Last month Kalamazoo’s City Commission cut down their lot size requirements in several residential areas. Notably, these amendments weren’t done in the name of permitting anything “new” in those neighborhoods—but to support and reinforce what’s already there and remove some headaches from residents.

These lot size amendments, one piece of the city’s “neighborhood zoning repair” work, are a great example of incremental code reform, and one that’s worth a look for any community with older residential areas, where overly restrictive zoning ordinances add burden to maintaining the traditional neighborhood fabric.

I had the chance to help Kalamazoo with this effort, through the League’s work in support of MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program: for the zoning and GIS enthusiasts in the audience, I’ve included some short methodology notes to help get you started with your own analysis.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of neighborhood sense of place. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of our cities’ neighborhoods. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

The annoyance tax of mismatched residential zoning

Many of our favorite traditional neighborhoods predate the widespread use of zoning: Michigan’s first city and village zoning enabling act was in 1921, and the township zoning enabling act didn’t come until 1943. During the home construction boom that followed World War II, communities adopted zoning ordinances that reflected the current practices of the time—applying them broadly and bluntly not just to new subdivisions, but also to the neighborhoods that already existed, where they were”¦not a great fit.

A 1950s ranch home with a private driveway from the street needs a 50- or 60-foot-wide lot, where a 1920s two-story home with alley access or a shared drive can fit comfortably on a 40- or 45-foot-wide lot, for example. But apply that new 60-foot expectation to the older neighborhood as a legal minimum, and suddenly you’ve rendered wide swaths of homes non-conforming. While an “existing non-conforming” lot, structure, or use can be continued in perpetuity, the ongoing mismatch creates friction for the residents of that older neighborhood.

Non-conforming status can make it harder or more expensive to get a mortgage, or home insurance, or a home improvement loan—because the bank or insurer wants to know the lot will still be usable if the house burns down. Even where the local ordinance provides an escape clause (e.g. that any existing lot under residential zoning can be used for a single-unit house), buying or refinancing that historic house can require extra documentation of that fact.  Setbacks or lot coverage requirements might still make rebuilding challenging, as well as limit opportunities for additions, decks, garages, or other improvements. My friend David, a Realtor, refers to systemic hurdles like these as “annoyance taxes” that accumulate and subtly discourage people from living in these neighborhoods or from investing too much money or energy into their homes.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel "too small" for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel “too small” for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Kalamazoo’s neighborhood zoning repair

As part of Kalamazoo’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning efforts, the city’s planning staff has been looking for “zoning repair” needs—where the zoning doesn’t match the existing neighborhood context, and the existing neighborhood is valued as it is. When the League performed a “zoning stress test” for the city (as part of Kalamazoo’s Redevelopment Ready Communities technical assistance support from MEDC), I took a deep dive the zoning ordinance’s lot standards for the Edison Neighborhood, where local staff had identified repeated friction between the requirements and the existing neighborhood fabric. They then extended this approach to other neighborhoods which shared this challenge to finalize their recommendations to the City Commission.

First, I looked at lot sizes, finding that two-thirds of the residential parcels in the neighborhood were “too small” under the existing zoning. In parts of the neighborhood, every home on every block sat on a non-conforming lot, because of the lot sizes used in the initial plat.  In other areas, century-old lot splits created more scattered non-conforming parcels. (Using GIS, I selected all parcels within a given district, then did a “select by attribute” on those parcels to identify lots with areas below their zoning district’s minimum, and set a non-conforming flag for those; then repeated this for each other district.)

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

The next step was to test a few new lot size thresholds to see what would bring the zoning into compliance with neighborhood patterns, and suggest some revised minimums that would fix most problems, leaving only a few outliers that might need separate solutions. (This repeated the above process using a few different test lot areas and flagging each parcel for the lot size threshold that would make that parcel conforming. For simplicity, I used thresholds that were already in use within the zoning ordinance, either as some other district’s minimum or as a per-unit minimum in districts that allowed duplexes.)

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Moving on from lot area, I next looked at lot width: again, over half the homes in the neighborhood sat on parcels that were “too narrow” under the existing zoning, having been platted for smaller lots. (If you have a parcel layer that includes a frontage or width attribute—possibly from assessing data—you can filter on this; without this, or in the case of irregularly shaped lots, you may need to approximate by drawing bounding boxes around your parcels and then filtering on the widths of those.)

The 60-foot minimum lot width of the R-5 district made nearly every Edison parcel in that district non-conforming.

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood's original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood’s original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

As applied, in Kalamazoo and in your community

Kalamazoo’s staff repeated my analysis for a few other neighborhoods to calibrate the thresholds, as shown in their presentation to the Planning Commission. The City Commission adopted a package of lot size and coverage amendments at the end of January. While significant, as the staff memo notes, these are not the last word on these neighborhoods, but a temporary patch: “These amendments are intended to relieve the pressure of the large quantity of nonconforming lots that exist throughout while City staff work to thoroughly update all the residential zoning districts in the first half 2019.”

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

In some neighborhoods, this ongoing work might mean additional tweaks; in others, more significant changes to the zoning might be needed to bring it in line with the neighborhood’s vision and plans. In general, these lot size amendments won’t bring any dramatic changes to Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods—where they enable new homes to be built on vacant lots, they will be reinforcing the built patterns already in the neighborhood. What they will do is peel away one layer of annoyance tax from residents already living there, an important piece of enabling people to love where they live.

Kalamazoo isn’t alone in facing this challenge—Muskegon also recently reduced the lot size requirements in some neighborhoods to better fit the existing neighborhood patterns. Not coincidentally, fixing out-of-scale lot requirements is the #1 recommendation for neighborhood form in the User’s Guide to Code Reform that we produced with CNU and MEDC. Both Kalamazoo and Muskegon provided input to that project about their code hurdles, and I used an early draft of the Guide to target my work with Kalamazoo.

While the GIS analysis certainly provides attractive maps, there are certainly ways to take on this zoning repair activity without it. For example, in smaller areas, comparing the minimum lot size in the zoning ordinance to the original plat map for a traditional neighborhood is an easy step. The plat will include lot widths and depths that can be used to quickly compare a “typical” parcel’s size to the zoning ordinance’s minimums.  Alternately, just looking for any place your zoning ordinance applies a 60-foot minimum lot width or 6,000 square foot minimum lot area to a neighborhood built pre-World War II is a good indicator that you have an issue.

A year ago, the city of Ypsilanti released a developer request for qualifications for a city-owned parcel–this was the first of four properties around the state that the League’s Civic Innovation Labs team supported as part of a MSHDA-funded effort to advance placemaking developments.

A year later, all four properties are under contract and in various stages of the due diligence process. While it’s too early yet for any of them to have broken ground, they generally show the effectiveness of proactively setting priorities for a site and marketing those to developers.

They also reinforce that pre-development visioning can only go so far: the developer proposals clearly reflect what the city asked for, but with variations.

In Muskegon, the developer’s concept plans clearly reflect the semi-attached townhome scheme we laid out, albeit in a layout that uses more of the site. Their concept allows slightly larger homes (and more variety in size), but requires a little more work to address historical easements and deed restrictions.

The working site plan does incorporate some of our recommendations for better flow between the site and the adjacent marina (removing a fence, for example), while also adding amenities for marina users. Overall, we’re excited to see this moving forward–along with plenty of other activity along Muskegon’s lakefront.

Our designer's concept for the site at 1000 W. Western, and the developer's take on the site.

Our designer’s concept for the site at 1000 W. Western, and the developer’s take on the site.

In Kalamazoo, we and the city set a high bar for a developer, asking for reuse of a long-vacant and obsolete public safety building and also the addition of new residential construction atop it.

One developer took the challenge, though their proposal noted that remediation of the existing building, structural challenges of adding stories, and the position of the building on the site combined to make the version we laid out infeasible.  Their counterproposal would demolish the existing building, but ensure the major features of it were recreated in the new structure.

The developer's concept would include a rebuilt version of the fire station facade for sidewalk-facing retail, with a combination of office and affordable apartments above.

The developer’s concept would include a rebuilt version of the fire station facade for sidewalk-facing retail, with a combination of office and affordable apartments above.

The last of our RFQ efforts, a Genesee County Land Bank-owned property in North Flint, went under contract earlier this month, with a team that combines a national developer’s experience and financial capacity with a neighborhood community development group’s on-the-ground knowledge–this partnership should boost the project’s chances of success.

We’ll be watching these projects as they move forward–and as we dive in to several others: MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program has also contracted us to provide pre-development assistance to all of their certified communities.

For those who haven’t cross the finish line of RRC certification, we’ve also created materials that anyone can use to DIY their own developer RFQ.

Many a traditional main street has suffered from bloated roads: where a street was once lined with bustling sidewalks and businesses, the pavement was expanded more and more in the name of moving traffic, at the expense of parking, sidewalks, and eventually the health of the businesses themselves. Through traffic doesn’t spend dollars while it’s speeding by, after all.

This graphic from NACTO's Urban Street Design Guide shows how road diets can improve safety and traffic flow.

This graphic from NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide shows how road diets can improve safety and traffic flow.

Enter the road diet. A silly name, perhaps, but it’s an enormously important concept for community wellbeing.

A road diet takes a wide road and skinnies it down—or, at least, skinnies down the amount of space devoted to moving vehicles by quickly. The goal is a more balanced street: one that provides not just for the orderly movement of through traffic, but also supports access by people on the sidewalk, people on bikes, people getting on a bus, people parking their cars and going into a store, people unloading delivery trucks. In short, a street that works for, rather than against, the area around it.

How big is too big?

The best candidates for a road diet are one-way streets with three (or more!) travel lanes, or two-way streets with two travel lanes in each direction.  If you have these types of streets in a traditional business district or neighborhood, they were almost definitely widened at some point, and probably widened more than they need to be for current traffic needs.

Take a look at the traffic counts on these streets. As a quick rule of thumb, each through traffic lane can carry about 10,000 cars per day—or a little less, if there are a lot of driveways, on-street parking, or similar things that slow traffic. A 4-lane two-way road with less than 20,000 cars daily can probably be 3 lanes (one each way and one left turn) with no loss of capacity and fewer severe crashes. A 3-lane one-way with under 20,000 cars daily can probably work well as a 2-lane one-way.

Also look at how wide the lanes are. Many of these roads were built with 12- or even 13-foot wide travel lanes, but experience shows that these wide lanes actually lead to more severe crashes than narrower lanes—people drive more cautiously when the lines are closer together. As a result, a 10.5-foot wide lane (11 if there’s significant bus or truck traffic) can be safer while still carrying traffic effectively.

What do you do with the leftover pavement?

After you examine the number of lanes and the width of those lanes, chances are you’ll have space left over between the curbs.

The Kalamazoo PlacePlan led to a road diet on Portage Street, improving access to Washington Square.

The Kalamazoo PlacePlan led to a trial road diet on Portage Street, improving access to Washington Square.

With 8 feet of leftover width, you can add either on-street parking on one side or a bike lane on the other. With 12 feet (such as on a 3-lane one-way to 2-lane conversion) you can put parking on one side and a bike lane on the other.

In either case, you’ve just provided better access for more people, ideally without any costs for concrete or asphalt—just paint and signs. As an added benefit, moving traffic is now separated from the sidewalk a little bit, providing a safer and more inviting place for people to walk, which means more customers walking into businesses or more attractive homes.

A 2012 MDOT research project showed that 4-to-3 lane road diets could reduce crashes by as much as 40%, and provided additional recommendations for planning and implementing such projects.

Better streets support investment

Improving access, safety, and comfort on a street supports a healthy business environment.  For an example, take a look at West Cross Street in Ypsilanti. West Cross has been the front door to Eastern Michigan University for over 150 years, and has long had a small, convenience-oriented business district.

West Cross is also M-17, though, and in the 1970s was made into a one-way street with 3 lanes in one direction. By the 1990s, the business district was struggling, with high business vacancy and turnover, and many of the buildings in disrepair. Remaining business owners pointed to the high-speed traffic and lack of parking as a major challenge.

Ypsilanti's West Cross Street before the road diet--a 3-lane race track through the neighborhood.

Ypsilanti’s West Cross Street before the road diet–a 3-lane race track slicing through the neighborhood.

In the early 2000s, the city worked with MDOT to implement a road diet as the key piece of a neighborhood plan. Since the street only had about 15,000

A parking lane, improved crosswalks, and better organized sidewalk support foot traffic to businesses.

A parking lane, improved crosswalks, and better organized sidewalk support foot traffic to businesses.

vehicles per day, it could be changed from 3 through traffic lanes to 2 (still one-way), creating enough space for both on-street parking on the left and a bike lane on the right. This only required restriping the street and adding signs and parking meters, but worked well enough that the city implemented step two in 2011, utilizing TAP funding to add intersection bumpouts, stamped concrete crosswalks, and street trees.

These changes have supported significant reinvestment in the business district over the last decade, with some support through façade matching grants by the Ypsilanti DDA and Washtenaw Eastern Leaders Group. At least 10 new businesses have opened in just a few blocks, and several existing businesses have expanded or made significant façade improvements.

While there’s plenty of work left to do—the street remains a high-speed, one-way strip that can make it difficult for visitors to find specific businesses—both the streetscape improvements and improved business conditions have made West Cross a much better front door to EMU and amenity for neighborhood residents.

The most significant rehab created four new business spaces across from EMU with lofts above, and an extended sidewalk bumpout for outdoor cafe seating. Developer Andrew O'Neal notes he would have thought twice about the project if the road diet hadn't created on-street parking--and looks forward to eventual two-way traffic.

The most significant rehab created four new business spaces across from EMU, with lofts above and an extended sidewalk bumpout for outdoor cafe seating. Developer Andrew O’Neal notes he would have thought twice about the project if the road diet hadn’t created on-street parking–and looks forward to eventual two-way traffic.

A number of smaller building and facade rehabs have helped make the corridor more attractive overall.

A number of smaller building and facade rehabs have helped make the corridor more attractive overall.

Richard Murphy is a program coordinator for the League. You may contact him by email at at rmurphy@mml.org or on Twitter @murphmonkey.

Last week I had the chance to check out progress on part of Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan: a “road diet” on a section of Portage Street, passing through the Edison neighborhood’s historic Washington Square district.

Portage Street had suffered the same fate as numerous urban roads: in the name of carrying the most cars at the fastest speed, the asphalt was widened over time until it squeezed the sidewalks up against the storefronts, contributing to the decline of the businesses in this area and the decay of the buildings.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortable close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortably close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

As a result of our work with Kalamazoo through the 2014 round of PlacePlans, the city has implemented a light-weight reconfiguration of Portage Street: it now has 3 lanes (one in each direction and a left turn lane) in place of 4.  This pulls traffic away from the curb, making the street less hostile to pedestrians, it pulls cars turning left out of the flow of traffic, reducing rear-end crashes, and it provides room for several blocks for a bike line connecting Washington Square to downtown.  Driving through the area at 5:15pm, when the pavement should be at its busiest, traffic was smooth and there were no significant delays, even though the change is still new and unfamiliar to drivers.

In the "trial" stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb--even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

In the “trial” stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb–even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

Right now, the change is a test–essentially just changing the paint and the traffic signal timing–but the city is planning to rebuild the street in a few years.  The trial period will let Kalamazoo figure out whether to continue and improve on the 3-lane version of the road when they rebuild, or go back to the drawing board: either way, they’ll be entering that process with good experience and traffic data.

What’s happening outside the right-of-way is also pretty exciting: the Kalamazoo Land Bank owns several properties in the area, and four once-vacant storefronts have filled up since we delivered their PlacePlan: a fitness studio, sandwich shop, credit union branch, and artisans market inhabit the newly renovated spaces.  While we can’t claim credit for the storefront rehabs–the Land Bank came to the table with these buildings already in-progress–these businesses and those that join them will offer more evidence of the power of coordinated public and private investment to make great places.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

Kalamazoo’s next step is the farmers’ market charrette coming up November 19-20: as their market bursts at the seams, they’re planning out the next stage of its growth–including how it connects to Washington Square and other areas nearby.