2040 final draft gets commission direction
By Kevin Elliott
Plans for the development of Birmingham over the next 20 years will focus on preserving the quality of neighborhoods over bold changes or grand aspirational goals, under direction given on Monday, April 18, to the city’s planning consultants by the Birmingham City Commission.
City commissioners gave approval to consultants with DPZ CoDesign to begin the third and final draft of the Birmingham 2040 Plan, which sets out long-term development goals in the city. The plan includes various zoning and overlay districts throughout the city, including residential neighborhoods and commercial districts. Planners will also consider future transportation demands, multi-modal transportation plans, parks and recreation and other aspects of development.
City commissioners met on Monday, April 18, at a joint meeting with members of the city’s planning board, which in March finished its review of DPZ’s second draft of the plan.
“The plan is a solid plan,” planning board chair Scott Clein said. “Dropping all the veneer: it’s probably not a plan that is all that bold or robust. The changes included in this plan aren’t significant. In much of the city, there is no recommendation to change any public use zoning. There are a few areas, but those have been insignificant, or small changes.”
Clein said while he was personally disappointed as a planner that there weren’t more aggressive goals proposed in the plan, it is a realistic plan congruent with desire expressed by city commissioners and the general public.
“In the grand scheme of things, we have a very practical and pragmatic, implementable plan that focuses on the neighborhoods, which is precisely what you told us to do when this whole thing started,” Clein said.
Development of the 2040 plan started in late 2019, with a first draft and review process approved by the city commission, followed by the second draft and review process that concluded with the joint meeting. The review process involved more than a dozen public meetings, as well as extensive public input sessions and outreach efforts, including a website, thebirminghamplan.com, where the plan, information and public comments can be made and reviewed.
“We arrived at the plan through a very transparent process,” Clein said. “The public provided input and we removed parts of the plan that the public didn’t like, and we are here today with draft two for you to review.”
The first draft of the plan contained elements that called for bolder changes along neighborhood seams, or where particular zoning districts abut each other or overlap. Many members of the public representing residential neighborhoods pushed back on the recommendations, insisting density should be pushed to mixed-use areas. They also opposed increases to accessory-dwelling units, such as detached homes and carriage houses.
Planning board member Bryan Williams concurred with the assessment. “In my world, I think the consultant’s first draft was aggressive on a variety of topics, and the board and citizens of Birmingham told them to scale it back, and they did,” he said.
Daniel Share, a member of the planning board, said the second draft contains fewer “political” elements, which have been removed. For instance, he said a recommendation that the city hire a liaison to work with homeowner associations across the city was removed.
“We said, ‘that’s not a land-planning issue, and is not what we think of as part of a master plan,’” Share said. “We pushed that aside, and a number of things like that. The process wasn’t contentious, and ultimately they ended up coming back.”
Commissioner Clinton Baller asked planning board members whether there were any areas of disagreement among fellow members on aspects of the plan.
Members said while there was some differences of opinion on some specifics, the board didn’t have any areas of major contention. In some cases, unresolved issues were left to the discretion of the city commission to undertake. For instance, Williams said board member Robin Boyle felt the current lack of parking requirements for some retail developments is at odds with the requirement for residential developments in the same areas. Likewise, the lack of affordable housing in the downtown area remains a concern.
“It’s an example of ‘we didn’t try to solve this problem, but the city commission needs to study this,'” he said. “If we want more obtainable housing, you have to change some things,” Williams said. “Right now, housing downtown is very expensive and may be beyond the reach of most of our residents. That’s another area where we didn’t try to solve it, but said it needs attention moving forward.”
Baller said the general agreement amongst planning members was encouraging.
Planning board members did stress that future ordinances or zoning changes drafted in alignment with the 2040 Plan must be scrutinized to ensure the intention of the plan is followed.
“It’s critical we look at language to make sure it’s incorporated in the ordinance,” Williams said. “The Triangle Plan doesn’t do it, and that’s a deficiency we found out about.”
Williams was referring to a planned development in the city’s Triangle District that includes a 240,000 square-foot building billed as “mixed-use” of residential and commercial use, and contains about two percent of space dedicated to retail use. The proposed development also includes some first-floor residential units in the mixed-use building, which is at odds with the city’s long-term plans for the Triangle District. Williams said ordinances enacted in conjunction with the city’s Triangle District master plan failed to incorporate stronger mixed-use requirements, as intended in the plan.
“There are these complex issues in this plan,” Williams said. “For example, crossing Woodward. It involves the state, the city, private property – it’s very complex. Those things are going to be difficult to achieve by ordinance, and we have to take a very careful and very critical look so we don’t wind up here 15 years later with it, again.”
Birmingham resident Paul Regan suggested to the commission and planning board members that they engage other boards in the city when undertaking development plans, such as the multimodal transportation board and parking committee.
“We have these boards that would like to participate, but cannot,” Regan said. “I suggest we change the way, slightly, that we meet with them. Parking, for example, is an issue that moves across a number of our boards, but they never meet together.”
Commissioners concluded the joint meeting by unanimously approving a motion to direct planning consultants to begin drafting the third and final draft of the plan, with city commissioner Andrew Haig not in attendance.