Matt Lambert, urban planner with DPZ in Miami, presented a look at the first draft of the Birmingham 2040 citywide master plan at the joint workshop meeting between the city commission and planning board on Thursday, October 17, which was met with both attention and critiques by board members and the public.
Lambert said they were looking for feedback on the first draft, which came in at 322 pages. “We've identified areas for work, primarily the neighborhoods,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is in the vision area, is clarifying the future language – 'This is what we're doing, these are the reasons we're doing these things.'”
He said that is the last piece of the puzzle, identifying the future of the city's resilience, determining how the city will sustain itself, whether in population density, how it will deal with growth, the environment and/or sustainability.
The preamble of the master plan makes clear that “The city is not a building. Social connections have eroded, for those who have lived here for a long time and newcomers alike.”
The first draft focuses heavily on the city's neighborhoods, dividing the city into numerous neighborhood districts and focuses on the edges and seams between them, mixed use districts that can be adjacent to them, and zoning clarifications and potentials.
“The code is well thought out, but completely illegible,” Lambert pointed out. He said what is needed is identifying more clearly the boundaries where the opportunities are between neighborhoods, at their seams, as he called them.
Incorporated into the neighborhoods was the future of transportation, which in the plan is focused on bike and pedestrian transportation. He said they incorporated the city's 2013 multi-modal transportation plan and its neighborhood loop concept, connecting them for pedestrians and bicycles.
Neighborhood parking would be including, but “right now they're so cumbersome they're unenforceable.” He said they need to be simplified, but did not provide recommendations.
Lambert also said that street standards are very important, as are street trees, as they are one of the best differentiators between neighborhoods, and that small streets “create value and safety.” The issue of unimproved streets, a current hot topic at city commission meetings, was not dealt with.
Lambert said they heard a lot about new housing at charrettes and surveys, “and there is a lack of correlations between what is allowed and what is happening.” He said there is a wide variety in zoning and setbacks, which need to be clarified. There is also a demand for lot combinations, with about eight percent of properties having seen some change, those closer to the city's core, while 92 percent of the city's properties have been retained as is.
He noted they heard a lot from residents who no longer want to maintain a large house but want to stay in the neighborhood.
“Quite a few people spoke about the desire to downsize in the community, without there being an opportunity to age in the community affordably,” Lambert noted. “Where there are opportunities there could be townhouses, duplexes, for multifamilies, those are opportunities in neighborhood seams.”
Other opportunities at the edges of neighborhoods are for small commercial developments, like at Maple and Chesterfield roads, where Mills Pharmacy + Apothecary is, as well as to create more parks and recreational locations.
On a larger scale, the plan divides the city into five mixed use districts, calling both sides of Maple and Woodward downtown; northern Old Woodward Market North; creating Haynes Square in the Triangle District; developing a S. Old Woodward/Woodward gateway; and the Rail District, which could be achieved through signage, wayfaring, parking and zoning ordinance changes.
“Every master plan since the '60s has said you need to build more parking, and you haven't done it,” Lambert said. “Just get serious. You have a parking problem. Deal with it.”
“Everything comes across as important,” noted planning board member Robin Boyle. “We need to have some that are more important. It's (the plan) too long. It needs a vicious edit. It's a good start.”
“I agree. What's important. You have to prioritize, and it's lacking in this draft,” said mayor Patty Bordman.
“I'm tired of very few people controlling the destiny,” pointed out planning board member Bryan Williams. “We need to get the neighborhood associations involved at the beginning, or we'll have the same 'yay' or 'nay' divisiveness in this city.”
Planning board chairperson Scott Clein said he and planning director Jana Ecker intend to include a standing line item on planning board agendas to work on the master plan drafts. “As many meetings as it takes so we're providing as much input as we can to the consultants,” he said.
“It will be tempting to tackle the easy stuff, but we have to deal with the difficult stuff, and the easy stuff will follow,” board member Janelle Whipple-Boyce.
Several residents at the meeting requested attention to the city's infrastructure as a focus to the plan.