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Birmingham moves new master plan forward

By Kevin Elliott


Birmingham city commissioners and planning board members met for about three hours on Monday, April 19, to iron out perceived wrinkles in the city’s 2040 master plan process that hinges on housing density and use.


Master plans are documents that guide long-range planning, and are written and adopted by local planning commissions. As Birmingham has a planning board, rather than commission, the board provides only recommendations on approval, with the city commission making final decisions.


The two boards met to discuss the first draft of the city’s master plan and provide direction to planning consultants with DPZ CoDesign, which will pen the second draft of the plan, as well as a third and final draft.


The long-range planning document serves as a citywide plan coordinating area-specific plans (such as the Triangle or Rail districts) and topic-based plans (parking or multi-modal), and provides an opportunity to re-evaluate recommendations. The first draft of the plan includes proposed future policies and actions to be undertaken by the city.


In March, the city commission scheduled the joint meeting with the planning board in order to discuss public input on the plan and how that helped to shape the direction of the master plan.


Matthew Lambert, planning consultant with DPZ, said the planning team received about 320 individual public comments through the project website and via email. Public input was also collected during 11 public meetings. Additional feedback was collected in a survey following the first draft release, with 210 responses and 142 comments in the open-ended questions.


The report reflected the community’s overwhelming opposition to the “neighborhood seams” approach, which they felt took too many bold changes in regard to housing density. “Seams should be significantly reduced in location, intensity and building types allowed, and be thoughtfully located in the limited areas where they may be appropriate,” the report said.


At its core, the “seams” concept aims to fill the “missing middle” housing demand, as a national trend of housing shortage has been noted for middle income families that are being priced out of neighborhoods, such as Birmingham. The plan looks to fill in some areas with a mix of new housing, such as apartments, townhouses and multi-family homes in some of the city’s busier areas.


Lambert said the concept isn’t to strictly promote multi-family housing, but to prepare for an expected increase in population over the next 20 years, and to provide more affordable housing. However, he said many members of the public saw the concept as a way to increase multi-family, low-income housing.


“The planning board understood that, but the public understood it as a way to insert multi-family homes in new areas, and that wasn’t the goal,” Lambert said.


The concept comes as President Joe Biden pushes a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that would offer municipalities tax incentives and grants to change zoning laws to encourage more affordable housing. Further, zoning that favors only single family housing has become known as “exclusionary zoning,” that encourages class separation, arguably compared to redlining practices of the past.


It was clear from some public comments at the joint meeting that embracing such zoning changes aren’t favored oin Birmingham.


“I’ve heard a lot of words here tonight, and this isn’t going to effect my wife and I, but we are concerned on the basis of principle, and the words I didn’t hear are ‘promoting low income, subsidized housing,’” said resident Tim P. Duerr. “When you use euphemisms like seams and all the rest of it, the people in Birmingham – the ones I’ve spoken to and there have been several – are concerned about that very thing. It’s glossed over.


“I’m all for diversity,” he continued. “I don’t agree with some of the platitudes that you can’t have a health community unless you have a mix of diversity – but I believe in it. What I don’t believe in is government directed diversity, and that’s what we are seeing here.”


The master plan doesn’t include any provisions for subsidized housing, a point that Birmingham Mayor Pierre Butrous explained to the caller.


“I can assure you, that’s not what we are talking about,” Butrous said.


Planning Board Chair Scott Clein said seams, while sounding like a new concept, isn’t much different from what the city has been doing for decades.


“Personally, I don’t care if seams stays or goes,” he said. “What I do care about is that we actually plan. To do that, you have to understand this is a 20-year outlook. You have to understand what surrounding communities are going to do so you can understand growth pressures. If we don’t look at where this community is going, we aren’t doing our jobs.”


City commissioner Mark Nickita recommended the master plan take into account potential changes for ADUs, or accessory dwelling units, such as carriage houses and other buildings that could be used for a second, on-site home or dwelling. Nickita said the plan should clarify the definitions of an ADU and what its uses may be.


City commissioners Clinton Baller and Therese Longe expressed interest in allowing ADUs to be used by family members as a residence, but not as a rental or vacation property.


“Would we consider someone living there, whether they are part of a family or not?” Longe said. “I don’t think we should reject that out of hand. Is there a way we can allow that in a limited way?”


Commissioners unanimously approved directing DPZ to prepare the second draft of the 2040 Plan and include the commission’s comments and planning board recommendations.

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