City master plan ideas presented by Duany

May 24, 2019

Urban planning expert Andres Duany presented preliminary concepts for the citywide master plan on Monday, May 20, to the Birmingham Planning Board, and on Tuesday, May 21, at a closing presentation to the charrettes, as part of work being done by DPZ Partners, LLC, on a new master plan for Birmingham, primarily focused on the city's neighborhoods and their integration within the city.

In December 2018, the city commission chose DPZ Partners, LLC, to provide professional services to prepare an update to the city's comprehensive master plan. The group led by DPZ was recommended to the commission by the ad hoc master plan selection committee after interviewing and hearing formal presentations from DPZ, of Miami, formerly known as Duany Plater-Zybeck, and MKSK of Columbus.

DPZ, known then as Duany Plater-Zybeck, helmed by master urban planner and designer Andres Duany, created the city's 2016 Plan in 1996, focused on the city's core downtown. This citywide master plan will focus on the neighborhoods, residents, and how they work with one another, parks, downtown, transportation and other issues. This is the first citywide master plan since 1980.

Duany began his presentation by commenting that Birmingham “has an amazingly balanced demographic between older and younger residents, which is very unusual. We think you need to support that. For example, if you don't support affordable housing, it will skew older, and that will affect schools, as there will be no students for schools.”

He noted that while it wasn't an issue to residents, he and his team believe the city should become more environmentally sustainable.

Another thing he said was lucky – “As we study plans of past and get to know the area, many towns located on Woodward had wealth, but Birmingham is the clear winner. This is the most desirable place. That's really consequential.”

He also praised predecessors of the planning board and city commission “who made some very good decisions, noting that in the 1920s, they condemned houses in the downtown in order to build City Hall and Baldwin Library. That created presence, a beautiful sense of place.”

In the 1960s, the commission said the five parking garages would be built. “Those parking garages made all this happen,” Duany noted. “So this could become a sophisticated mixed-use downtown. Otherwise it would be a one-story downtown.”

Moving forward, “We'll make recommendations of the things that are more important, and some things that are less,” he said of the concepts and ideas gleaned from a series of public charrettes.

He praised the redevelopment plans for Woodward and Bates Street. “That plan is great,” he said.

On the other end, he likes the Rail District, but noted that one property near the existing Troy railroad transportation building is blocking its completion. “It needs to be bought. Rail is the future of transportation,” Duany said. “The property is not particularly valuable, but you need to bite the bullet and buy it.”

He further said the city must build a parking garage in the Triangle District behind Walgreen's in order for developers to come into the district. “Development will come there. You have to build it (the garage) to incentivize the first builders.”

Duany was enamored with what he called the “lower Rail District,” – “the inexpensive commerce, incubating businesses. It's cool. Businesses that can't afford anything here (downtown). It's very inexpensive retail and it's cool – which means gritty to the kids. It's exactly like the Wynwood District in Miami. That's where it's at now. Similar to Detroit.”

In the city's downtown, where affordability and parking are key issues, Duany said the city requires that people who want to build housing have to provide their own parking, which is very expensive.

“Our recommendation is that parking structures that are largely empty during off hours can be assigned to residential,” he said.

Matt Lambert of DPZ noted that peak time at the garages is usually noon to 2 p.m., with increases beginning around 10 a.m. “Nighttime, there is about 3,200 unused capacity; weekends, about 2,600 unused capacity,” he said. “We found that only about 30 percent of monthly users park for six hours or more.”

“This is mixed use parking,” Duany explained.

Duany and Lambert said there is a great need for more affordable housing. “Residential cannot be big, and it must be affordable,” Duany said. “It will always appraise low, and therefore stay low, because they don't have parking.”

He noted it was “a painless win. Try it, and if it becomes difficult, adjust it.”

The neighborhoods are more difficult, Lambert and Duany said, largely because there are disparities between boundaries, and some neighborhoods have associations and some do not, with some residents coalescing around historical issues, parks and schools. They counted 27 neighborhoods, and said 16 are appropriate.

“We are proposing a new city hall position that convenes with these neighborhoods regularly and sees what their issues are,” Duany said.

“We're looking to preserve the diversity of age and income,” he said.

After reviewing the city's codes, they said that it needs a thorough cleaning up.

“It's a mess,” Duany said, noting they would help prioritize it. “We want to not just organize it but simplify.”

Lambert showed an example, where there are 300 different rules for neighborhood parking. “It's difficult for police to administer.”

Other preliminary recommendations are to leave all building height zoning in districts as they are; to recommend not permitting more than two lots to be combined, and to match the neighborhood's setbacks.

As for the draft of the plan, they anticipate presenting it to the city commission at the end of the summer, in order to provide time for two to three months of feedback, including public comments.

Another series of public surveys from the team will be administered in both June and October to gauge reactions.

“We're trying to make this as politically viable as possible,” Duany said of the recommendations in the plan.

“This is very exciting. We're excited to see the final report,” said planning panel chairperson Scott Clein.

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