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Birmingham and the national planning trends

By Lisa Brody

Residential neighborhoods in cities around the United States initially developed and grew as a hodgepodge, with single family homes adjacent to duplexes, townhomes scattered near quadplex homes. If your parents or grandparents grew up in Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland or another midwestern urban city, they likely lived in a duplex or quadplex at some point. Small apartment buildings, some a few floors, others morphing into taller structures, expanded as populations swelled, some as immigrant relatives came from abroad; others, as laborers from other states flooded into states for jobs, such as the massive influx of both white and Black workers from southern states into southeastern Michigan for automobile factory jobs during the Great Migration, transforming the landscape of every aspect of life, including housing.

As neighborhoods grew in Detroit, along with historic inner ring suburbs, including Birmingham, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Northville and Dearborn, zoning was put into place to not only determine what could be built in certain areas – but what could not be. And it was often used as a means of enforcing racial segregation. Neighborhoods filled only with single family homes were meant to keep suburbs white.

Currently, the city of Birmingham is in the midst of a citywide master plan process, primarily focused on its neighborhoods and how they integrate, or can better integrate, with the city as a whole. Called Birmingham Master 2040, it is in its early draft stages, but planners, city leaders and residents are currently wrestling with the potential of change, and how to deal with those changes on an urban planning level – and if they should. As Americans live longer and healthier, as today's youth may take longer to launch, as couples have fewer children, if they choose to have any at all – what are these demographic realizations portending for land use and urban planning? If people can live anywhere, how do city leaders permit housing options to retain and grow the population while maintaining values and encourage diversity?

Experts explain that urban planning innovations and recommendations in the plan may appear novel to Birmingham, but are part of national trends. A key aspect is understanding zoning, which determines where things can be placed in a community, and the ordinances, or laws, that permit them.

“Zoning is hugely important. Zoning shapes our cities and municipal areas – nothing is greater than zoning,” said Jonathan Levine, professor of urban and regional planning, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan. “It's invisible to most people, and yet everything in our environment is prescribed.

“We have this misconception in the United States that the kinds of municipalities we get is due to the free market. It is so regulated, I wouldn't even call it a free market. The issues of sustainability, affordability, racial justice – zoning is behind all of it, and is not only the cause, but exacerbates it,” Levine continued. “Cities do not build housing – private developers do. The question is not do cities allow it or not, it's do we forbid it, and mostly we've been forbidding it. It's been a huge shaper of metropolitan areas in the United States. The question is why.

“Zoning is a good tool to have – we know there would be many incompatible land uses without it. But the racial dimension is a really evil use. Zoning to separate people by race is not an accident,” Levine said. “To use tech language, it was not a bug, it was a feature. The very clear intent of single family zoning early on in the twentieth century was to keep it white. They had no problem saying 'what we need is to create spaces for white families, and single family zoning is a tool to do that because Blacks cannot afford houses in single family spaces.' Exclusionary zoning arose primarily out of racial motivation.”

“Exclusionary zoning and single family zoning helped perpetuate racial exclusion and racial segregation in the United States, and we live in a very segregated society.”

Graham Cassano, sociology professor at Oakland University, explained that Michigan did not enact fair-housing laws until 1968, with legal segregation notably in full force throughout the 1940s and 1950s. “Fleeing Detroit was made easier by the Big 3 (automakers) branching out to the suburbs, and the development of the highways and freeways,” which separated Detroit neighborhoods and created an easy pathway out of the city.

“In the '40s and '50s, many of the suburbs faced new issues, and developed new zoning ordinances, especially cities like Royal Oak and Dearborn, ordinances like enlarging the lot size for single family homes, so single family homes and apartment buildings could not even occupy the same block,” Cassano said.

“In addition, in Royal Oak, some areas that were zoned for multi-family were rezoned for business. The argument was that people with a lower amount of wealth, ie., Blacks, would not come to the community and take their services,” he said. “The problem with these zoning ordinances are they are 'coded.' They are discussed as facts, not as if they are racial.”

Levine emphasized that if you live in a single family home in an all-white neighborhood, he is not intimating you are a racist. “This is structural racism,” he said.

“Single family zoning was designed to protect single family property values from uses that were less desirable – and they explicitly called out 'less desirable' uses, including apartments, and oftentimes the underlying motivation was trying to keep white neighborhoods white,” concurred Carolyn Loh, associate professor, urban studies and planning, Wayne State University. “Today, some people are saying that is the reason single family zoning shouldn't exist – but it shouldn't be the only housing choice. For example, in order to live in a town with a good school district, renting or owning, that's your ticket to the community. Higher density (than single family) allows you to split the cost of the ticket. It doesn't mean low income – it means a lower income. A duplex can provide that.”

Zoning is a method of urban planning in which a municipality divides land into various zones, each of which can have a set of regulations for new development that differs from other zones. Zones can be for a single use, like residential uses or commercial, or a mix of uses. A zoning ordinance is a rule that defines how property in specific geographic areas can be used. Planning rules govern what is developed and built in a specific zone. Zoning ordinances determine whether specific geographic zones are reasonable for residential or commercial purposes, and may also regulate lot sizes, placement, density and the height of structures. Municipal leaders can develop – and often highly regulate – specific zoning ordinances to influence the nature of a district or a neighborhood.

While zoning originated all the way back in antiquity – ancient walled cities were the original regulated land use, after all, with poor people left outside walled cities to fend for themselves while sovereigns, religious and civic leaders resided inside the protected sphere of the walls, and between its demarcation were unsanitary, yet necessary activities, such as butchering, waste disposal and brick firing, noted Sonia Hirt, in Zoned in the USA: the origins and implications of American land use regulation. Through the Industrial Revolution, most work took place at home, so there was little need to separate their functions. However, the cultural and socio-economic shift which led to rapid urbanization during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century resulted in the invention of urban regulations. “Industry leaving the home reshaped modern cities,” Hirt said.

Early municipal zoning was subtle, beginning in New York City in 1916. As other urban areas grew in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, zoning was used as a method to define and control growth, helping to determine who was permitted into the community, and where homes could go versus commercial areas, or industrial.

“How you use zoning and to what degree you use zoning depends upon your value structure. The rules are set by the leaders of the community and their values,” said Mark Skidmore, professor, department of agriculture, food and resource economics, Michigan State University. “Some people think you should allow market forces to let people respond, to let people do as the market forces allow. That's one framework. The other side is a very structured zoning and planning approach, so that if you have residential structures you don't have commercial, factory or other kinds of structures nearby. The challenge is balancing, having living arrangements for people all along the income strata. Some communities try to balance that; other communities say we're going to be a wealthy community. Others become low income communities over time and have continual struggles. Then, within a metro community, you end up with a mosaic of communities.

“People vote with their feet and move to where they can afford, the ones with better school districts. But there you can have great disparities,” he said.

An example of flexibility in determining zoning is the development of the D-4 mixed use district in the downtown area of Birmingham, following Birmingham's noted 2016 Plan, which not only permitted but insisted upon the building of a five-story mixed use building, with retail on the first floor, commercial, and residential on the top two stories, for any new buildings in the city's central business district. In the 25 years since not only was the plan adopted but zoning ordinances were changed from the previously-permitted two-story buildings, and the city has not only been transformed but revitalized as a more modern, vibrant small city.

“Zoning makes all of the difference. Zoning sets prices – it tells you how many people you can split the ticket with,” explained Wayne State's Loh. “If you say the minimum lot is a quarter-acre, but you can have only single family, it's costly. If you say you can have a duplex on that lot, you've made it more affordable.”

University of Michigan's Levine elaborates. “Our land use policies tend to be for single family homes, yet our regulatory policies are constraining the supply of housing in this huge job concentration” of a certain municipality.

For those who live in a certain municipality, such as Birmingham, Ann Arbor, Northville, and other historic and desirable cities, the lots and single family homes are smaller and use less energy, because they do not have to drive as far to go to work and their communities are more walkable. Those who cannot afford to live in those communities, Levine said, “are pushed to higher carbon areas where they'll live, drive more, and use more energy to heat and cool their homes, using about two-thirds more greenhouse gas emissions.” Suburban sprawl. He said that “is how land use policies share our gas emissions and the environmental performance of cities.”

He noted that as people move farther and farther out from a city, they may be seeking affordability, but “it is a self-defeating proposition because transportation is so expensive, with costs increasing all the time, congestion, and time – our number one commodity. There are only 24 hours in a day. Housing is the first item in our budgets; transportation is the second. That is a very limiting factor. All of these factors are how we regulate land use.”

Today, urban planners are looking at the entire life cycle of individuals, as seniors age out, baby boomers continue to age, and millennials do not want to live far out from the vitality and walkability of urban centers.

A majority of homes are single family homes designed for traditional families. The latest survey from the National Association of Realtors said there is a growing demand from two-thirds of millennials, and one-third of baby boomers, to live in a walkable community. Further, it showed that the household composition has shifted in the last 20 years, with single individuals comprising fully 30 percent of all households.

By 2030, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65.

By 2025, 75 to 85 percent of all households in the country will not have any children in them, all while single family homes continue to be zoned for and built.

MSU's Skidmore noted the proportion of young adults living with their parents is the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Over the century or so since single family zoning ordinances have actively been utilized to determine where residents will live, and how they can live, the pendulum has swung in different directions. Today, as the city of Birmingham works on its citywide master plan, it is looking ahead as many of its residents both age and have varying needs, and yet recognizes the necessity to plan for millennials and younger families to move into the city in order to remain vibrant and to keep its school district one of the state's best.

In an interesting twist, some of the most interesting – and forward thinking – urban planning trends being incorporated into Birmingham 2040 aren't really new at all, but a fresh return to the past, when duplexes, “granny flats,” or “mother-in-law suites,” and townhouses in walkable neighborhoods – what is referred to as “the missing middle” in today's urban planning lexicon, is being sought. But some residents are reacting warily – or with downright vitriol, placing their concern on what it could do to property values.

“Some people think adding multi-family, like duplexes, or accessory dwelling units, will lower their tax base and tax revenue, but actually, the opposite is true,” said Matt Lambert, planner, DPZ, out of Portland, Oregon. Lambert and DPZ are the planners handling the Birmingham 2040 master plan process. “It's usually a reaction to a perceived reaction to the population that lives in multi-family, that it lowers property values, even though that has not been born out by research. It can be a lightning rod because it's pretty well misunderstood.”

In reality, infrastructure in a city like Birmingham exists and while must be maintained, does not have to be installed. But the cost to be maintained must be shared by those who live and work in the community.

“The streets do not just cost what they cost to put in, but the cost to maintain them, ie., the unimproved streets that are being reviewed in Birmingham,” Lambert said, noting that less affluent communities cannot afford to maintain their infrastructure as well as affluent communities because of their tax base.

“A single family home has more linear feet of infrastructure than a townhouse or multifamily, and it tends to have a lower taxable value. As a result it has less money paid into the city to maintain the infrastructure than if it was a duplex, townhouse or multifamily,” Lambert said. “So a healthy city has a mixture of all these types of housing. There is a greater demand on the infrastructure, but it is much less than the costs to maintain it. The aggregate costs of single family house versus multi-family is amortized.

“A community's multi-family and commercial districts – they subsidize the single family neighborhoods,” he said, further noting, “we've built more infrastructure than the tax base can support.”

Levine, of University of Michigan, elaborates. “The infrastructure is there. We're making use of what is there, so we're taking the cost and spreading it across more households – that's exactly how to keep costs low. In many cases, communities have excess capacity of water and sewer, because the population has decreased, kids have moved out. Another factor is that appliances are getting much more efficient. Oftentimes we have built for one set of toilets, dishwashers, washing machines’ capacity, and new technology uses much less. New housing can make use of that existing infrastructure while adding to the property tax rolls.”

The old-is-new idea of “granny flats,” “mother-in-law suites,” “nanny suites” are part of a classification called “accessory dwelling units” that have become a national planning buzzword for small residences within a single family lot with a larger, primary dwelling. It is an independent living space, with its own kitchen or kitchenette, bathroom and sleeping area. And it can be located within a single family home, such as in a basement or lower level or above a garage, or as a separate structure on the same property. It could be a pool house, a guest suite, a backyard bungalow or that “office” above the garage you sometimes sleep in. You may have an accessory dwelling unit without realizing it, or without officially having it permitted.

According to AARP – which enthusiastically support accessory dwelling units – they can help older residents remain in the community and age in place, and are a more appealing option than moving into an apartment or into an age-restricted community. It keeps family close by, and for some, if zoned appropriately, can provide rental income.

“Zoning can make adjustments and help you accomplish what you need,” Skidmore said. “It's a trade-off. Do you want to make a choice of having an elderly family member close by, or an adult child living near you? People say what's going to happen to my property values? Possibly more people may choose the community because they have more options, (increasing values). It's a choice people and communities make.”

“Accessory dwelling units are very useful and they're going to be part of the solution – not the problem,” said Levine. “It's a way of alleviating housing shortages and it's a way of creating a diversity of housing options for diverse populations. It opens up the possibility to other options than single family housing.”

“In the early 1900s, you could pick up a Sears, Roebuck catalog and have a duplex, quadplex, sixplex delivered to your curb,” noted Daniel Parolek, of Opticos Design in Berkeley, California, and author of “Missing Middle Housing.” “We've come a long way in the wrong direction.”

Lambert said that “right now a lot of housing that was historical, and then was made illegal, is making a comeback. Birmingham has historical smaller housing.”

Parolek said he, and national urban planners, define the missing middle “as housing in scale with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods. Just because you're adding more units to a house does not mean you're adding size or scale. It's hidden density.

“We created the concept of missing middle housing about 10 years ago to help communities frame housing choice, and it's everywhere now,” he said. “The concept of missing middle housing has been a very successful way of communicating the need for more housing choices, without negative connotations with residents.”

“In American cities generally, we've done a lot of single family housing and a lot of bigger multi-family housing complexes that are higher density,” said Mark Nickita, architect and urban planner with Archive DS and a longtime Birmingham city commissioner. “We tend not to build the middle – the duplexes, quadplexes, row houses, townhouses, garden apartments. In Birmingham, an example of missing middle housing is all those units on Brown Street built in the '80s, and the s