Planning board reviews master plan draft

September 11, 2020

Matt Lambert of DPZ presented the first draft of the new Birmingham 2040 citywide master plan to the Birmingham Planning Board on Wednesday, September 9, and after feedback from the board and residents, will make revisions and present a tightened second draft at an upcoming meeting.

Lambert, an urban planner with DPZ of Miami, had previously presented an earlier draft, which clocked in at 322 pages, to a joint workshop of the city commission and planning board in October 2019. Following feedback and study sessions with the planning board, this draft was edited down, with themes and objectives for mixed use districts and ways to connect the city, notably on how to bridge the division of the city by big Woodward, which he noted should not be a division of Birmingham.

“We have fewer themes, and we focus on connecting the city,” Lambert said.

Ways that can be done are by reducing the travel lanes, lane widths and speeds on big Woodward; improving its streetscape, especially in the S. Old Woodward gateway area; invest in the Triangle District in order to grow a downtown area that spans big Woodward; increase safe crossings; prioritize pedestrian and bike improvements along the neighborhood loop and continue improvements throughout the city, especially to schools and civic buildings, while ensuring bike routes have adequate facilities and spaces and that sidewalks are accessible to all; and participate in regional transit planning.

Board member Bryan Williams noted that not only big Woodward needs speed reduction, but the area north of Maple, “all the way to Quarton,” where he noted speeds are often excessive.

The second theme was on how to retain neighborhood quality, which Lambert said will need to be done through an evaluation and revision of city zoning ordinances, in an effort to incentivize renovation of existing homes as well as to encourage additions to maintain neighborhood scale where that is still possible. Evaluating and addressing stormwater issues, improving streets and sidewalks, were all critical points.

The third theme was to invest in civic spaces and programs. Lambert recommended improving the edges and accessibility throughout the Rouge River corridor and attached parks, providing a centrally-located senior center with space for use by other local organizations, and to add more civic events.

“There has been less participation in events. The question us how to increase participation and activities like the Hometown Parade and summer concert series,” he said.

Theme four is to support mixed-use areas, and to establish different standards for different districts, including ensuring each district has amenities like parks and public art. Promote private development in underperforming mixed-use districts through public investments in parking and streetscapes

“Downtown is a shining jewel in the region, yet its edges and other mixed use areas are underperforming,” Lambert said. “Each would benefit from increased housing, parking management and street improvements.”

The tax base would subsequently improve, as well, he noted.

The fifth theme is to embrace managed growth. “The region is growing, placing pressure on Birmingham and its’ neighboring cities. How and to what extent that growth is accommodated is a key decision for the city’s future.”

Lambert recommended placing most of the city's growth in mixed-use districts, increasing multi-family housing in the downtown area and neighborhood seam.

The sixth theme is to advance sustainability practices, both in the parks and natural areas of the city, but also in the how the city conducts itself. Ranges of activities range from repairing degraded riverbanks along the Rouge River and take measures to reduce chemical and other damage from run-off, improving recycling and composting to reducing stormwater run-off affecting homes and the watershed with neighborhood-scale treatment and stricter standards for new construction.

Lambert then pointed out their differentiation between the Maple/Woodward mixed-use district of downtown, the Market North district, and the Haynes Square district.

“The goal is to create a clear identity for each mixed district in order to drive customer traffic and and encourage harmonious business in each area,” Lambert explained, emphasizing that Maple/Woodward should remain the core, along with upscale dining and retail.

He recommended the city should install parking wayfaring signs. “It's not always that's there's no parking, but more there's a lack of information. There's technology that can solve it,” he said.

He pointed out that lack of consistency of the zoning between districts. “It can be an issue,” he said.

“There's an imbalance of housing versus office, so there's a lack of nighttime traffic,” noting that without both daytime and nighttime traffic it can be difficult to sustain restaurants and retail. “Having housing in downtown is really important for that district's success.” He said the biggest impediment to downtown housing is the city's parking requirement, and recommended unbundling parking, slowly and over time, and allowing parking overnight for residential in the city's structures.

In the Market North district, he recommended looking into putting a parking garage at the city's parking lot 6, as well as adding additional on-street parking along N. Old Woodward from Harmon to Oak, as there is a severe daytime shortage of parking.
 
“I like what you've done, I like your consolidation. We'll get to the nitpicking in phase two. I like the community benefits,” said chairperson Scott Clein.

Several board members pointed out that commercial spaces, and therefore parking, has been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and may be shaped for years to come, and also may have an impact on the housing stock when people are not tied to a place, a job, and can live anywhere. Clein directed Lambert and his team to consider those factors in revisions and to add COVID issues to the next draft, which will be revised and presented to the planning board in about a month.

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