Reworking residential density
by Natalie Burg Vial
Instead of creating more density near downtown, a study may end up limiting it.
Talk about awkward. City staff were to present a report to the twelve members of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Study Advisory Committee that was intended to reflect the committee's recommendations after more than two years of meeting, receiving public comment, and strategizing new ideas for the near-downtown R4C (multi-family) and R2A (two-family) zoning districts. The committee addressed many issues--but one thing its members saw no need to change was the maximum residential density, which currently sits at twenty housing units per acre.
City staff seemed to disagree. But the committee might not have known that, had they not uncovered a very different density recommendation buried in a related area of the report awaiting their unwitting approval.
Wendy Carman, who sat on the citizen committee, explains that one issue members grappled with was the recent proliferation of six-bedroom apartments. "The code talks about density in number of ... units per acre of lot," she says. But "it doesn't tell you anything about how many people are going to live in those units." The new City Place apartments on Fifth Ave. are a particularly controversial case: its developers squeezed 144 bedrooms into just twenty-four units.
Staff's proposed solution was to discourage five- and six-bedroom units by allowing more density for apartments with fewer residents. What they failed to mention was that the incentives would increase the maximum permitted density from twenty units per acre to forty--double the committee's recommended number. And had Carman not been quick with her calculator, the committee might have unknowingly approved that change.
"When I brought it to the attention of the committee at the meeting held to discuss the proposal," she says, "the response by the committee was astonishment and opposition by almost everyone."
There were other parts of the staff-prepared report that the committee was pleased to approve. "The major issue here," says Carman, "is that 83 percent of R4C lots are too small
to be R4C lots." With the minimum lot size currently set at 8,500 feet, most buildings in the district are "noncomplying." This means additions or renovations can only be made with permission by the zoning board of appeals (ZBA).
Bringing more existing structures into compliance is something Carman and fellow committee member Ethel Potts say received unanimous support among committee members and city staff. They recommended shrinking the minimum lot size to 4,350 square feet--greatly reducing the number of non-complying buildings, and instantly making life more reasonable for property owners.
Local developer Tom Fitzsimmons is less enthusiastic--because the committee also recommended a maximum lot size, of 6,525 square feet. That limit would prevent big projects like City Place, which combined seven lots--but also smaller ones like the three-story, five-unit condo building Fitzsimmons is currently developing at 922 and 926 Catherine St. He says his project is appropriate for, and has the support of, the neighborhood, but if the committee's recommendations became a part of the ordinance, combining the two lots would violate zoning code.
"Essentially, they're allowing [only] small remodels and additions," says Fitzsimmons. "It will kill any megaprojects and everything in between. That's fine if that's what everyone who lives in all of those neighborhoods wants, but in my opinion it is a reaction to City Place and may be killing some very good midsized projects."
Potts disagrees that midsized developments are necessarily more appropriate than mega-developments to the scale and character of near-downtown neighborhoods. And if developers really want to combine lots, Carman adds, they can always appeal to the ZBA.
For their part, members of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Study Advisory Committee are displeased with parts of the report that include recommendations on issues they don't feel they had sufficient time to study. Parking was one such issue--though that didn't prevent staff from including parking recommendations in their report.
"I refuse to take responsibility for having a [parking] recommendation," says Carman, "because it is really a staff recommendation, it is not a committee recommendation." But with the committee now disbanded, any changes are now in the hands of the Planning Commission. The committee's report may or may not travel back and forth between the commission and a subcommittee before, if ever, reaching city council for consideration.
"It won't be happening anytime soon," Potts predicts of the eventual revision of the R4C and R2A ordinances. "Who knows? They could just put it on the shelf."
The following Calls & letters item will appear in the November 2012 Ann Arbor Observer:
"It was a draft," planning manager Wendy Rampson said in a phone call. Rampson was responding to an October Inside Ann Arbor article that described how members of a planning review committee were surprised to learn that a "report awaiting their unwitting approval" would have allowed much greater density in R4C neighborhoods.
Rampson says the document was just "an early draft that went through many iterations, because the zoning requirements are so complicated and the committee was refining what it wanted to achieve. It might seem like we were proposing, but we were just getting ideas out there-it wasn't meant to be any kind of agenda on the part of the staff." She also noted that recommendations not supported by the majority of the advisory committee were revised or deleted before the report was finalized.
[Originally published in October, 2012.]