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Master plan neighborhood ideas reviewed

By Kevin Elliott


Birmingham Planning Board members and nearly 200 members of the public attended a virtual meeting on Wednesday, February 10, to discuss the first draft of the Neighborhood Plans and Shared Elements portion of the city’s proposed master plan.


Planning Board Chair Scott Clein said the Neighborhood Plans portion of the plan would differ from the Neighborhood Housing and Policy portion presented in January, which he said was being overhauled after the board received feedback.


Instead, he said, the plans and elements portion focused on many physical elements of connecting neighborhoods through social and multi-modal connections.


“In January, we had over 100 residents show up and we had an hour and a half to two hours of resident input on seams, on accessory dwelling units and projections for residents population growth, and what, if anything, the city of Birmingham should do about that,” Clein said. “We then had the board provide clear direction to the consultant as to where we would like them to go with draft number two, which will be arriving later in the year. The residents made their opinions loudly clear, and the direction in our mind was unanimous at the board level in general agreement with much of what was said by the public.


“Tonight, however, we are focusing on the specific neighborhood plans and the shared elements you will see today. Non-motorized improvements, pedestrian improvements, bike improvements and etc., boundary plans.”


Urban planner Matthew Lambert, with DPZ in Miami, said the plan addresses streets in some areas of the master plan, but the draft recommends keeping the current street standards, including a recently proposed plan to address unimproved streets. However, Lambert did say the city may want to look at reducing speed limits to 20 mph on some residential streets near downtown.


Related to streets were residential sidewalks, which the plan recommended potentially increasing widths. Moreover, the plan calls for filling in missing portions of sidewalks. Additionally, the plan includes a potential bike lane along Lincoln and the use of stormwater swales in key locations.


The plan also addressed neighborhood boundaries and associations, dividing the city into 14 individual neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods include Quarton, Holy Name, The Ravines, Poppleton, Derby, Pembroke, Torry, Kenning, Pierce, Barnum, Crestview, Bingham Farms, Linden and Seaholm. Additionally, the plan includes four city centers, such as Downtown, North Woodward, South Woodward and the Railroad District.


A copy of the plan may be viewed at thebirminhghamplan.com.


Two recommendations in the plan include revising neighborhood associations to align with neighborhood maps. Further, the plan recommends the addition of a city staff position to coordinate and support neighborhood associations. He said “associations” discussed in the plan differ from homeowner associations which require fees and perform other functions. Rather, he said, it refers to how people associate with their neighborhood in social terms.


“Associations here are based on what exists in the city, not dues-based associations that are responsible for maintenance or other items,” Lambert said. “It’s more based on information and social activity than anything else, not a homeowners association, which has plenty of drawbacks. It’s not restrictive on title or anything.”


Planning board member Dan Share recommended using a different term, rather than “associations.”


“I would like more defined terms,” Share said. “The plan mentions a bicycle facility on Lincoln. I assume that means a bicycle lane, not a building. In regard to ‘association,’ I would rather refer to planning 'districts' than associations.”


Share also opposed lowering speed limits, as well as the recommendation of additional staff.


A key element of the plan includes a “neighborhood loop” or system of crosswalks, pedestrian access points and bicycle lanes that link neighborhoods together throughout the city to form a loop.The loop is incorporated into each specific neighborhood map, which include overlays of commercial and neighborhood destinations.


Commercial destinations may include small scale locations such as Market Square and Eton Market areas, as well as small cafes in key park locations. Recreational destinations include parks, playgrounds and open space. Additional civic destinations are include in each map.


The plan also recommends some changes to residential parking in the neighborhoods.


“In general, parking restrictions throughout the city are just a total mess,” Lambert said. “As a result, they are essentially impossible to enforce, and enforcement can only rely on resident complaints. That means, for the most part, parking restrictions are pretty pictures on signs. We heard about this early on in the process from the police chief, and we studied key problem areas in the city, especially Torry, the Rail District, Seaholm and Lincoln Hills, and Barnum Park downtown.


“We found that there was a complete mess of standards and they didn’t match up from one area to another. And, there are a lot of different permit systems for odd geographies. The boundaries of permit systems aren’t broad or consistent.”


Lambert said the plan recommends a more consistent approach to parking restrictions and the permitting system.


“We recommend in this draft that neighborhoods are able to choose from a limited set of options,” he said. “Those options are devised for different conditions, such as when you have issues of students or office workers spilling over or restaurants spilling over.”


Planning board member Robin Boyle said the neighborhood loop idea should be better explained in the next draft of the plan.


Many of the public comments during the meeting questioned the features listed on the neighborhood maps, interpreting some symbols to possibly indicate roundabouts or other features that aren’t actually included in the plan.


“It’s not explained fully enough,” Boyle said. “I think it would be valuable that when we do this again, which we will, that we’re a little bit more specific on what we mean.


“As you heard, some people were talking about circles in the roads and if that meant we were building roundabouts in the neighborhoods. I think that comes from not seeing more clearly what we mean by something like a ‘neighborhood loop,’ which is by the way a consistent feature in all of the neighborhood plans we’ve got. It’s not something that we could pass up.”

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