Master plan, lot combinations reviewed

June 19, 2020

Birmingham City Commissioners and the Planning Board met virtually to review the master plan draft review process, questions the commission had regarding reviewing lot combinations, and a potential economic stimulus program at their annual joint workshop session on Monday, June 15.

Sarah Traxler, of McKenna Associates, and Matt Lambert of DPZ, brought the two boards up to date as to where the master plan draft review process is, and challenges they are facing due to virtual meetings. City planning director Jana Ecker explained in a memo that the master plan process had been paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “and during this time, the planning board has been working with the DPZ team to revise the review process both to allow options to accommodate ongoing social distancing guidelines, and to better enhance the public review process to enable clear direction for the consulting team to move to a second draft.”

Traxler said they are working on the second draft, and had completed two of the five planning board meetings, reviewing input on themes and objects they had received. After they submit the second draft, they would like to have another commission/planning board joint meeting to finalize the second draft and authorize distribution of the plan for review by the entities as required by state law, she said, and then they will be ready to make final revisions.

“The planning board is looking for input from the city commission – is this an indication of the process you would like us to proceed with?” Ecker asked.

Ecker explained the master plan, focused more on neighborhoods this go-round than on the city's downtown, is focusing on 11 hemes, which she said are broad overarching themes weaving throughout the master plan.

The first theme is reinforcing neighborhood identification, to give them a better voice. The second is to encourage neighborhood social structure, and the third is to retain diversity of age, social structure and family structures in neighborhoods. The fourth theme is to expand the range of housing in the city's neighborhoods, notably to expand more attainable housing, and fifth, to better regulate housing, with sixth, to regulate the projected population growth. The seven theme is to provide equal access to the city's civic institutions and parks, which Ecker noted are not equally spread out throughout Birmingham.

The eighth theme is to encourage multi-modal movement throughout the city. The ninth is to reinforce and establish unique identities for different mixed use districts, and 10, to support and reinforce underdeveloped mixed use districts. The 11th theme, Ecker said, was to actively support sustainable development practices and business, a recurring theme they repeatedly heard from residents.

Planning board chair Scott Clein said the level of resident  involvement had actually increased since the lockdown with Zoom, and asked permission from the city to continue holding meetings that way.

The consensus was to move forward with the identified themes and with Zoom meetings for the time being.

The two boards then focused on lot combinations, with mayor Pierre Boutros recusing himself as he has a lot combination on Frank Street pending before the city commission.

Ecker explained that in the past, lot combinations were approved administratively, and in 2016, there came a request to have language for the commission to review lot combinations, as they do for lot splits, including to have discretion as necessary.

“We were seeing people coming in and buying two, sometimes three lots and building very large homes,” Ecker said. “You wanted to see are they in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood, is the character being impacted. At the last city commission meeting, we had a second lot combination request, where commissioners were looking for more clarity on a subsection, are the characters of neighborhood being impacted.”

“When we were looking at this ordinance, the first five are basically check the box. The last is questions of elements, characteristics in the neighborhood. Part of it is what kinds of elements should we be looking at?” asked commissioner Stuart Sherman. “How does a lot combination affect issues of attainability? How does projected growth of the population affect your effectively taking a lot of circulation? How should we go forward as this part of the ordinance clearly gives the city commission discretion?”

“Why do we allow for more than one house for one lot? Why do we allow for lot combinations?” asked commissioner Brad Host. “Looking at the 2040 master plan, all our lots have been platted. Chances are it's for a much bigger house. It doesn't lend itself to a sense of community.”

“This ordinance was needed. The thing that came to me the first time we used it, the way we implemented it seemed unclear,” said commissioner Mark Nickita. “How does it help transform the neighborhood? What is the goal of this ordinance? We need to make sure whatever is built there will not adversely affect the neighborhood.”

“Every ordinance has some level of discretion,” Clein noted. “Items one, four and six lead to some level of discretion – and that's good and it's frustrating. We don't want to focus on aesthetics. We talk about rhythms, nature, feel, how tightly packed the homes are, then determine if the new home will ruin that. Each neighborhood is different.”

“I think we have an opportunity as we go forward with the master plan to craft a much better ordinance that will be master plan-driven because of what comes out of the master plan,” said planning board member Janelle Whipple-Boyce. “If the ordinance is well-enough written, maybe it can go back to the administrative level. I don't think we can do much for you until the master plan process is done. In the meantime, you have to follow the rules you have.”

 City manager Joe Valentine introduced a potential economic stimulus program for the city commission to consider, to encourage and promote investment within the city by attracting destination uses that would then attract other businesses and stimulate further investment in the surrounding area
in light of the pandemic and possible economic challenges which could be upcoming.

Ecker said that by offering an economic stimulus for developers, it could bring in significant development to a potential area. By creating parameters for this type of development, it would target only property located in a zoning classification that permits commercial/mixed use development; only developments that contain a minimum of 50,000 square feet of commercial and/or mixed uses; as well as other criteria the commission and city would want to specify.

A possible economic stimulus program would qualify under the Commercial Rehabilitation Act of 2005, which encourages the rehabilitation of commercial property by abating property taxes generated from new investment for a period of up to 10 years.

“I applaud the administration. We're about to go into a very serious situation. We know we're in a recession. It makes sense for the cit to position itself for a response,” said planning board member Robin Boyle.

City commissioners were not as receptive.

“I have concerns from an equity standpoint… I'm concerned about favoring new businesses over our current retailers,” said mayor pro tem Therese Longe.

“We have typically shied away from tax incentives except in unusual situations like brownfields because it's reallocating resources from existing taxpayers,” Sherman said. “There are costs associated with new developments, and you're using your resources while the developer just recoups his investment through tax breaks. You're giving away your money.”

Commissioners agreed to have staff study the program further and report back.

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