Council Moves on Downtown Zoning Revisions

Recommendations from the city planning commission – to start a formal legislative process to make revisions to zoning regulations in downtown Ann Arbor – have now been accepted by the Ann Arbor city council. And the city council has in turn now directed the planning commission to craft the corresponding zoning ordinance language to reflect the recommendations. The council made some amendments to the recommendations before turning the work back over to the planning commission. [Jan. 21, 2014 zoning resolution, as amended]

Action directing the planning commission to start crafting ordinance language came at the council’s Jan. 21, 2014 meeting. The session included a public hearing, with a dozen people speaking generally in support of the proposed revisions. Many speakers urged the council to make additional revisions – for example, looking at the South University area, Thayer Street, and additional sections of East Huron. Several people also supported additional recommendations that were made by the Near Downtown Neighborhood Group. [.pdf of Near-Downtown Neighborhood Group letter]

The issue of design guidelines and the design review board was also raised during the public hearing. Some people argued that the design review process should have more “teeth.” But Tamara Burns, an architect and chair of the city’s design review board, told the council that the board does not support tying the award of premiums to compliance with the recommendations of the design review board. She advocated for revising the design guidelines and updating the process for the design review.

David Blanchard, chair of the city’s housing and human services advisory board (HHSAB), also spoke at the hearing. He wanted to keep the idea of affordable housing alive, and supported a diversity of housing choices for different income levels. He urged the planning commission to work with HHSAB to make affordable housing a reality in Ann Arbor.

The amendments made during the meeting were in large part additions to the original resolution, and addressed concerns raised during the public hearing. In addition to the original resolution’s directions, amendments were made to direct the planning commission to (1) consider rezoning Huron Street from Division to Fourth Avenue to conform with the East Huron 1 character district, and consider incorporating 25-foot minimum side setbacks and 10 foot front setbacks where feasible in the East Huron 1 Character District; and (2) to consider whether other D1-zoned areas, which do not have buffering from adjacent residential neighborhoods, including some areas of South University and Thayer Street, should be rezoned to D2.

A date certain was also added by which the planning commission is to report to the council on all its work on this issue. That date is Oct. 20, 2014, which is the council’s second meeting that month.

The one part of the original resolution that was separated out from the direction to the planning commission to begin implementation was this: “Revise the premium conditions to require mandatory compliance with core design guidelines for a project to receive any premium in the D1 or D2 districts.” That point was left in the resolution, but language was added to recognize the objections to it that were heard from the city’s design review board during the public hearing. The revised text stated: “Council requests that the planning commission review and consider methods to achieve compliance with core design guidelines in a manner that achieves design review board support, …”

After the planning commission completes the next phase of their work – to develop the ordinance language – the city council will need to give final approval of the changes. Both of the next steps – by the planning commission and the city council – will include public hearings.

In general, the recommendations forwarded by the planning commission to the council for consideration on Jan. 21 aimed to create more of a buffer between downtown development and adjacent or nearby residential neighborhoods. The planning commission had voted on the recommendations at its Dec. 3, 2013 meeting

Three of the recommendations related to specific parcels: (1) Rezone the parcel located at 336 E. Ann from D1 (downtown core) to D2 (downtown interface); (2) Reduce the maximum height in the East Huron 1 Character District (on the north side of Huron, between Division and State) to 120 feet. Include a tower diagonal maximum and consider a step-back requirement to reduce the shading of residential properties to the north; (3) Rezone the parcel at 425 S. Main, at the southeast corner of Main and William, from D1 (downtown core) to D2 (downtown interface) and establish a maximum height of 60 feet for D2 zoning in the Main Street Character District.

Several other recommendations focused on the issue of “premiums” – certain features that a developer can provide in exchange for additional square footage. Those recommendations were: (1) Revise the premium conditions to require mandatory compliance with core design guidelines for a project to receive any premium in the D1 or D2 districts – a recommendation that was somewhat softened through an amendment by the council at its Jan. 21 meeting; (2) Reduce the residential premium with the goal of encouraging the use of other existing or proposed premiums to compensate for this reduction, such as increased energy efficiency certification, open space with landscape, active ground floor use, balconies and workforce housing; (3) Review options in D1 and D2 districts, with the housing and humans services advisory board (HHSAB), for providing additional affordable housing within mixed income projects or through other funding mechanisms; (4) Eliminate the affordable housing 900% FAR (floor area ratio) “super premium”; and (5) Evaluate the downtown real estate market to determine the effectiveness of premium incentives every 2-5 years.

By way of additional background, a downtown zoning evaluation began last year, following a city council directive to the planning commission on April 1, 2o13. That direction was prompted in part by the controversial 413 E. Huron development, at the northeast corner of Huron and Division. The council’s direction was for the planning commission to make recommendations to the city council by Oct. 1, 2013.

Planning consultant ENP & Associates was hired to gather public input and evaluate certain aspects of downtown zoning known as A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown), which was adopted in 2009. ENP’s Erin Perdu took the lead on this project.

Her report had been originally presented at the commission’s Oct. 8, 2013 working session. [.pdf of consultant's downtown zoning report] [.pdf of Appendix A: city council resolution regarding zoning review] [.pdf Appendix B: list of downtown development projects since 2000] [.pdf of Appendix C: public input results]

Commissioners held a public hearing on the consultant’s recommendations that began on Oct. 15, 2013, and continued at their Nov. 6, 2013 meeting. They also discussed the recommendations at a Nov. 12 working session. Based on that discussion, planning manager Wendy Rampson made revisions to Perdu’s original set of recommendations. Rampson drafted a memo and resolution containing these revised recommendations. [.pdf of Nov. 19 memo and draft resolution]

The commission continued the public hearing and debated most of these recommendations at its Nov. 19, 2013 meeting, which adjourned at about 12:30 a.m. The group did not tackle the most controversial item that night: Possible changes to the parcel at 425 S. Main, at the southeast corner of Main and William.

On Dec. 3, commissioners picked up the topic and heard from three people during the ongoing public hearing – all three of them addressing the issue of zoning at 425 S. Main. Following that, the commission’s discussion focused on 425 S. Main, as well as revisiting a recommendation related to the design guidelines.

For additional background on this process, see Chronicle coverage: “Feedback on Downtown Zoning Continues“; “Downtown Zoning Review Nears Final Phase“; “Priorities Emerge in Downtown Zoning Review”; ”Downtown Zoning Review Moves Forward” and “Downtown Zoning Review to Wrap Up Soon.”

Details of the council’s deliberations on Jan. 21 are reported in The Chronicle’s live updates from the meeting.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]