We know that traditional zoning and development codes, as applied by nearly every one of our hundreds of members across Michigan, can be harmful to building strong, prosperous communities. We have major statewide initiatives to support locals in wrestling their regulations around to something that does what they want—Redevelopment Ready Communities to help identify and clear away procedural obstacles that prevent good development, and the MIplace partnership’s ongoing focus on form-based approaches that support the creation of great places.

So why has progress been so slow—why do rules that actively hinder the development that we say we want persist in most of our cities and villages?  Last week, we hosted a workshop that connected five of our cities with a team of national development code-writing experts convened by Congress for the New Urbanism to dig into this question.

Together, the group cnu_action_shottalked through the cities’ development priorities, and what code-related barriers stood in the way of success on these issues. While this working session was just one part of a larger effort by CNU to support national reform, a few observations stuck out to me.

  • Better development codes don’t have to be via a full scale “Form-Based Code.” The starting point of the conversation was how to streamline adoption of FBCs, as the best tool for building the places we want. Considering the limited resources (political, staff time, financial) of most of our communities, though, incremental improvements to existing, traditional zoning may allow more progress.

    Local staff can look to the Lean Code Tool for tactics to apply locally, or may consider implementing a FBC only for a single key district, rather than community-wide. In any case, the goal is to increase the attention the regulations pay to form, reducing the emphasis on separation of uses.

  • Prioritize—don’t try to fix everything. Even the largest city in our focus group, with the most staff capacity, said they were overwhelmed by the scale of their code reform needs. (When asked to bring a priority need to focus on, they brought six.) Focusing time and resources to make the rules work better in a few important places within the community can be more effective than trying to fix everything at once.

    Communities looking to undertake code reform should focus attention on strengthening their traditional downtown (if they have one), on areas facing heavy development pressure (to ensure that interest supports local placemaking needs), and on neighborhood centers (especially in low-income or minority neighborhoods where support is needed to correct past disinvestment).

  • Residential areas are difficult. The planning profession has done a spectacular job of convincing people that a neighborhood should be made up exclusively of single-family, owner-occupied houses. As a profession, we’ve admitted that we were wrong, and that we’ve done a lot of damage by imposing that norm on traditional neighborhoods through zoning ordinances, and we have tools for walking back some of those mistakes.
    Permitting fourplexes is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    Permitting missing middle types is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    But old habits are hard to shift, especially when working with residents whose homes are both quality of life and investment. When identifying priorities, post-war subdivisions may not be on the list in most cities—instead, we should think about repairing downtown-adjacent traditional neighborhoods. These are both the places that already have precedent for missing middle housing choices and small businesses alongside single-family houses, and where conventional zoning has created holes in the neighborhood fabric.

  • Finally, communities need good examples. Nearly all the specific needs that our panel of communities brought to the national resource team were issues for which known-good tools or approaches already exist. The difficulty is in sharing that knowledge across our 500+ member communities, especially to the staff that are wearing several different hats and spread too thinly to search out those tools.

This last observation is where the League has the clearest role. We’ve been very successful in spreading awareness of placemaking to our membership over the past few years, but communities still need good, on-the-ground examples of, say, how to allow new homes that fit onto historic 33-foot-wide lots, or how to provide for more missing middle housing options without fear that college student housing will saturate the neighborhood.

I’m definitely looking forward to further work with the CNU team, as well–thanks to Matt from DPZ, Karen from Opticos, Susan from Placemakers, Marcy from Urbsworks, and Mary from Farrell-Madden for three days of making my head spin with their expertise.

Spoiler alert: If you like to be surprised when you pick up the League’s Review, maybe wait until you get the July issue to read this post—I’m going to be talking a bit about the projects from my article in that issue, because word count made me leave these notes out.

I recently sat down with the heads of two projects from the Public Spaces Community Places crowdgranting program; both projects adaptively reused vacant Ypsilanti properties as community spaces.  One, the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace, has made an old drive-through bank mini-branch and adjacent 1930s warehouse into an indoor/outdoor market, event space, retail garden supply store, and demonstration kitchen.  The other, Cultivate Café and Tap House, turned an unassuming auto repair garage into a community room.

In both cases, the “business”-like activities of the managing non-profit are a critical piece of the placemaking effort’s success, and good reminders that getting the physical design of the space right is not enough on its own.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

The Marketplace is teeming with people on market days: over 300 people visited in the first hour of the opening Tuesday earlier this month.  But what happens the rest of the week? Many farmers market sites sit vacant and empty outside of market days.  To address this, Growing Hope has opened “Ypsiplanti”, a hole-in-the-wall garden supply inside the old bank building.  Not only does this fill a gap in downtown Ypsilanti, which previously lacked such a store, but it also draws some traffic to the site 6 days a week. The level of activity certainly doesn’t compare to market days, but having a staff member on the site provides “eyes on the street” and keeps the marketplace from feeling like dead space.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

The founders of Cultivate, similarly, use the café’s coffee and beer to feed the nonprofit space’s function as a community gathering place, in terms of both revenue and people.  Beverage sales pay for the few paid staff and keeping the lights on, with additional proceeds and tips going towards the organization’s charitable work of fighting hunger. Running a coffee shop certainly doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but providing people a cup of coffee while they talk is a way to raise money in the process of the community building work, rather than having to constantly set aside that function in order to focus on organizing fundraiser events.

As well, coffeehouses and pubs have set the model for “third places” for centuries for good reason—they are places people go individually and have spontaneous interactions, rather than relying on organized events to get people together.  While I have attended specific, planned events at Cultivate, I’ve much more often gone there because, well, I wanted coffee, and wound up talking to someone I ran into. The first draft of my Review article was written there, which was perhaps a poor choice for productivity, but a good one for community: I was distracted repeatedly in talking to a neighbor, a city councilmember, a DDA board member, and a local historian who wanted to pick my brain about past property ownership on a particular street.

While the central focus of our placemaking work has been on the physical space—the piece cities tend to have the most direct control over—these examples highlight the importance of offering people everyday reasons to use the space. In both of these cases, the physical space and the activity generation were handled by the same organization, in conscious coordination. Cities may not be able to copy exactly these models in their own public space projects, but should actively look for partners who can provide reasons for people to use the space once it’s there.

In many of our historic neighborhoods, you can glimpse carriage houses behind the main homes. These two-story glorified garages typically date to the late 1800s, ranging from simpler barn-like structures to ornate smaller twins of the main house, and often included servants’ quarters on the upper story. Today, these carriage houses are big enough to support an apartment, spacious home office, or workshop…That is, when they’ve survived.

A sadly typical example of the form--the "historic building" plaque may be the only structurally sound part of the building.

A sadly typical example of the form–the “historic building” plaque may be the only structurally sound part of the building.

To the chagrin of many in the historic preservation world, carriage houses are often allowed to decay, then demolished. If we look at the overall pattern and landscape of historic neighborhoods as something worth preserving, this is a loss, no matter how immaculately kept the main house may be. And to the property owner—especially one who bought the property with the carriage house already beyond reasonable repair—there are few incentives to invest in restoring them.

Enter the Accessory Dwelling Unit.

Perhaps the best tool cities have to support preservation of these structures is to make them economically productive assets for the homeowner by allowing—or even incentivizing—their reuse as small apartments. This is also an opportunity for older communities to start adding the “missing middle” of housing options back in to their mix.

Encouraging owners of historic homes to build ADUs in their carriage barns can be a more powerful preservation tool than any amount of enforcement—while supporting increased property values, population, and all the other benefits that ADUs offer to any neighborhood.

Some great examples of the form. I think. It can be hard to tell from the street--which is why ADUs are sometimes called "invisible density".

Some great examples of the carriage house ADU. At least I think they are–it can be hard to tell from the street whether these are lived in, which is why ADUs are sometimes called “invisible density”.

Coming from the other side, historic districts can be a great place for a community to take baby steps on ADUs. If a community has concerns about accessory dwelling units “fitting in” but isn’t ready to dive into writing a form-based code to address those concerns, an existing historic district already offers standards for making sure new units fit the local context. (Considering the historic activities these structures were originally used for, including living space, ADUs will often be a more context-appropriate option than a more passive use.)

So where should a community look to start?

First, ADUs need to be provided for in zoning. Under a conventional zoning ordinance, if there is no single zoning district that aligns well with the historic neighborhood in question, an overlay district may be the best way to match up new standards. Look to ordinance language like Grand Rapids’ for the type of provisions to include—within that sample, the critical enabling language is “Residential Density. The ADU shall not be counted toward maximum residential density requirements.”

(Under a form-based code, enabling carriage house ADUs can be done through a new building type entry: look to our Traverse City PlacePlan for an example, on pages 185-187 of the PDF.)

From there, consider exemptions from any policies that may make carriage house ADUs prohibitively expensive. For example, the cost to run dedicated water and sewer lines (plus tap fees!) will eat up a much larger slice of the total construction cost for a 500-square-foot ADU than for a new home. If ADUs are to be part of a historic preservation strategy, consider waiving tap fees, or allowing the ADU to tie into the existing laterals for the main house. (This will require working with your building official to identify proper backflow protections on the shared sewer lateral.) New-build requirements like a site plan—or even survey—might not make sense in the context of rehabilitating a century-old structure. Off-street parking requirements should be applied cautiously, if at all.

Finally, educating all involved on the rules and the intent will help get carriage houses off the endangered list: this should involve not just working with the historic district commission in developing standards, but proactive outreach to the owners of candidate carriage barns to put this opportunity on their radar. Realtors will also be important partners in helping prospective homeowners see their carriage barns as an opportunity, rather than a nuisance.

The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

Rail service connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Holland?  Yes, please! With the amount of travel we do just between the League’s Ann Arbor and Lansing offices—let alone across the state—it’s easy to see the benefit of the “Coast-to-Coast Rail” service described in a new ridership and cost estimate study.

The study is the product of nearly five years of work by the Michigan By Rail coalition, in partnership with MDOT and local transit agencies across the state. It dives deep into current travel patterns and the conditions of Michigan’s existing rail network to evaluate the costs and benefits of several possible routings across the state.  Their conclusion: that new train service running 4 to 8 daily round-trips at maximum speeds of 79-110 miles per hour between our state’s major cities is possible, and would be popular.

Forfeit hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train?  Hmmm, tough choice.

Dedicate hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train? Hmmm, tough choice.

This service could give me back 2 hours of productive time every time I need to go to Lansing for a meeting, rather than spending that time staring at the freeway in front of me—I’m writing this blog post from the bus on my morning commute, after all—and the ticket would certainly be cheaper than mileage + parking. Outside of work, when we take the kids to visit family in Grand Rapids, they’d certainly be happier riding the train than stuck in their carseats for two hours and change.

The study says I’m not alone–over a million people a year could be expected to use an 8-round-trip, 110mph rail option on any of the three routings examined. The preliminary financial analysis shows this ridership could actually let the service run a strong enough annual profit to cover Michigan’s capital costs of getting it up and running–not something that can be said of most road projects!

Of course, the real potential of this rail service relies on coordinating it with other pieces of the travel network to address the “last mile” question: how do I get from the train station to where I’m really going? Unless my destination is within half a mile of the station, I’ll need to pair the train service with something else: bikeshare or Uber or a seamless connection to local bus service, if I’m going a couple miles; something like ZipCar at the train station if I’m going a bit further.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how the new train station could support new mixed-use development.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how that city’s Amtrak station could support new mixed-use development.

What happens around the stations will also be important to making the service successful: people who live or work or go to school within that half-mile or so from a station are the most likely to use it regularly. Of course, the proposed service connects places that are already major activity centers, which contributes to the positive ridership forecast.  But there are also plenty of surface parking lots, vacant industrial buildings, and similar potential near many of the suggested stations, providing good opportunities for upcycling to active uses.

Obviously, it will be a decade or more before the Coast-to-Coast service can be up and running—but spending that time to look at the land use and connecting transportation networks around the stations will be critical to cities and their residents getting the most of this opportunity.