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Birmingham struggles to embrace growth

By Kevin Elliott


A planning board review of Birmingham’s 2040 Master Plan on Wednesday, December 8, pointed out a lack of embrace of an integrated approach to managed growth in the city’s residential neighborhoods, downtown and mixed-use areas.


Birmingham Planing Board members met to review the second draft of the city’s long-range planning document prepared by consultants with DPZ CoDesign. The plan outlines planning and land use in the city and acts as an overall guide for the city’s development. The planning board's study session focused on the second chapter of the plan: Embracing Managed Growth.


Overall, the chapter encourages housing in mixed-use districts, particularly the downtown area, Haynes Square in the Triangle District and the Rail District. However, planners reduced the amount of multi-family housing proposed in areas where different districts and land uses connect, or what they consider “seams.” That reduction was made following reviews of the first draft of the plan, which received significant opposition from residents and planning board members concerned with increasing densities in their neighborhoods.


Matt Lambert, a consultant with DPZ, also pointed out several key recommendations included in the chapter, all of which related to parking issues in residential, commercial and mixed-use districts. A large obstacle to addressing the issue remains the price of property needed to construct additional parking in the city.


Board members asked if there were incentives or requirements that could be used to encourage parking facilities in mixed-use areas.


Board member Robin Boyle said the plan shows a larger issue at play in the city, which is the overall resistance to managed growth, with most density increases planned for the edges of districts, rather than integrating them through zoning and planning strategies.


“We have a chapter here entitled 'Embrace Managed Growth,'” he said. “An outsider might walk in, look at this chapter, read it, look at the maps and think: ‘really? Is this embracing managed growth?’ I could suggest other titles to this chapter, but it would be offensive to this board and to the author.”


Boyle said the board and city is missing an opportunity to force its leaders to answer how it “actually” embraces managed growth, rather than pushing it to the edges of districts.


“To be honest, thinking at the edges is what we’ve got here,” Boyle said. “Literally the edges. That’s what we’ve done. I’m not being negative, I’m just trying to push the machine down the road.”


Board member Brian Williams said growth will require additional parking.


“I don’t see how we can anticipate growth, for example, in the Triangle District, without a parking structure,” he said. “We are kidding ourselves … if we don’t get a parking structure there, it will never develop properly.”


The chapter also revisits the possible use of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, such as detached carriage houses that may be used as dwellings. While the board and many residents voiced opposition to allowing such units, Lambert said there was enough interest from the public to warrant further study in the future.


Lambert cited a survey of 116 residents in which 43 percent were in favor of accessory dwellings, 43 percent opposed them, and the remaining were undecided.


The board will review the third chapter of the plan, Retain Neighborhood Quality, at its January 12 meeting.


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