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Neighborhoods discussed in master plan

By Kevin Elliott


More than 100 people attended an online meeting on Wednesday, January 13, with the Birmingham Planning Board to review the first draft of the Master Plan’s Neighborhood and Housing Policy, intended to guide housing and zoning into the future.


Overall, the plan aims to connect neighborhoods in the city; embrace managed growth; retain neighborhood quality; invest in civic spaces and programs; support mixed-use areas; and advance sustainability. The meeting's theme focused on the overall policy, with specifics to each neighborhood to be reviewed by the commission and public in February.


Matt Lambert, an urban planner with DPZ in Miami, said the thought behind the policy was that the city needs to be a better competitor in the region, which may be inhibited by rising housing prices. Likewise, he said those who want to downsize in Birmingham may be priced out as teardown homes are changing the character of neighborhoods.


At the heart of the policy is the projection by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) that an additional 900 housing units will be added to the city by 2040.


“That amount of growth remains an open question,” Lambert said. “You could choose not to grow, or if you grow too much it can impact neighborhood quality.”


The policy recommends a “neighborhood seams” approach. Identified as low, medium and high intensity, neighborhoods seams consist of a variety of single-family and multi-family housing types, limited according to intensity, home-based businesses and some size-limited businesses in high intensity seams.


According to the plan, high intensity seams occur where the non-residential uses have already established neighborhood edges. “These require limitations on the size and type of businesses, and restrictions on the amount of parking that can be provided,” Lambert explained. “Moderate intensity seams are located along regionally significant streets with high traffic, in locations where primarily multi-family housing stock can be absorbed. Low intensity seams are located where nearby neighborhood fabric is most sensitive, defining a neighborhood edge but limiting the increase of intensity at the seam.”


Lambert provided a brief presentation of the Neighborhood Seams Policy, which included a broad overview of maps of various neighborhoods throughout Birmingham with potential uses aiming to connect neighborhoods.


More than a dozen members of the public spoke, with the majority opposing changes that would allow large multi-family developments to be incorporated into neighborhoods that are predominantly single-family areas. Several people also objected to the use of accessory dwelling units, such as carriage houses located above garages.


Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, some residents received a non-governmental, anonymous letter urging them to attend the meeting and oppose the draft policy.


“The new zoning would allow developers to demolish single family homes and replace them with multi-unit housing. The plan would allow for apartments to be added to existing homes,” the letter read. “These changes would have negative effects on our city.”


Birmingham resident John Smith said he was alarmed by the presentation.


“The seams idea would put these duplexes at the end of our block,” he said. “We are already six houses from the end, and I think it would damage the type of neighborhood we live in.”


Fellow resident William Watkinson said the policy appears to benefit future residents and property developers, and said he didn’t like the prospect of living near a four-unit housing building.


Natalia Dukas, a member of the city’s historic district commission, said there was very little discussion on potential historic preservation. “If you overlap the map of seams and historic buildings, there are a lot of overlaps,” she said. “To me, there’s no alignment. I believe development is important, but it’s also important to retain the character of a city.”


Planning board members echoed some of the same concerns, indicating that the seams presented may work in some areas and not in others.


“To me, a plan like this is like a guidepost for 20 to 30 years from now,” said board member Dan Share. “There’s probably pressure for 900 additional units and it’s incumbent on us to plan and guide that, rather than having an unfettered market take that. I believe some of the new housing should go in the Triangle District, downtown and dispersed in neighborhoods. I think seams are generally okay, but I think we need to match the demand to available land. I think it’s a good idea to identify areas that are better suited for seams.”


Board member Stuart Jeffares agreed. “There are probably too many places we have seams,” he said. “Hopefully we can narrow that down to more appropriate spots.”


Board member Bert Koseck said the plan appears to be “overly ambitious. There are a lot of seams. Is that necessary? In my opinion, probably not… I think it’s overly ambitious and has frightened a lot of people, and me.”


A copy of the plan may be viewed and commented online at thebirminghamplan.com.


The next draft review is scheduled for Wednesday, February 10, and will focus on neighborhood plans and shared neighborhood elements. A public input and proposed summary for a second draft is scheduled for March 10.


Birmingham Planning Director Janna Ecker said the additional meetings and input sessions will take place toward the later half of 2021, prior to a formal hearing at the planning board. The plan is then to forward it to the city commission for review and another public hearing before adoption.

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