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.

Calumet residents, supporters and business leaders participate in a successful visioning session in the village Monday.

Calumet residents, supporters and business leaders participate in a successful visioning session in the village Monday.

Two Upper Michigan communities are in the early planning stages of potential revitalization.

Scott MacInnes

Scott MacInnes

The Villages of Calumet and Baraga are each having public meetings this week as key first steps in forming new village master plans. The work is being supported by Michigan Municipal League Northern Michigan field consultant Scott MacInnes. Upward of 40 people attended a public visioning session in Calumet on Monday and Baraga’s event is tonight.

“I’ve been working closely with villages of Baraga and Calumet as both have relatively new management and no master plan or they haven’t had one in long long time,” said MacInnes, who is the former, long-time Houghton city manager. “We’re trying to get these communities to focus on what they want to be in the next 20 years. Both are losing population and need to turn their communities around.”

MacInnes was pleased with Monday’s turnout in Calumet and said people in both communities are excited about the visioning work, that started last fall with Michigan Technological University students conducting community surveys in both villages.

Calumet supporters share their ideas on ways to improve the Upper Peninsula community.

Calumet supporters share their ideas on ways to improve the Upper Peninsula community.


“We got a lot of good input from them,” MacInnes said of those attending Monday’s visioning session. “People are pretty excited about this planning.”

He said both communities are situated in the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula near areas that are experiencing economic success, such as Houghton, Hancock and Copper Harbor. So it’s possible for Calumet and Baraga to also see a turnaround, but it starts with having a plan.

“There’s been nothing like this for quite a number of years and they’ve really been operating on a day-to-day basis. We got to figure out how to control the blight and start fixing up homes and encourage small businesses to move back in. Now hopefully we can turn this around.”

Calumet Village Administrator Rob Tarvis told the area’s Mining Gazette newspaper that he also was pleased with Monday’s event and said it will go a long way in improving the village for years to come.

The two meetings are being facilitated by Brad Neuman, educator with Michigan State University Extension, and he had attendees give comments at three stations – a map of assets in the village, a chart showing survey results of issues important to residents and a three-question survey asking residents, business owners and supporters for their visions for the village’s future. The questions were, “What are you really proud of about the community?”, What are you sorry or not so proud of about the community?”, and “Imagine you’ve come back to the community after 20 years away; What do you see and experience that has changed for the better?”

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.

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.

Hazel Park 5 around table.For the past two years, several of us at the League have had the privilege of participating on the CNU24 Local Planning Committee with a passionate group of urbanists.  As the one clear voice for cities and villages of Michigan, the League is in a unique position to reach out across the state to our members to bring awareness to CNU and illustrate the common vision and goals both organizations share in building great communities.

With the annual CNU Congress fast approaching,  there have been several events leading up to the conference, including the Legacy Charrettes.  We made sure that staff attended the multi day workshops at its various stages, so that we could help support and create some buzz for these projects.  The first one I attended was the Hazel Park project.  Along with two of my colleagues, we came in on the third day of the “reveal” which followed two intensive days of public input and work.  My colleague, Matt Bach, attended the first day of this workshop, so check out his recap.

The anticipation of the crowd of local leaders, residents, and business owners was palpable.  Moule & Polyzoides, a firm of architects and urbanists out of Pasadena, California, along with Planners, Bob Gibbs, Peter Swift, and John Zanette, led this enthusiastic group during the three day workshop.

Hazel Park crowd around tableThe first day they shared a big vision of creating a walkable and connected downtown for Hazel Park.  The goal was to make people a priority over cars; leverage the existing buildings and open space, and enhance the quality of life.  Street calming, landscaping, and adding several gateways into the city would all play a role. Two days later, this collective vision came into focus as a plan was presented to make a place to create a pedestrian oasis and revitalize their downtown. This would be accomplished by creating three distinct districts of the downtown:  the Culinary District would be their town center, the Civic Center, where city hall is located, and the Arts District, that would include the conservation of buildings.  Although these seem like lofty goals, they are realistic ones.  Simple modest changes can be a good place to start and can begin to have a huge impact.

Hazel Park plan on tableJeff Campbell, Assistant City Manager and Planning and Economic Development Director of Hazel Park expressed his view of the process. “It has been an amazing experience working with CNU as planning and economic development coordinator and I have been humbled and stunned by the citizen participation and how much they care about Hazel Park.”

Will Herbig, CNU Program Director said, “This is just not about Hazel Park – it’s about the conversations, ideas, and a model for southeast Michigan.  I couldn’t be happier.”

Join us, along with over 1500 participants from around the world, in Detroit, June 8-11. There will be a feast of learning opportunities and experiences for anyone interested in cities and you will also have the opportunity to see the finished design product of all four of the charrettes!