Planning Group Weighs R4C/R2A Report

Recommendations on rezoning, density, lot combinations, parking

Ann Arbor planning commission working session (May 8, 2012): Nearly a year after planning commissioners were briefed on a draft report for zoning changes for Ann Arbor’s near-downtown residential neighborhoods, commissioners were presented this month with the final report from the R4C/R2A zoning district study advisory committee, which has been working on the issue since December 2009.

Matt Kowalski

Matt Kowalski, right, gives a report on recommendations from the R4C/R2A advisory committee at a May 8, 2012 work session of the Ann Arbor planning commission. Next to him is Tony Derezinski, a planning commissioner and city council member who served on the advisory committee. To the left is Wendy Carman, an advisory committee member who took issue with some aspects of the final report. Two other committee members – Eppie Potts and Julie Weatherbee – attended the working session.

Both kinds of zoning districts were established in the 1960s, and applied to existing neighborhoods. R4C allows for multiple-family residential dwellings, such as apartment buildings, while R2A zoning limits density to two-family residential structures. Planning manager Wendy Rampson described the R4C zoning as “broken” –and most of the committee recommendations relate to R4C districts.

Concerns about R4C/R2A districts have been raised since at least the mid-1980s, and are tied to the question of how dense these areas can be. Although there were smaller projects that caused concern,  two more recent large housing proposals – The Moravian, and City Place – brought the issue to the forefront for people on both sides of the density debate.

In particular, the controversial City Place project on South Fifth Avenue, which combined multiple lots and demolished seven residential houses to build two apartment buildings, has been cited as an example of the need to address R4C zoning. City Place changes the streetscape of that neighborhood, but is analyzed as conforming to current zoning code.

The final committee report includes 10 recommendations, with accompanying analysis. [.pdf of recommendations] The major recommendations relate to: (1) rebuilding structures that don’t conform to existing zoning; (2) rezoning certain areas from R4C to R2A; (3) reducing minimum lot sizes and minimum lot widths; (4) exploring the creation of zoning overlay districts; (5) revising density calculations; (6) revising parking standards; and (7) changing requirements for lot combinations.

Commissioners praised the work of the committee, but much of the discussion related to future process: What are the next steps to take, now that the report has been completed? It’s likely that the group’s ordinance revisions committee will tackle the job of making recommendations for specific ordinance language to implement the changes. Those ordinance revisions would then be reviewed by the planning commission, which would forward its recommendations to city council.

In terms of content, commissioners mostly focused on the idea of overlay districts, which would be a way of preserving the character of different, distinct R4C neighborhoods. Commissioner Bonnie Bona floated the concept of form-based code as an option. Described in a very general way, a form-based approach tends to be more proscriptive regarding the types of buildings that the community wants to see in a particular district, including their design. In contrast, traditional zoning typically sets an allowable range of uses, sizes, placements, and other aspects for a development, but generally leaves the details of those decisions to the developer.

It was generally acknowledged that either approach – form-based or one with overlay districts – would be a complex issue to tackle.

Three advisory committee members – Wendy Carman, Ethel “Eppie” Potts, and Julie Weatherbee – attended the May 8 session. Carman and Potts spoke during public commentary to amplify written comments they had provided as supplements to the report, expressing concerns that some aspects of the report don’t accurately reflect the committee’s views.

During the May 8 session, commissioners also were updated on the city’s sustainability goals, which they’ll be asked to vote on at their May 15 meeting. This report focuses only on the R4C/R2A portion of the working session.

R4C/R2A Zoning: Background

The city of Ann Arbor has undertaken several major initiatives to overhaul regulations related to development. Two of those  are completed: A2D2 (downtown zoning) and AHP (revisions to area, height and placement requirements). A third one, ZORO (zoning ordinance reorganization), which is a comprehensive zoning code review, is wrapping up. The city council was briefed on a consultant’s report on ZORO at its May 14, 2012 working session.

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, 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 to R2A from R2B – a zoning category that allows for group housing like fraternities and sororities. The sense at that time was that R4C districts were appropriate places for greater density and student housing.

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, when 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 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 zoning review 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. The committee convened for the first time in December of 2009.

City Place on South Fifth Avenue

One of two apartment buildings in the City Place development on South Fifth Avenue, south of William. Walking in front on his way to the library is local attorney Kurt Berggren.

Underpinning discussions of changes to R4C/R2A is the question of how much dense these areas should be. 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 ultimately 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 that was 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 have renovated the houses and built new apartment buildings behind them. That project, a planned unit development (PUD), was rejected by the council.

Earlier,  in in July 2009, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) had 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.

Subsequently, de Parry sold his interest in the City Place development and the new owners moved ahead with that project – it is now well underway and is expected to be finished later this year. [Chronicle timeline of events related to the City Place project.]

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report

The planning commission had first been briefed on a draft report of the R4C/R2A committee at a June 2011 working session. At that time, planning staff had indicated that the committee had been unable to reach consensus on the recommendations, and  frustration about the outcome was expressed by two planning commissioners who had been appointed to the committee – Jean Carlberg and Tony Derezinski. [Carlberg's term on the planning commission ended on June 30, 2011 and she did not seek reappointment.]

Yet advisory committee members disputed the characterization that they couldn’t reach consensus, and continued to work on the report.

Since meeting for the first time in December of 2009, the committee has met a total of 11 times, and provided feedback and input via email and individual communications with planning staff. Opportunities for public commentary were provided during the committee meetings, and members of the group met with various stakeholders, including representatives of neighborhood associations, landlords, city boards and commissions, city rental housing inspectors, and students. An online survey was also emailed to all University of Michigan students, receiving more than 240 responses.

Members of the R4C/R2A advisory committee at a November 2011 meeting.

Some of the members of the R4C/R2A advisory committee at a November 2011 meeting.

Committee members are: Chuck Carver (rental property owner representative), Ilene Tyler and David Merchant (Ward 1 residents), Wendy Carman and Carl Luckenbach (Ward 2 residents), Ellen Rambo and Michele Derr (Ward 3 residents), Julie Weatherbee and Nancy Leff (Ward 4 residents), Ethel Potts (Ward 5 resident), Tony Derezinski (city council representative), Jean Carlberg (former planning commission representative). Anya Dale, who had previously served on the committee as a Ward 5 resident, was not listed in the final report.

The final report includes 10 recommendations, with accompanying analysis. [.pdf of recommendations] The major recommendations relate to: (1) rebuilding structures that don’t conform to existing zoning; (2) rezoning certain areas from R4C to R2A; (3) reducing minimum lot sizes and minimum lot widths; (4) exploring the creation of zoning overlay districts; (5) revising density calculations; (6) revising parking standards; and (7) changing requirements for lot combinations.

The report also recommends no changes to zoning for rooming houses or group housing (such as fraternities or sororities).

Aside from a general recommendation regarding non-conformance, the recommendations all relate to R4C districts. The report did address R2A zoning, but noted that 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.

City planner Matt Kowalski was the city staff point person for the R4C/R2A committee, and he briefed commissioners on the report at their May 8 working session. Three committee members – Wendy Carman, Ethel “Eppie” Potts, and Julie Weatherbee – attended the session. Carman and Potts spoke during public commentary to amplify written comments they’d provided as supplements to the report, expressing concerns that some aspects of the report don’t accurately reflect the committee’s views. Their remarks are reported below.

The report’s introduction ends with this caveat:

Due to the complexity and extent of the issues identified, the goal of the study was not to reach consensus on all issues, but rather to identify possible solutions based on majority opinion of the Advisory Committee. The draft recommendations below are the best effort at addressing the concerns of the Advisory Committee and the general public, and represent the majority opinion of the Advisory Committee.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Non-Conformance

The report’s first recommendation relates to zoning non-conformance. The fact that many structures don’t currently conform to R4C/R2A zoning was a big issue, Kowalsk told commissioners. As an example, existing zoning requires an 8,500-square-foot lot area, but 83% of parcels don’t meet that requirement, he said. 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.

Most of the committee and the overwhelming public feedback were in favor of keeping the existing streetscape in R4C/R2A neighborhoods, Kowalski said. So the committee supported allowing buildings to be reconstructed, under certain conditions, with a similar size and dimensions as the original structure, even though the new building would not conform to zoning.

Recommendation: Chapter 55, Section 5:87 (Structure Non-Conformance) should be revised to allow reconstruction of non-conforming structures in R2A and R4C districts when construction meets all of  the following standards:

  • Allow the ability to re-construct a structure if damaged due to fire, flood, or other calamity. Reconstruction should not be allowed in the case of voluntary destruction or demolition by neglect.
  • Establish time limit (18 months) on how long after destruction the reconstruction of a non-conforming structure is permitted.
  • Establish time limit (18 months) on building completion, once construction has started.
  • Require that replacement structures must be of similar style, placement, massing dimensions of the original structure and character as the building before destruction.
  • This section would apply to non-conforming structures only, and does not include non-conforming uses.

Two recommendations related to non-conformance that were in the original draft report presented at the June 2011 working session were subsequently removed, and are not in the final report:

  • 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.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: R2A District

No significant changes were proposed for the R2A zoning districts. Many of the issues that arise in R4C districts aren’t a problem in R2A neighborhoods, Kowalski said. Aside from the non-conformance changes, the report does not recommend any changes to R2A lot area, lot width, density, setbacks or parking.

However, the committee does recommend that some areas now zoned R4C would be more appropriately zoned as R2A. [See R4C Rezoning section below.]

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: R4C Rezoning

Kowalski said the committee looked at recommendations from the city’s central area plan, which was adopted in 1992. Many things have changed over the past 20 years, he said, so those recommendations aren’t all applicable.

According to Chapter 55, Section 5:10.8 of the city’s zoning code (for multiple-family dwelling districts),  the R4C zoning is intended for the central area of the city, near to the central business district and the University of Michigan. However, there are some parcels outside of the central area that are also zoned R4C, Kowalski noted – along South State Street, for example. It wouldn’t be appropriate to apply some of the recommended R4C zoning changes to those parcels, so the report suggests downzoning those areas:

Recommendation: Select areas should be rezoned from R4C to R2A and additional study be given to other areas that could warrant rezoning based on current conditions. Large R4C parcels outside of the Central Area should be rezoned to a more appropriate zoning district.

The 1992 central area plan recommended that another specific area be rezoned from R4C to R2A – the  Hoover/Davis neighborhood. That recommendation was supported by the current advisory committee. [The previous draft report had also specifically recommended rezoning the Dewey/Packard/Brookwood area to R2A, but that reference is omitted from the final report.]

The final report notes that there might be other areas where rezoning should be considered, stating that “but more research is needed in order to determine where additional rezonings are appropriate based on a more detailed analysis of existing land uses.”

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report:  Minimum Lot Size/Lot Width/Setbacks

“This was a big one,” Kowalski told commissioners. The existing minimum lot size in R4C districts is 8,500 square feet, but 83% of parcels – 1,970 lots – are non-conforming for this requirement. The majority of these parcels are also non-conforming for lot width. The committee felt it was important to bring zoning closer to the established development in these areas.

Recommendations: Reduce the minimum lot size to 4,350 square feet for all parcels in R4C zoning districts. Require the minimum lot width requirement for existing original platted lots and reduce the minimum lot width to 40 feet if not an original platted lot. No changes to existing setbacks are proposed.

Kowalski noted that the current average R4C lot size is 6,052 square feet – but he said he did not include large church lots or UM property in his calculations of that average. The proposed recommendation would bring 875 lots into conformance. If the proposed revisions are implemented, 62% of R4C lots would conform to the minimum lot area requirement. [The draft report from 2011 had recommended a 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.]

The final report’s recommendation not to change existing setbacks, which are 12 feet on each side, will help reduce the scale of new construction and prevent larger additions from being built closer to the property lines, according to the report. Existing setbacks could help preserve the scale and massing of existing streetscapes, the report states.

The report notes that when combined with a revised density standard (see below), the changes could allow for more flexibility in configuring new buildings or remodeling existing buildings. The revisions could also result in increased density for some parcels, according to the report.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Overlay District

Kowalski noted that R4C neighborhoods differ widely. Some R4C areas have tiny lots with almost no setbacks, while in other parts of the city – like the Oakland neighborhood – lots have 60-70 foot setbacks. You can also find everything in between those two extremes, he said.

To create one set of regulations for all neighborhoods would be really difficult, he said. One of the goals is to preserve what already exists, so overlay districts could be used to “customize” regulations and keep future development compatible with the current streetscape.

Recommendation: Zoning overlay districts should be explored as a tool for protecting massing, setbacks and streetscape of unique neighborhoods experiencing redevelopment pressure within the R4C zone. Overlay districts should be implemented on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson likened the R4C overlay districts to those created for D1 and D2 zoning, as part of the A2D2 zoning process.

According to the report, the advisory committee identified several issues that an overlay district might address:

  • Out-of scale development: A maximum building footprint could be instituted based on the historic development patterns of the neighborhood.
  • Design not compatible with neighborhoods: Guidelines can be developed on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis to control general massing and front setbacks.
  • Increased/decreased flexibility of site design: For example, an overlay district could be created that modifies the area, height and placement (AHP) standard based on existing development pattern for a selected neighborhood.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Density Calculation

Committee members felt that the current way of calculating density acts as an incentive for a developer to add more bedrooms, Kowalski said. Specifically, current zoning encourages the construction of six-bedroom units, because the same minimum lot area is required (2,175 square feet per unit) no matter what size the units are – one-bedroom or six-bedroom. The report notes that the majority of units recently built in R4C districts have had six bedrooms – and those typically appeal more to students, compared to other potential renters.

Recommendation: Adopt a graduated scale of calculating density based on the total number of bedrooms provided in each unit. As detailed below, the majority of the committee recommends requiring 2,175 square feet of lot area per unit for 0-4 bedroom units and 3,000 square feet of lot area for 5-6 bedroom units.

The committee received strong input that a mix of bedroom unit sizes – from one to six bedrooms – was desired, Kowalski said. According to the report, a majority of committee members support code revisions that would encourage construction of units with four bedrooms or fewer, and discourage five- or six-bedroom units. Existing zoning code regulates only the number of occupants in a unit, not the number of bedrooms.

The new density calculation relies on the interplay of (1) lot size, (2) required lot area per unit, and (3) caps on the number of bedrooms/occupants. The report states that when combined with proposed reductions in lot area/width, the proposed graduated scale will create incentives to build smaller units with fewer bedrooms per unit.

As an example for comparison, the existing minimum lot size in R4C districts is 8,500 square feet. A lot that size currently allows for up to three units with as many as six occupants each, or as many as 18 occupants/bedrooms total. Under proposed density standards, up to three units would also be allowed on that same size lot if the units have 0-4 bedrooms each, based on the requirement of 2,175-square-feet per unit. So under the proposed standards, only up to 12 bedrooms, not 18, would be allowed.

What happens with the proposed minimum lot size of 4,350 square feet? For a lot that size, the proposed density standard (with the requirement of 2,175-square-feet per unit), only two units with 0-4 bedrooms would be allowed – or a maximum of eight bedrooms. Six occupants would still be allowed for each of those two units however, for a maximum of 12 occupants. (A limit of 20 units per acre would remain in place in these examples. One acre is 43,560 square feet.)

Or consider again a 8,500-square-foot lot, but built with 5-6 bedroom units. Under the proposed density standard, which requires 3,000 feet for each 5-6 bedroom unit, only two units would be allowed – which is a maximum of 12 occupants/bedrooms. Currently, as many as 18 occupants/bedrooms are allowed on a lot that size.

Another feature of the proposed density standard, which applies to 5-6 bedroom units, would drop the maximum number of such units per acre from 20 to 14.

For a 4,350-square-foot lot, only one unit with 5-6 bedrooms would be allowed under the proposed density requirements – or a maximum of six occupants.

The report lays out proposed regulations for the two different unit types – 0-4 bedroom units, and 5-6 bedroom units:

Type A: 0-4 bedrooms: 2,175-square-foot lot area required per unit

  • EXISTING: An 8,500-square-foot lot will permit 3 units, 20 units per acre maximum (up to a maximum of 18 occupants at 6 per unit and up to 18 bedrooms). Maximum occupancy is based on bedroom size under the housing code, but capped at 6 unrelated occupants per unit.
  • PROPOSED new density standard: An 8,500-square-foot lot would permit 3 units, 20 units per acre maximum (up to a maximum of 18 occupants at 6 per unit and up to 12 bedrooms). Maximum occupancy is based on bedroom size under the housing code, but capped at 6 unrelated occupants per unit.
  • NEW MINIMUM LOT SIZE: A 4,350-square-foot lot would permit a maximum of 2 units (with a maximum 4 bedrooms each and up to a maximum of 12 occupants, or a total maximum of 8 bedrooms). Maximum occupancy is based on bedroom size under the housing code, but capped at 6 unrelated occupants per unit.

Type B: 5-6 bedrooms: 3,000-square-foot lot area required per unit

  • EXISTING: An 8,500-square-foot lot will permit 3 units, 20 units per acre maximum (up to a maximum of 18 occupants at 6 per unit and up to 18 bedrooms). Maximum occupancy is based on bedroom size under the housing code, but capped at 6 unrelated occupants per unit.
  • PROPOSED new density standard: An 8,500-square-foot lot would permit 2 units, 14 units per acre maximum (up to a maximum of 12 occupants and up to 12 bedrooms). Maximum occupancy is based on bedroom size (in square feet) under the housing code, but capped at 6 unrelated occupants per unit.
  • NEW MINIMUM LOT SIZE: A 4,350-square-foot lot would permit a maximum of 1 unit (with a maximum of 6 bedrooms and a maximum of 6 occupants). Maximum occupancy is based on bedroom size (in square feet) under the housing code, but capped at 6 unrelated occupants per unit.
The 2011 draft report had recommended regulations for three different unit types: 0-2 bedrooms, 3-4 bedrooms and 5-6 bedrooms, not just the two types in the final report.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Rooming Houses/Group Housing

No changes were proposed for zoning related to rooming houses or group housing, such as fraternities, sororities and co-operatives. The existing 8,500-square-foot lot requirement and parking requirement are recommended to remain in place. For group housing, a requirement to obtain a special exception use from the planning commission would also remain unchanged.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Parking Standard

Kowalski described parking standards as another big issue. Currently, the same number of parking spaces – 1.5 spaces per unit – are required, regardless of how many bedrooms are in each unit. It was felt that this approach encourages developers to put more bedrooms per unit, he said. Committee members and public participation indicated a strong desire to encourage a mix of different number of bedrooms per unit, so a graduated scale of parking requirements is recommended.

Recommendation: Adopt a graduated scale of calculating required parking based on unit type (above), increasing parking requirements as number of bedrooms in units increase. The Advisory Committee also recommends investigating an off-site parking storage concept and other alternative parking methods.

The recommendation calls for keeping the same parking requirement – 1.5 spaces per unit – for units with 0-4 bedrooms, but increasing the requirement to 2 spaces per unit for units with 5-6 bedrooms.

The 2011 draft report had recommended a more fine-grained parking requirement, corresponding to the three recommended unit types: 0.5 spaces for each 0-2 bedroom unit; 1 space for each 3-4 bedroom unit; and 2 spaces for each 5-6 bedroom unit.

According to the final report, a majority of committee members felt that the parking requirement shouldn’t control a building’s site design, and that open space shouldn’t be converted to parking in order to meet the requirement. But some committee members expressed concern about ensuring adequate on-site parking. The report states that the committee also recommends that parking requirements be studied further, in conjunction with all the other R4C recommendations.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Lot Combinations

Lot combinations was another hot button issue, Kowalski told planning commissioners. The report states that no consensus was reached about how to address the issue, but that the committee recommends limiting or prohibiting lot combinations in order to help prevent construction of large buildings that would disrupt the existing streetscape.

Recommendation: The Advisory Committee recommends a limit on lot combinations within the R4C District.

Kowalski said most committee members who supported a limitation wanted to limit the maximum lot size to 6,525 square feet – the area needed to allow three units at the current density, or three units of 0-4 bedrooms each at the proposed density. It is a square footage that’s based on the current average R4C lot size, according to the report.

Kowalski noted that there are a lot of other limiting factors in place that would limit construction of large buildings.

The 2011 draft report had also indicated that the committee couldn’t reach consensus on this issue, but that the majority supported a recommendation 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 Committee Report: Conclusion

Wrapping up his staff report, Kowalski observed that it was a longer process than they’d originally anticipated, with a lot of complex issues. R4C zoning districts are one of the most complicated, diverse districts in the city, he said, and changing the zoning is not a simple fix.

He also noted that committee members are interested in pursuing other issues in depth – issues that weren’t part of the committee’s original council directive. Those issues include dealing with trash, noise from student parties, and code enforcement, among other things. The issues are relevant to the R4C district, he said, but are not part of the committee’s report.

R4C/R2A Zoning Committee Report: Public Commentary

Unlike the working sessions for city council, the planning commission’s working sessions include an opportunity for public commentary. On May 8, three members of the R4C/R2A advisory committee attended: Wendy Carman, Ethel “Eppie” Potts, and Julie Weatherbee.

Planning commissioner Erica Briggs suggested that since the committee members were there and it wasn’t a formal setting, perhaps the discussion could be more informal than just the standard three minutes for each speaker, which Briggs said seemed weird in this case.

Kirk Westphal was chairing the meeting at this point – commission chair Eric Mahler was stuck in an elevator for the first hour of the meeting. Westphal said he’d be open to sticking with the initial three-minute commentary, then playing it by ear during the discussion. He also felt the commissioners should limit the scope of their discussion for this meeting, perhaps by just focusing on the process they’d like to set for handling the report.

Tony Derezinski suggested sticking with a “semi-formal” process regarding commentary. The expectation for the outcome of the R4C/R2A work is high, he noted. Several actions by city council have been deferred, he said, waiting for the outcome of this process. [As an example, proposed revisions to the city's landscape and screening ordinance were rejected by council at its March 19, 2012 meeting, in part because some councilmembers wanted to wait until recommendations for R4C zoning had been completed.]

All of this effort and public input should yield something substantial, and there will be even more public forums in the future, Derezinski said. This working session obviously won’t be the only discussion that planning commissioners have on these recommendations, he said, but the product will ultimately be changes in zoning. He concluded by saying that no one wants this to be just another report on a shelf. [Derezinski is the city council representative to the city planning commission.]

Both Potts and Carman had submitted written comments to the commission that took issue with some aspects of the report, and they both spoke during public commentary to highlight their concerns.

Eppie Potts began by saying “I’ve given it a lot of thought, obviously.” She began by pointing to the areas that are zoned R4C but located outside of the city’s central area, and challenged commissioners to look at those areas and see if they could be rezoned to something more suitable.

Regarding parking, Potts said the committee had agreed that there should be a graduated scale for parking requirements, but that the recommendations included in the report “aren’t very graduated.”

Potts also took issue with the report’s conclusion, saying that it seemed too tentative. At some point, the report “is what it is,” she said. Who’s going to finalize the recommendations, and when? she asked.

In her written comments, Potts had suggested substituting the following paragraph, or something similar to it, instead of the conclusion provided in the staff report:

The recommendations above are the product of two years of comprehensive research, discussion and analysis. The issues identified throughout the course of this study are very complex. Those who gave input to the Advisory Committee expressed problems caused by such issues as unsustainable density, lack of parking, inadequate open space, and the number of small non-conforming lots. Our recommendations deal with these issues. The Advisory Committee recommends that the proposed changes be adopted, tried for a time, then be reviewed for effectiveness and possible amendment.

Wendy Carman said it’s important for everyone to recognize the hard work of the committee. The committee members had wanted to keep the density no greater than it is now, but to decrease the number of non-conforming parcels.  The R4C zoning had been imposed on existing neighborhoods, she noted. The committee had been unanimous in its desire to preserve the existing streetscapes, she said. They also had wanted to reduce the incentives for building six-bedroom apartments, which she noted are really targeted just for students.

Regarding the parking recommendations, Carman stated that the committee did not vote for the recommendations that are included in the report. They did vote to recommend a graduated scale for calculating required parking, to make it dependent not only on unit type and number of bedrooms, but also on a maximum potential occupancy and lot size, she said. The committee had asked Kowalski to develop a proposal, but they did not vote on the one that’s in this report, she said. That’s a staff recommendation, she noted, not one from the committee.

R4C/R2A Zoning Report: Commission Discussion

Evan Pratt asked whether the report was just an FYI to planning commissioners and would go directly to city council, or whether planning commissioners would discuss it first. Matt Kowalski replied that the council’s directive had been to the planning commission and staff. He noted that advisory committee recommendations don’t include language that could be inserted into city code at this point, so that would need to be done before the council could act.

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)

When Pratt said he was fishing to see what kind of action is expected of the planning commission, Kowalski said that would be up to commissioners to decide.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson said there’s no set format for proceeding. One option would be to simply send the report to the city council as an item of information. Or the commission’s ordinance revisions committee could take a look first, she said, and bring back recommendations with specific ordinance language.

Tony Derezinski stressed that there needs to be some concrete outcome to this work. It’s too central and too controversial not to result in ordinance changes, eventually. It might take another step or two, he added, but his sense is that the council wants an action item.

Pratt responded by saying it would be good to get some direction from city council, to make sure planning commissioners are going in the same direction in developing ordinance language.

Derezinski said the question is whether the planning commission simply forwards the report to city council, or whether they do something more with it first. Bonnie Bona felt it would be helpful to provide some suggestions to the council about approaching the recommendations. For example, while in some cases there’s a lot of detail, there are other issues – like the overlay districts – that didn’t really get addressed in depth. She said she could imagine sending something to councilmembers that suggested making base zoning changes, plus recommendations for handling R4C lots outside of the central area, and for overlay districts.

Erica Briggs said she thought this was a great report, with a lot of consensus in terms of direction. The report provides solid recommendations, she said. However, Briggs felt that more attention needed to be paid to parking, adding ”but you know how I feel about parking, so I won’t go into that.” [Briggs has consistently been an advocate for requiring less on-site parking in developments, and encouraging alternative transportation or using other means to deal with the parking issue.]

Diane Giannola said her hope from this work is to make R4C zoning simpler, but that some of the recommendations seem to make it more complex. The overall message of the report is that something is being fixed, she said. Are the proposed changes actually fixing a problem, or just switching the problem to a different place? she asked. Giannola noted that the parking recommendations conflict with the views of some people on the planning commission – it’s important to be mindful of that.

R4C/R2A Zoning Report: Commission Discussion – Overlay and Form-Based Code

Much of the commission’s discussion centered on the concept of overlay districts. Bonnie Bona noted that A2D2 overlay districts really helped with the downtown zoning, by acknowledging the different character and sizes of buildings. But she also said she’d prefer some kind of form-based code, instead of “shoehorning” zoning into neighborhoods that are distinct. [Described in a general way, a form-based approach is more proscriptive regarding the types of buildings the community wants to see in a particular district, including their design. In contrast, traditional zoning is structured to provide an allowable range of uses, sizes, placements, and other aspects of a development, but generally leaves the details of those decisions to the developer.]

Erica Briggs said her concern about overlay districts is that there’s no teeth to enforce them. She said she didn’t know much about form-based code, but she like the concept.

Wendy Rampson noted that true form-based code doesn’t look at land use, so it probably wouldn’t be an ideal candidate for R4C. But some aspects of it might be helpful, she said.

Briggs observed that a form-based approach might address some of the things that planning commissioners have discussed in the past, like having small neighborhood stores. Currently, residential zoning doesn’t allow for that. Briggs said she’d really like to see something substantial emerge from the recommendations.

Kirk Westphal said he’d like to think that the commission could expedite this process and produce draft ordinance language based on the committee’s recommendations. However, he noted that when he hears the word “overlay,” he thinks of lines on a map – and that becomes a much longer process. For R4C, it might be even more complicated than when the city created overlay districts for D1 and D2 zoning. He asked Kowalski whether there was general agreement on the committee regarding overlay districts or boundaries between neighborhoods.

Kowalski said there were only a couple of neighborhoods mentioned – like the Oakland area with large setbacks, or a street near Golden with really small lots. But the committee didn’t delve into details about possible overlay districts, he said. It could be a useful tool, he added, but not simple to do.

Pratt noted that historic districts are already one kind of overlay. If you look at a map, he said, most R4C districts are pretty distinct, and relatively small.

Rampson noted that compared to overlay districts, form-based code would be similarly complex. Kowalski added that a form-based approach would need to be citywide, and would not just apply to R4C zoning districts. That’s another complicating factor, he said.

Westphal noted that if the city opts for overlays, the other issue is to define the character of those overlay districts. You’d be drafting a whole new set of rules, he said, but if you don’t have them in place, some of the other zoning revisions might encourage development or renovations that wouldn’t fit the character of the existing neighborhood.

R4C/R2A Zoning Report: Commission Discussion – Next Steps

Tony Derezinski pointed out that other zoning projects were underway – most significantly, the ZORO (zoning ordinance reorganization) project, a comprehensive zoning code review. [A consultant hired by the city has submitted his recommendations, which were the topic of a May 14 city council working session. The ZORO recommendations have not yet been made available to the public.] He asked Rampson how the R4C/R2A effort fits into other zoning projects.

Rampson called R4C a broken district, and said she’d rather deal with a complexity of ordinances that make sense, rather than continuing to have a broken zoning district. The recommendations could be considered an evolution from the Calthorpe process, she said. [Calthorpe Associates was a California-based consultant whose work resulted in the city's A2D2 downtown zoning.]

Derezinski said it was good to start with the premise that R4C is broken, and he liked the description of the zoning revisions as an evolution. That helps justify doing things a little differently in R4C than in other zoning districts, he said.

Evan Pratt said there’s nothing to dislike in this report. The main problems are listed out, and the recommendations make sense. He asked staff if they had any advice on how to tackle the other issues in R4C that hadn’t been addressed – is it just a matter of prioritizing?

Rampon said the ZORO project will help, making it easier to find and understand the existing zoning.

As the discussion wound down, Eric Mahler asked for recommendations on next steps. Rampson said it sounded like commissioners were inclined to discuss the report in more detail, before starting to develop ordinance language. She suggested convening the ordinance revisions committee as a starting point. Derezinski, who also represents Ward 2 on the city council, offered to update councilmembers as an interim step.

Bonnie Bona said the ordinance revisions committee could perhaps develop a cover memo for the report, which could then be discussed by the planning commission as a whole. [Members of the ordinance revisions committee are planning commissioners Bonnie Bona, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal and Wendy Woods.]

Rampson suggested that this might be a topic for another commission working session. But first, she would look at their schedules and set a time for an ordinance revisions committee meeting to discuss the report, and then take it from there. She thanked Matt Kowalski and the advisory committee for their work, noting that it hadn’t been easy, but that the result was an excellent report.

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal.

Absent: Wendy Woods

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]

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One Comment

  1. May 17, 2012 at 8:16 am | permalink

    The detail about the chairman being stuck in the elevator might have been mildly amusing but is actually rather frightening, given that (I recently discovered) the stairways at city hall have been blocked for all but emergency exit. One may enter the stairs at any floor, but exit them only on the first floor. So all comers to the city hall are now required to use the elevator at all times for access.

    I don’t know what the reasoning for this way – probably some notion about security. But it is counter to safety and health. I routinely use stairs for one-floor ascensions, and sometimes two. Now that we are all hearing about the absolute need for physical activity for health, it seems a strange time to require employees and the public to use only an elevator already proven to be at risk for stalling.