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Public's role in the master plan process

The city of Birmingham is undergoing a master plan process, the first comprehensive master plan review and design process for the entire city in 40 years – since the citywide master plan done in 1980.

The primary purpose of the process is, by state statute, to update the future land use, and undertaking a master plan is an opportunity to examine and evaluate the city's existing vision and policies comprehensively.

The ultimate goal of the master plan process is for planners to have a foundational understanding of the characteristics of Birmingham, from neighborhood physical characteristics to demographic trends likely to be realized in the ensuing years. The most recent planning document, the 2016 plan, was a subset of that master plan, created in 1996 and intended to help the city as it worked with planning all aspects of its downtown, from recreating the city square – Shain Park – to retail destinations, developing ordinances that created vibrant, mixed-use buildings to encourage a healthy live-work-play environment, alley usages, and a first-of-its-kind in the country bistro license ordinance.

The 2040 Birmingham Master Plan process started in October 2018, when city comissioners approved the contract with DPZ Partners, LLC, of Miami, who also did the 2016 Plan, to provide professional services to prepare an update to the city's comprehensive master plan. Online and hard copy surveys were made available to residents, and in April and May of that year a series of roundtable discussions were held with neighborhood groups and others, as well as a week-long series of public charrettes for planners to hear how they envision Birmingham for the future.

While it was initially hoped that the master plan process would be completed in less than two years, the complexity of the endeavor, coupled by the COVID-19 pandemic, has waylaid that timeline. Public presentations of the master plan's first draft, initially slotted for last May and April, were postponed and have begun in earnest this winter at monthly virtual planning board meetings. Despite being presented by planners from DPZ via Zoom, there have been 100 to 200 members of the public joining the planning board on for the last two meetings; even more residents can, and should, have a say in how their city will look in the future. The next master plan draft presentation and discussion is scheduled for Wednesday, March 10.

We are delighted so many residents are engaged in the planning process of the document that could provide policy and zoning ordinance direction for the city for the next 20 years or more. But it is critical to remember that the documents and discussions at the planning board are merely drafts – and at this point, they are the first draft, with a second draft to be presented in the future after lengthy reviews and public input. Only after the second draft is carefully scrutinized and flyspecked will the final master plan be approved.

Despite social media circulating, and even a full-page ad in one publication paid for by some “concerned citizens of Birmingham, MI,” nothing being presented is an absolute to replace single family housing with high density multi-family in every neighborhood of the city. There are discussions proposing new multi-housing for the downtown, Triangle District, and along the edges of some neighborhoods, where they could naturally be developed without intrusions. The “2,000” future residents, in 700 to 900 units, for Birmingham is merely a projection by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) – not 2,000 housing units – which the planning department said can be absorbed through growth in the city's Rail and Triangle Districts, which are currently underutilized. While those areas are envisioned as hosting lower housing values than the downtown area, with a goal of encouraging younger residents, despite rumors, the master plan does not invite or encourage low-income market rental housing.

Another proposal, called Accessory Dwelling units, is being suggested – and only suggested – as small residences located on the same property as a larger residence, perhaps as an option for multi-generations to live together, or for older residents to age-in-place.

The goal of the master plan is to plan for the future of Birmingham, when some current residents may not be here to enjoy the fruit of their endeavors. Now is the time for all of us to be visionaries, to look into a crystal ball and not only see a Birmingham of the future, but help create one that is not only sustainable well into the 21st century, but one that can thrive and grow.


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