S. S. Trudeau

On Ann Arbor's "T1 Zoning" Draft

The City's planning staff & Planning Commission have been working on a new "T1" zoning category off and on for at least two years. The overarching goal is to rezone areas along major bus routes to encourage higher-density housing where there are currently large parking lots and strictly commercial uses. T1 is often referred to as the "transit-oriented development" ("TOD") ordinance. Staff has been careful to label it "transit-supportive" zoning. "TOD" is often used to refer to larger-scale upzoning around rail nodes, which isn't exactly what this ordinance is trying to do. This work began when I was still on the Planning Commission and stalled last year when Council blocked a resolution asking for continued work on the ordinance. The new Council revived the effort and provided a green light for the work to continue.

Last month, UM Professor of Urban Planning Jonathan Levine and former Council candidate, fellow zoning nerd Will Leaf drafted a short memo for Planning & Council with some suggestions for a more expansive and simplified approach. I'm using this memo as a prompt to (finally) organize some information and thoughts around this effort.


Why Transit Supportive Zoning and Why Now? #

As staff has pointed out in reports in the links above (as do Levine & Leaf), we have many recommendations in various components of the City Master Plan that advocate zoning for (and otherwise encouraging) denser uses along our existing transit corridors. One concern troll tactic for arguing against this change is that we should first update our Master Plan (which I agree is overdue for a major overhaul!) before considering a change like this. Given the repeated recommendation for approaches like this in our current plans, moving this forward even as we begin a multi-year Master Plan overhaul is well justified. This zoning update completes the work from years of community input; it directly addresses our current housing crisis and helps meet our future sustainability goals.

What is in the T1 draft & Why? #

The latest draft I am aware of is from late 2019. Highlights of the draft:

Staff & Planning Commission are trying to balance several concerns with this set of rules. Our current mixed-use zones already allow mixed-use residential & commercial redevelopment, but it is rare for a developer to consider building dense mixed-use projects. These rules are trying to get a real mix through a mix of carrots and sticks.

For the "carrots," the ordinance attempts to clear away some practical barriers, including parking minimums. When we require more parking than the builder thinks their tenants or buyers will need, it increases costs or makes denser projects non-viable. Eliminating specific density and height limits allows for design creativity & efficiency while keeping potential encroachments of large buildings adjacent to other areas at bay with setback rules that discourage or effectively prohibit taller structures where parcels are small and close.

The "sticks" include parking maximums, height minimums, and the mandate for mixed-use. Parking maximums limits developers' ability to build very dense, over-parked (and therefore expensive) residential developments. The height minimums (and some of the site-arrangement requirements) constrain the viability of low-density strip mall and drive-thru developments. And the mixed-use requirement is to ensure we get some housing built, which again limits strip-mall-style developments.

The "sticks" are designed to discourage the kind of development we still see on our major transport corridors: one and two-story buildings for primarily commercial uses (retail, office, warehouse) surrounded by large parking lots and drive-thrus. The ordinance includes these sticks out of fear. If we don't prohibit what is easy to finance and cheap to build (one-story, low-density buildings with large parking lots), that is all that developers will build. This fear is rational. We have nearly a century of experience financing and constructing auto-centric strip malls. Financing and management expertise for developing an actual mix of uses is much harder to come by. The hope is that these "sticks" will create some space for developers who want to take the more challenging path.

So What do Levine & Leaf Think? #

In their memo, Levine & Leaf support the goals but have a few specific recommendations. They highlight well-loved buildings in walkable, mixed-use areas that would be prohibited by this ordinance. Instead of adding a new zoning category to our long list of mixed-use zoning categories, their primary suggestion is to consolidate our existing mixed-use zones into two new zones (of two different intensities depending on proximity to lower density residential uses). They recommend removing the mixed-use requirement, the open space requirement, the two-story height minimum, the windows/transparency requirements (conditionally), and the parking maximums.

Their recommendations note that many of these restrictions would prohibit "good" approaches to dense, mixed-use buildings. They are also concerned they might make any project financially non-viable. These factors could stifle any new development rather than encourage redevelopment of genuinely mixed-use neighborhood nodes.

The differences between Levine & Leaf's recommendations and the current draft emerges, I think, from viewing the goals and problems from two different lenses. The Draft ordinance starts with the assumption that this zoning will apply to relatively large sites. Examples include 777 South State owned by Oxford or a typical 1-acre fast food restaurant parcel. Leaf & Levine look at existing walkable areas and what kinds of buildings work and do not work. They recognize a walkable neighborhood is rarely self-contained to a single one-off site plan and no single site shoehorns in All the Things in one place. They are also more focused on clearing barriers to better buildings & mixed uses than crafting rules to avoid potentially undesired outcomes.

What do I think? #

Levine & Leaf highlight concerns I had when the Planning Commission began work on this process. Existing walkable neighborhoods are usually made up of lots of small parcels and individual developments with diverse uses and scales. Importantly, those uses change over time. Those incremental changes allow a neighborhood to adapt over to the needs of the residents in them. Rigidly encoding things like a percentage of residential use make that kind of adaptation impossible. Trying to shoehorn every use into individual site plans flies in the face of the reality of how these kinds of neighborhoods have traditionally emerged.

I also think Levine & Leaf are right that we have too many, too complicated mixed-use zones, and their simplification plan is a good one. Doing what they propose would also do away with mostly silly arguments around things like the C1A/R & C1A controversy and moratorium. I would support taking this approach with this rezoning effort, though the argument that this kind of change should wait for the Master Plan overhaul is a little stronger.

I'm less worried about some of the specific things Leaf & Levine call out. I'm ok with the height minimum; second story square footage is cheap if you've already built the foundation. It does limit some single-story dense uses (like their Washtenaw Dairy example). Still, it dissuades the worst kind of auto-sprawl strip mall development at a relatively low cost. The open space requirement is probably quite workable. However, I might instead recast "open space" as usable exterior space that would also include terraces and balconies rather than focus on a land-area-based regulation. I also am not as concerned about the parking maximum for larger, mixed-use sites as some of the included non-residential parking will be able to serve double-duty.

While I understand staff & Planning Commission's fear that if we do not require residential use, we will not see residential uses constructed, I also see many ways that kind of requirement could go sideways. Too-rigid rules might limit any new development at all unless/until developers have the time to assemble larger parcels and make big gambles on all-at-once redevelopments. Our crisis is big, so we shouldn't dissuade large developments, but planning for the long term should ensure sites remain adaptable and can accommodate that change incrementally. It is at this smaller scale where the "sticks" like parking maximums and the mixed-use requirement really could be a barrier to nice, incremental infill.

What Do I Recommend? #

This kind of rulemaking is hard, especially for private land. I believe it is better to focus first on making good things (e.g., the examples we can point to that we all mostly agree are pleasant, walkable, dense parts of our City) possible. In that spirit, I generally agree with Leaf & Levine that dropping some of the more rigid rules like the mixed-use requirement and parking maximums, especially for smaller-scale projects from the draft ordinance. I am less concerned about the height minimum or open space requirements. I'd explore relabeling open space with a definition that instead looks at things like usable private, semi-private and public exterior space, including balconies and terraces.

My other caution is I expect some members of the community will highlight the lack of height and density limits to conjure images of Hong Kong-style tower blocks and Manhattan supertalls. A combination of regulatory and practical constraints make this an irrational fear. The setback rule does a lot of work to dissuade very tall buildings on smaller parcels. And for large parcels, even regulations like FAA limits on building heights near the airport come into play. In practice, it is far cheaper to build <10 story concrete podium + timber buildings than 10+ stories that require steel frames or experimental mass timber. If a compromise on this becomes necessary, I hope we settle on a density limit (FAR) or a height limit. We've relied on both downtown, which overcomplicates the design process, makes it harder to understand what the real limits are, and leads to very blocky and uninspiring building forms.

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