in certain areas.

Recommendation: The committee recommends that zoning overlay districts be explored as a tool for protecting massing, setbacks and streetscape of neighborhoods experiencing redevelopment pressure within the R4C zone.

Draft Committee Report: Parking Standard

The committee felt the current method of calculating parking encourages the construction of six-bedroom units. The same number of parking spaces is required – 1.5 spaces per unit – regardless of the number of bedrooms. The goal is to encourage limited infill of smaller units, while giving property owners the option of providing more units with fewer bedrooms, according to the report.

Recommendation: Revise parking standards based on unit type (above), increasing parking requirements as number of bedrooms in units increase. Existing parking standards require 1.5 spaces per unit. Investigate off-site parking storage concept and alternative parking methods.

The proposed parking requirement is:

  • 0.5 spaces for each 0-2 bedroom unit
  • 1 space for each 3-4 bedroom unit
  • 2 spaces for each 5-6 bedroom unit

Draft Committee Report: Lot Combination

No consensus was reached on this issue, but most committee members wanted to put a limit on lot combinations to prevent construction of large buildings that might undercut the historical scale of the streetscape, according to the report.

Recommendations: The committee recommends that no more than two parcels be allowed to be combined with the resulting parcel not to exceed 10,000 square feet.

R4C/R2A Zoning: Planning Commission Discussion

At the planning commission’s June 14 working session, Matt Kowalski, the city planner who’s taken the lead on this project, gave a brief review of the advisory committee’s work, and presented a draft report to commissioners that was discussed at the committee’s final meeting earlier this month.

He noted that the committee had been formed in mid-2009, and started meeting in December of that year. It held a total of 10 meetings, plus public forums with different groups: neighborhood associations, rental owners, housing inspectors and others. A survey of students was conducted as well, to gauge what kind of housing students currently live in, and what their preferred options would be. The survey yielded 223 responses. [.pdf of survey results]

After presenting draft recommendations at a public meeting in March of 2011, the group made some tweaks, Kowalski said. They met in early June to go over the final version of recommendations, he said, but “there’s not a consensus on the vast majority of the issues.” The report he presented to planning commissioners at the June 14 working session did not yet reflect the discussion at the committee’s final meeting. [.pdf of draft recommendations]

Tony Derezinski, the city councilmember from Ward 2 who served on the committee and who sponsored the council resolution creating it, described the final meeting as the most productive one they’ve had, but said the overall effort was contentious. A lot of people are protecting what they’re used to, he said, especially concerning density and parking. And because the committee members represented so many different perspectives, it was difficult to reach agreement. He noted that initially the committee did not include representatives from landlords, but Jean Carlberg had pushed for that, and it had been a good addition to the group, Derezinski said.

Derezinski acknowledged that he hadn’t attended all the meetings, but felt that the committee had done all it could do. He suggested that planning staff were in the best position to come up with consensus recommendations for the city council, adding that councilmembers would no doubt get direct feedback about it from the community, too.

R4C/R2A Zoning: PC Discussion – Density

Carlberg spoke next, saying she would choose her words very carefully. One challenge was that the committee members consisted of primarily single-family homeowners and agents for rental properties, she said. So when they were looking at where to have greater density, or where to remove multi-family zoning, the results weren’t surprising. Many times it seemed like the group would take one step forward, she said, then at the next meeting take two steps back.

The draft recommendations don’t provide any guidance about where the city might encourage greater density, Carlberg said. No committee members represented people living in apartments, or people interested in developing more dense housing – those voices weren’t at the table. It was a very unrepresentative group on the issue of where to locate denser housing, she said, and additional meetings wouldn’t help. “I found it very frustrating.”

Erica Briggs asked if there was any consensus on what areas should have less density. The draft report recommends that two areas be downzoned from R4C to R2A: (1) the Hoover/Davis area; and (2) the Dewey/Packard/Brookwood area.

Evan Pratt asked what the role of the planning commission should be. Should commissioners review the report and make comments, or make their own recommendations to city council?

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, recommended that given its outcome, the report should probably go directly to the council. Many issues are intricately related, she said, which adds to the challenge. In addition to density, another issue is the physical configuration of houses that have been converted into multi-family dwellings. The goal is to try to keep the same pattern and massing, she said, and not end up with bigger buildings and bigger lot sizes.

Form and density are definitely challenges, Pratt said. He wondered whether a zoning overlay district might be the best option.

Bonnie Bona agreed with Pratt that they need to wrap their arms around the issues of form and density. Rampson said a lot of the committee’s discussion for increasing density related to how the zoning could allow for additions to existing structures so that units could be increased without tearing down buildings or “sticking people in basements.”

Bona said she hoped they wouldn’t see downzoning like the city council authorized in Lower Burns Park, without balancing it with upzoning for greater density elsewhere. She added that she would hate to see this process get bogged down because they can’t reach consensus. The result will be projects like they’re seeing on South Fifth Avenue, she said, with houses being torn down and big box structures built.

Bona was referring to the City Place development by Alex de Parry, which the city council approved in September 2009. It conforms to existing zoning, and calls for demolition of several houses on South Fifth, to be replaced by two buildings separated by a surface parking lot with 24 total units, each with six bedrooms. De Parry hasn’t started building that project. He has proposed an alternative development called Heritage Row, which would entail renovating seven houses and constructing three new apartment buildings behind those houses, with an underground parking garage. That project, a planned unit development (PUD), has been rejected multiple times by council. See Chronicle coverage: “Heritage Row Status Update

R4C/R2A Zoning: PC Discussion – Non-Conforming Structures

Diane Giannola brought up another issue: Zoning non-conformance. She questioned the draft recommendation, which calls for revising city code to allow for reconstruction of non-conforming structures in R4C and R2A districts, under certain conditions. That is, if a structure that doesn’t conform to zoning is damaged by fire or flooding, for example, it could be rebuilt in a way that was also non-conforming to zoning in that area. Shouldn’t the zoning simply be changed instead? she asked.

Derezinski said that was originally proposed, and it “got nailed” by committee members. The question is whether you rely on experts, or on people’s feelings, he said – it’s a tension.

Giannola argued that they should either revise the zoning or leave it as is – but they shouldn’t give people permission to ignore the zoning. Isn’t that the purpose of zoning – to tell people what they can do? She said she has a problem with making an exception for something that’s already wrong. That seems ridiculous, she said.

Reconstruction of non-conforming buildings was something that the owners of rental property on the committee wanted, Carlberg said. They don’t want the zoning to change, and they want the ability to rebuild without losing their property’s economic benefit.

Bona said it might be good to have an exception, especially for smaller lots. Kowalski noted that most lots aren’t wide enough to conform to existing zoning. The majority of structures don’t conform and couldn’t be rebuilt, he said – and owners like what they have.

R4C/R2A Zoning: PC Discussion – Second Opinion?

Kirk Westphal wondered whether the city council might want another opinion – perhaps the planning commission should weigh in. Derezinski noted that with so many non-conforming properties, you end up getting a lot of projects that are planned unit developments. Those PUDs allow for variances in zoning – essentially, a type of customized zoning for each project – which often results in a “hailstorm of opposition,” Derezinski said. He suggested that the planning commission at the least review the committee’s work and make recommendations to the council. Whatever they do will be controversial, he said.

Carlberg noted that the recommendations should also substantiate why they’re suggesting certain changes. Yes, Derezinski said, and also how the recommendations fit into the city’s master plan. Where do they want the community to go, with respect to zoning? If the planning commission believes that density is a good goal, they should say that, he added.

The committee’s process was as good as it could get, Derezinski said. They bent over backwards to get input – it took twice as long as expected. There were good people on the committee who spent a lot of time on the effort, he said, but he didn’t think anyone’s mind was changed. If the draft recommendations go directly to the council, he added, they won’t be useful.

Westphal asked whether the city council has discussed this issue. Not since it formed the advisory committee, Derezinski said.

R4C/R2A Zoning: PC Discussion – More on Density

Pratt returned to the topic of density, saying he wasn’t sure whether the draft report recommendations would result in greater or less housing density. That’s the first question that should be addressed, he said – they shouldn’t dive into details until it’s clear what the goal is for these zoning districts. What do people want to accomplish?

If the city council wants to scale back density and have less of a threat to existing neighborhoods, that’s one thing, Pratt said. But if councilmembers want to clean up the rental stock and add density in these districts, that would result in different recommendations.

Derezinski indicated that he’d prefer the second alternative, and that as a councilmember, he’d welcome the planning commission’s input. The city council has a lot on its plate, he said. Councilmembers want the expertise of people who know the issue – planning commission, supported by staff. Then it’s up to the council to accept or reject whatever recommendations they’re given.

One place to start, Pratt said, is to ask whether existing zoning in those R4C/R2A areas is a good thing. Is it the highest and best use of zoning for that area? If not, what changes can be made to reach the density goal that they feel is appropriate? And it’s not just density, he noted. There’s a boxy building at the corner of Liberty and Third that’s just two stories, but it’s really ugly, he said. How can they regulate zoning that won’t result in big box buildings – perhaps a zoning overlay would be the best approach.

Briggs said that density makes some sense for the city’s future, but not at the cost of destroying a neighborhood’s fabric. Although some people say that increased density is an assault on neighborhoods, she said, she believes it’s possible to achieve some sort of balance.

Carlberg noted that another challenge: There’s no financial gain for someone to build an apartment that looks nice and fits into the neighborhood. There was no one on the advisory committee who represented the perspective of a developer, she said. Many members didn’t even live in an R4C district – they lived next to one. So they didn’t have the experience of living in a mixed-use neighborhood with large apartment buildings from the 1950s.

Westphal clarified that the city’s master plan makes mention of density, but doesn’t have any action items related to it. He said he liked the idea of a zoning overlay – for many people, the issue isn’t so much about the size as it is about the form and massing of a building, he said.

Carlberg pointed out that small lots in these districts pose another challenge. The zoning currently calls for a minimum lot size of 8,500 square feet – and 83% of parcels in the R4C zoning districts do not conform to that size. Even for lots that meet that minimum standard, it would be hard to build a structure with the appropriate form on a lot that size. Carlberg also noted that for many people, it wouldn’t matter what the building looked like – they don’t want apartment buildings in a residential area with single-family homes.

Bona suggested a couple of approaches that the city council could take. The council could direct the planning commission to change the zoning to match structures that are already on the parcels in R4C and R2A districts. Or the council could direct the commission to make recommendations for increasing density in other ways, such as creating new zoning for certain areas, or using design guidelines.

Carlberg voiced support for the planning commission to weigh in, saying that the city council could then wrestle with both the advisory committee report as well as the commission’s recommendations.

Derezinski said the council shouldn’t be intimidated by the politics of it – there’s going to be controversy. “Isn’t that really inevitable?” he said. It goes back to whether they are a direct democracy or a representative democracy – and he’s in favor of adding the filter of councilmembers’ own judgement. There was a decent public process, he said, but the council will ultimately need to decide.

Pratt asked if the committee had discussed parking. That was a big concern, Rampson replied. [The committee's draft report calls for an increase in parking requirements based on the number of bedrooms, not the number of units.]

Briggs noted that you can’t separate the issues of parking and density. You can’t talk about the need for density because of sustainability, she said, then turn around and say you also need more space for cars.

Rampson said the student survey yielded some interesting results related to parking. [Among the results: 70% of respondents said they have a car, 98% said they use the car to run errands, and 66% said that having more options for shopping and amenities within walking distance of their home would encourage them to not have a car.]

Based on the discussion by planning commissioners, Rampson said, it seemed there was consensus for the commission to review the R4C/R2A issue. She said she’d schedule a time for commissioners to be more fully briefed by staff.

In a follow-up phone conversation with The Chronicle, Kowalski said he’s revising the draft report based on committee member comments at their final meeting, and will present that version to planning commissioners at one of their regular meetings later this summer. In a separate phone interview this week, Rampson said it’s possible that some advisory committee members will submit a “minority report” to accompany the full committee report, giving their alternative recommendations.

Rampson described several possibilities that planning commissioners might pursue. They could discuss the report at one of their regular meetings and make their own recommendations or comments about it, either informally – communicated to council via Derezinski – or through a formal resolution or memorandum. Another option would be for the commission’s ordinance revisions committee to tackle changes to R4C/R2A districts, developing specific ordinance language that the full commission could then review and possibly recommend to city council. Or commissioners could ask to hold a joint session with the council, she said, to talk through these issues directly.

Ultimately, it will be city councilmembers who decide what action, if any, to take on proposed zoning changes.

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  1. By Tom Whitaker
    June 30, 2011 at 8:47 am | permalink

    Mr. Derezinski and Ms. Carlberg are frustrated because it was no secret going into this study effort that they both have publicly called for razing near downtown neighborhoods and replacing the old houses with large apartment buildings. Both have spoken at public meetings about their personal visions of apartment corridors on Fifth Ave. from William to Madison, or on Madison from Packard to Main. These personal visions are not supported by the City’s master plans.

    They are in the minority in this City in the call for more density OUTSIDE the downtown boundary, where 6 years of community effort concluded that an area, closely matching the DDA boundary, was the appropriate place for high density residential development. In fact, this effort was initiated primarily for that very reason–to get more residents in the DOWNTOWN proper, not the surrounding neighborhoods (or further out neighborhoods, or the townships).

    The 1992 Central Area Plan is very clear about the citizens desire to protect the existing traditional character of the near-downtown neighborhoods (mostly larger houses on small lots). Trends since 1992 reflect that this desire has only INCREASED, not waned, as families have begun reclaiming the fringes of neighborhoods that were converted to student rentals in the 1960′s and 70′s.

    In the past few years, there have been multiple new student high-rise buildings completed or started, with more planned, including a new 460-bed upper-classman dorm built by the U. Purchase prices of rental houses have come down due to a soft market created by this glut of new housing, coupled with the nationwide real estate financing debacle and the foreclosures that are still happening today throughout the R4C areas. And most urban planning experts will tell you that the R4C areas, both in regulation and reality are already quite densely populated.

    The latest census shows the City’s population has decreased. UM, after a few years of record admissions, is moving to better control the size of this year’s, and future incoming freshman classes. They’ve been closing one dorm a year for renovations, but that cycle will end soon and the students displaced into the private market will once again be absorbed into the University-owned housing system.

    So what is the motivation for the call for more density?

    On a related note, during our battles against the Moravian, City Place and Heritage Row, our neighborhood association brought in experts who helped identify multiple problems with the language of the current ordinances, their interpretation, and the enforcement of zoning and housing codes. The planning commission received very comprehensive reports from us in this regard, where we identified several recommendations for some fairly simple corrections to the zoning. We were told that the City was waiting for the ZORO project (a reorganization of the zoning format) before implementing any changes. ZORO was supposed to have been completed last Winter. What’s up with that?

    Despite being told our recommendations would have to wait, the planning commission and city council DID act very quickly to address two other zoning ordinances affecting THEM that came to their attention during our battles. In record time, they removed the requirement that the City keep proposed site plans on public display in City Hall one week before public hearings (staff had trouble maintaining them). They also moved quickly to remove the time-limits imposed in the code for the planning commission and council to act on proposed developments.

    I’m sorry Mr. Derezinski and Ms. Carlberg didn’t get their way with this committee (perhaps Mr. Derezinski could have had more influence had he bothered to attend more meetings). But how many hearings, reports, committee meetings, master plans, studies, and other efforts must be undertaken before they (and others who are pushing for downtown boundary expansion) finally let it sink in that more density in these historic, near downtown neighborhoods is not needed. More importantly, it is NOT DESIRED by the citizens of the City, and in particular, the residents and property owners in these neighborhoods.

  2. June 30, 2011 at 10:56 am | permalink

    Tom has said it all so well. But I’d like to note that once again, the desires of the citizenry are seen as an impediment rather than as a directive. Is this what we should expect from our public officials?

    Jean Carlberg has consistently called for density and development throughout her long public service. She apparently believes that this will make housing more affordable for lower-income people in Ann Arbor. In my opinion, this ignores the basic dynamics of the marketplace. Many people are working hard to make Ann Arbor an attractive place to live. The cost of housing in desirable communities inexorably increases, unless public subsidy is provided. Michigan does not permit inclusionary zoning, so new development will always be aimed at the best dollar return.

    What we have seen in recent years is that attempts to build new market-rate dense housing fail (Ashley Terrace, Kingsley Lane, The Gallery) unless it is specifically targeted to students who can afford high-priced luxury housing (Zaragon I & II, 411 Lofts, The Varsity). This is not a solution to “affordable” housing, even for students who are not from wealthy families.

    We should re-examine the ideology of high density and ask what we actually intend to achieve with it.

  3. By ray detter
    June 30, 2011 at 2:36 pm | permalink

    Tom Whitaker and Vivienne Armentrout could not have said it better. I attended every session of the R4C/R2A advisory committee over the last year and a half. Every group from this community was invited to provide input into the proceedings of the committee. Their statements reaffirmed Ann Arbor’s commitment to maintain the scale and character of these zoning districts. It is really a shame that two members of the Planning Commission have stopped the process simply because it was not leading to their goal of overcoming our Central Area Plan and allowing high-density developers to destroy our near-downtown neighborhoods. That is not what this community wants and I hope that wiser heads on the Planning Commission and the City Council recognize that.

  4. By Tom Whitaker
    July 1, 2011 at 10:56 am | permalink

    After hearing from several committee members offline, it would appear that Mr. Derezinski and Ms. Carlberg are the ones who ought to be writing the ‘”minority report” with alternative recommendations.’ Certainly, none of these committee members thought they were done with their work or that they were incapable of reaching consensus on many issues.

    It does seem to be the case, as Ray Detter says, that the two members of the committee with elected or appointed government positions decided to pull the plug when things weren’t going their way.

  5. July 1, 2011 at 11:10 am | permalink

    I have been informed that no minutes were taken of that last meeting. Is that correct?

  6. July 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm | permalink

    I’m no economist, and I fully recognize that most developers don’t build affordable housing.

    At the same time, it seems pretty clear to me that if we restrict the supply of housing, its cost will tend to increase.

    I grew up here, and I’d like this city to be a more inclusive place. Historically, Ann Arbor was a place where many people could live. Heck, we even had some factories! Oddly, even as we’ve taken pains to preserve our historic downtown’s structures, it’s continued to lose a great deal of its original substance, so that much of it now resembles an upscale lifestyle mall in an antique shell.

    In a region of hundreds of thousands of people, spread out in subdivisions extending all the way south to Saline, I don’t expect that downtown Ann Arbor will ever regain its preeminence as an urban center, or be the most affordable place to live (unless you factor in the price of gas). But it does seem like more housing in the central city would tend to reduce rents and permit more people to live here. Just ask the landlords: [link]

    I’ve been privileged to spend much of my life here in Ann Arbor, and my interest in greater density in and near downtown is motivated by my desire for a more inclusive, sustainable, and prosperous city that makes that possible for more people. Is that really so wrong?

  7. July 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm | permalink

    With regard to (6), I agree that this is a complex subject, worthy of a full study that takes in a number of factors and market forces.

    If high-rises withdraw more affluent student renters from the divided former family homes in the Central Area, the possibility exists that these will experience a rental payment drop that will make them less valuable as an income property. At one time the value of the income property was so high that individual would-be homeowners were out-competed for this housing. Perhaps this would be reversed, which of course would mean withdrawal of lower-rent property from the market. (I think of this as a positive, frankly, for such emerging neighborhoods as the Old Fourth Ward and Germantown areas.) I am curious – I heard anecdotally that many of these student rentals were bought on speculation by those hoping to “flip” them – wonder what happened with all that during the housing bust?

    Existing multifamily apartments would not share in this aspect. They might indeed become more affordable.

    In the recent past, developers of new projects like the Moravian seemed to hold out the promise that what was being offered was new AND affordable housing (in the same package). This is illusory, as it does not recognize the cost of new for-profit construction.

    As for expanding density in the near-downtown, that simply makes it less accessible to families (and “inclusive” should surely include middle-income families and workers) and breaks up neighborhoods. Again, the Central Area Plan (a consensus, community-based master plan) calls for this area to retain neighborhood integrity.

  8. By Tom Whitaker
    July 1, 2011 at 1:17 pm | permalink

    What is “really so wrong” is a few urban planners and bull-headed officials trying to override the will of the residents, property owners and citizens of this city.

    It wasn’t too long ago that the cutting edge of urban planning theory included suburbs full of fresh air and open space, expressways to work or the mall, and huge parking lots. These theories are still in practice today, ingrained in the zoning and government subsidies for new development across the country.

    More recently, the New Urbanists came along as land became more scarce (and prices continued to increase) and many suburbs began to reach the edge of drive-ability. New Urbanist developers saw a market in creating new subdivisions that resembled Mayberry, where they could put more people in less acreage by mixing large houses with apartment buildings and maybe toss in a corner store if zoning allowed. Then the bubble burst for all of these rural “house farms”–new urbanist or otherwise.

    I like to call myself an Old Urbanist. These near-downtown neighborhoods are already very dense by average urban standards and they inherently contain everything the New Urbanists tried to imitate: traditional-style houses with small yards and front porches close to the sidewalk-lined streets; large shady trees; walking proximity to shopping, entertainment, restaurants, libraries, bus stops, and workplaces. Many of these houses have been divided into multiple smaller units, providing a variety of “dense” living arrangements for singles, couples and families. There are also many mid-century apartment buildings (some not so attractive) that provide another living option.

    My neighborhood contains undergraduate students sharing entire houses, grad students in one-bedroom apartments, as well as families, professionals and retirees living in their own homes or apartments. Some residents also own rental properties here that are nicely maintained and watched over. Incomes range from those living in subsidized housing or student co-ops, to professors, doctors and attorneys. Show me that mix in ANY new buildings in this city, or anywhere for that matter.

    When you complete your degree and go to work out in the “real world,” I hope you will quickly come to appreciate the existing built world and the people that have invested in it, live in it and enjoy it. The near-downtown neighborhoods may not fit perfectly into urban planning text book theories of what is the most sustainable way for humans to live, but they come pretty damn close. But what is really ironic about this whole discussion is that there is absolutely no reason to be targeting these neighborhoods for “higher density.” There is no growing market for new housing!

    Again, as a community, we decided to increase residential in the core of downtown, not the neighborhoods. Many large, downtown high-rise projects are approved to be built, but not built because there is no market and no financing. Why would we want to further water down the market for downtown residential living by pushing it into the neighborhoods? There are foreclosed rental properties all over the area.

    If it is your mission to provide alternatives to suburbs, we have it right here. People drawn to suburban living might be convinced to move to a traditional-style, near-downtown neighborhood, but I doubt you’ll find any of them willing to trade their 2000sf house on a half-acre for a 1200sf condo at twice the price.

  9. July 1, 2011 at 2:27 pm | permalink

    Looks like the neighborhoodies out-organized and out-argued the developers. Good!

    Tony should recognize that he lost, and move on.

  10. By Andy
    July 1, 2011 at 6:01 pm | permalink

    Joel is correct that building more densely, all other things being equal, will result in lower costs and better access for those of us who could never hope to be able to afford to live near downtown.

    Given the extreme level of opposition I’m seeing to any new development in the areas immediately adjacent to downtown, I think we could satisfy the pent-up demand if we focused dense construction along major corridors like Plymouth, South Main, & (especially) Washtenaw while working with AATA to enhance bus service to those areas. It would also help if we examined any limits on liquor licensing in those areas, since the biggest reasons younger residents want to live near downtown is a) to be able to minimize car dependency and b) convenient access to nightlife.

    I live off Washtenaw by Arborland. We have lots of available space, very few entrenched homeowners to oppose, and virtually no “historic character” to worry about preserving. If we had better round-the-clock transit service to downtown/central campus, better bike infrastructure, better night life options, and some traffic calming to make the area safer for pedestrians, we could easily accommodate the pent-up demand for the type of experience younger renters/buyers are seeking downtown. Our developers and planners should recognize this potentially lucrative opportunity to retrofit this part of town accordingly.

  11. By Tom Whitaker
    July 1, 2011 at 11:42 pm | permalink

    We’ve been hearing about this mythical “pent-up demand” for years. If there was pent-up demand, Ashley Terrace would not have foreclosed, and multiple APPROVED projects like Glen Ann Place, The Gallery, Kingsley Lane, City Apartments, and Broadway Village would all have been financed and built and been fully occupied by now. Together they could have housed several thousand people.

    But alas, the truth once again gets in the way of a good story: The latest census showed a decrease in population in Ann Arbor, and it wasn’t because there weren’t enough brand new apartments available at minimal rents, located next door to night clubs.

  12. July 2, 2011 at 8:31 am | permalink

    Tom is right. There is no “pent-up demand.” There is, however, a clever push for extremely profitable housing by the developers and their allies on Council.

  13. July 2, 2011 at 9:48 am | permalink

    I think that what Joel was aiming at was the demand for rentals for lower-income people (and especially, perhaps, younger ones who are not students) that are decent and affordable.

    According to the figures provided by Washtenaw County Community Development [link], a single person earning about $35,000 a year (classified as low income; about $17.50 per hour) should pay no more than $885 a month (this is 30% of their total income). Yet that is on the low end of rents in local apartments according to a quick scan of rentals online.

    What I heard at the long public hearing on the Moravian was frustration at high rents and low quality of rentals. These young people were hoping for better. But new construction will not provide low-cost, decent rentals that are not configured to student rentals (the multiple bedrooms rented separately). The best hope for affordable housing is to use the existing houses well, as Tom describes. (I would come out here for accessory dwelling units, but I got beat up badly last time I did that.)

  14. July 3, 2011 at 7:36 pm | permalink

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. Believe me, I do appreciate the existing near-downtown built environment, and I wish the more recently developed neighborhood where I grew up was more like it. I’d just like to try to find ways to make those places accessible to more people, and I’d like to think there are ways to do that without completely altering their character.

    Building up transit corridors may be our best bet, as Andy suggests. I think the Planning Commission may have started work on a zoning overlay for that purpose.

    And Vivienne, I’ll gladly back you up any time you want to argue for accessory dwelling units!