DDRD Vote Monday 2/16/15 7pm Please come voice your opposition and request Don Cooney to make a motion to place a 6 month moratorium on the matter. Also David Anderson, Jack Urban and Eric Cunningham or Bobby Hopewell would need to follow Cooney's lead.
A Stronger Kalamazoo
Downtown Design Review District Expansion
January 16, 2015 By Matt Milcarek
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect new information obtained after the original posting.
They City of Kalamazoo is proposing the expansion of its Downtown Design Review District into a new area designated the “Southtown Review District”, bounded by Walnut St, Burdick St, Stockbridge Ave, and Portage St. With efforts underway in this area in regards to the KVCC Healthy Living Campus and Washington Square revitalization, the City feels that development guidelines could offer assurances to potential investors. However, many residents, businesses, and property owners in the expansion district have raised a number of concerns regarding these proposals.
What’s the change?
Proposed expansionThese proposed changes would set in place two different sets of standards and guidelines for the entire expansion district; one based on the 2005 Portage Corridor Master Plan (click to download) for Portage St., and one based on the current Downtown Design Standards (click to download) which will be applied to the rest of the expansion district that isn’t Portage St. While the Portage corridor will be held to standards and guidelines tailor made for that street, the rest of the area will be held to regulations designed for a downtown area. With the exception of one, two, and multi-unit residential housing, all properties engaging in exterior renovations, will be subject to pre-approval through a two tier system. Tier-1 reviews can be approved administratively, while Tier-2 reviews will require site plan review from the Downtown Design Review Committee. UPDATE: After considering public input, Kalamazoo Director of Community Planning & Development Laura Lam notified community members that City Staff has proposed an amendment (click to download: page 14.) to exempt all residential homes, but existing commercial and mixed use structures are still subject to the proposed changes.
There’s one problem: this isn’t Downtown, and the area is undeniably different than a downtown. Any standards put in place should reflect a well thought out effort to apply standards that make sense for this area. For example, the downtown standards require and support lot line setbacks on the right-of-way that are consistent with downtown development, but the buildings in the expansion area are far more diverse. Not only do downtown setback standards not make sense, but they could even limit or prohibit infill developments on some blocks that would otherwise reflect the highest and best use. Has a transition zone been considered that might grow the pedestrian concept rather than impose it prematurely?As you can see from this gallery, the area of South Burdick and Crosstown is very different in layout and architecture from Downtown. Further to the south, Stockbridge Ave is yet another different area that really has no connection at all to the look of downtown. Then, we have to as the question, why is a “downtown” review committee, over 50% of which is appointed by the Executive Director of the DDA, overseeing an area that is clearly not Downtown and with buildings and zoning that are different from Downtown? Are the affected constituents aware that the committee has absolute power to change the rules? The plan offers ONE position on the committee to a stakeholder. Shouldn’t the entire committee be composed of stakeholders who work, live in, and know this area with assistance from the design coordinator and 1 planning staff? After all, City staff that review requests can and will change in the future, and having them guided by more stakeholders from this eclectic district would serve the area best. One major concern many citizens have with this expansion zone is the seemingly arbitrary selection of the zone. It includes two commercial corridors that run out of Downtown, and two strips on Crosstown Pkwy and Stockbridge Ave. (mostly occupied by government and non-profit buildings and property).This area is primarily a FEMA floodplain, with over 2/3rds of the district being in the floodplain. The district is also cut in half diagonally by a large park, two creeks, municipal buildings, and Crosstown Pkwy. No matter how you cut it, or what type of future developments go in, this are is not even geographically supportive of having one “district”. This is already reflected in the proposed expansion, as they have a different set of rules for the Portage corridor. At a recent community meeting, residents and property owners called for a more thought out and surgical approach that could give the City its desired outcome, without simply lumping in such a large and diverse area into one zone. Does one size fit all? The zone, as it stands, simply doesn’t make sense as one district.
What’s the controversy?
Many residents, businesses, and property owners in the district are uneasy with the proposed changes as-is. Without exemptions for existing, traditional commercial buildings, in-fill lot setback and larger multi-family units, there are strong concerns that there could be unintended consequences for existing property owners. Originally proposed to the public in October 2014 in a meeting at the Edison Neighborhood Association, the change was brought to the Planning Commission in November. SSeveral property owners expressed concerns during theplanning commission meeting, and the issues were tabled until the December Planning Commission meeting. At that meeting, real life examples of previous zoning changes were offered that resulted in decades of vacancy. It was then forwarded to the City Commission for approval. On January 5th, 2015, the proposal was brought to the City Commission for the first reading for a zoning amendment, where it was once again met with reservations from community members. Not having personally attended these early meetings, I can’t speak to the extent of the voices and emphasis of concern beyond what I have been told second hand and read in meeting minutes and news articles. I did however attend a meeting on January 15th at the Edison Neighborhood Association, and out of the 30 residents and property owners in attendance, I never heard a single person endorse the proposal as-is during the 90 minute meeting. Many in attendance also indicated that they did not know about this issue until very recently, even though they live in the district.There was clearly a large amount of concern and reservation with this proposed Downtown Review District expansion, and residents urged the City to slow this process down and consider working with existing stakeholders before final passage. Unfortunately, this meeting was held after the first reading, and mere days before the public hearing on the second zoning amendment reading at the City Commission. While it can’t be denied that two community meetings and two Planning Commission meetings were held prior to the first reading at the City Commission, it also can’t be denied that at this stage in the process, there is still a significant and diverse chorus of questions and concern over this change. These residents urged the City to either exempt all existing buildings in-fill lots from the new guidelines, or spend more time working with them to craft a more appropriate plan for this area.
What’s the rush?
I call upon the City and City Commission to listen to these existing residents, owners, and stakeholders. Slow this process down and work with these community members to ensure we have put the best and most appropriate plan forward. There has been nothing released publicly stating there is an “urgent need” to pass this, so why not take the time to engage? Just this week, we heard from the City Commission that they wanted greater engagement with the residents during their appointment of Eric Cunningham to fill the City Commission seat left vacant by Stephanie Moore. Show us you were serious. I sat in a room with 30 stakeholders literally begging to be involved in crafting the best plan possible for their area of town, so take them up on this offer. Don’t just postpone voting on this zoning amendment as is. Take it back to people and take the time to consider changes to address their concerns. What do you have to lose? The citizens want engagement, so the next move is yours to make. UPDATE: Laura Lam has additionally proposed a one year review of the district post expansion, with efforts to engage the community in this process. While a review after year one of any change is certainly a good idea, it does not resolve the concerns that exist up front. Instead of passing first and working on fixes after the fact, I still recommend that this proposal be put back to the drawing board for more community input before final passage, not after.
Matt Milcarek is a City of Kalamazoo resident who blogs about municipal and community issues in the Kalamazoo area. He currently serves on the City of Kalamazoo’s Community Development Act Advisory Committee and as the Board Chair of the Vine Neighborhood Association. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org