How F.A.R. Should We Go?

The Area, Height and Placement (AHP) revisions to Chapters 55 (Zoning) and 59 (Off-Street Parking) of the Ann Arbor city code have been under discussion for over a year.  They were apparently staff-generated (not as result of any public outcry for a change to our zoning ordinances).  Through this last summer, a number of meetings were held around the city where staff attempted to explain what the changes were expected to bring about.   The Ann Arbor Chronicle summarized the intent and provisions in an article that also drew a long comment thread.  As it notes, the revisions are intended to make the commercial and multifamily sections of Ann Arbor more amenable to Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).  The Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update explains this concept in detail and it can be summarized neatly in one word: density.  The AATPU projects an increase in Ann Arbor’s population by 2030 of up to 20% (to a total of 124,085) and explicitly calls for high-density zoning to accommodate this growth.  (The plan also calls for some very adventurous transportation additions, some of which we are already hearing about now.)

One of the ways density is achieved is by a striking increase of F.A.R. (Floor Area Ratio) in some zoning districts. F.A.R. is a ratio of how much of the buildable area of a parcel may be occupied with building.  So 100% F.A.R. would mean that a building of one story could occupy the full area within the setbacks.  Or a building of 2 stories may occupy 50% of the lot.  Or a building of 4 stories may occupy 25% of the area, and so forth.  Theoretically, one could legally build a “needle tower” up to the clouds if there is no height limitation in addition to the F.A.R. assigned.  The AHP changes as presented to the public had no height limitations in certain commercial areas (C3, Office [O], Office/Research/Limited Industry [ORL], and Research [R]).  F.A.R. was dramatically increased. For example, C1 (local business) was increased from 40% F.A.R. to 200%.   That would easily lead to 4-story buildings if only half of the lot was taken up with parking lot and lawn.  But C1 does have a height limit of 35′ (increased from 25′) or 50′ for large lots, so apparently had a height limit of approximately 5-6 stories.  Heights for some multifamily districts were increased from 40′ or 60′ to 120′.

Since the areas subject to these changes (see map)  are often near residential areas, one concern expressed at public meetings was the absence of a height limitation, and another one was the possible impact on adjacent areas.  The staff seem to be trying to address those concerns.  Indeed, the staff has kept prodigious records of public comment, including the comment thread on the Chronicle. The effort to obtain real public input appears to be sincere.  At the August meeting of the AHP Advisory Committee (appointed by council to work with staff on the public rollout), it was decided to make an all-out effort to give the populace a true opportunity for serious interaction on the proposal.  Tuesday night is devoted to small-group sessions, with a facilitator at each table.  October 7 will be a chance for each speaker to address the entire audience.  Anyone with a serious interest in the subject can attend both meetings; it should result in a good understanding of the changes at a minimum.

Of course, the larger question is why this? why now?  It appears that we are ramping up to a vision of a much bigger city where redevelopment of commercial and multifamily areas at the edges of the city is eagerly sought.  The market and the economy are going to have to change quite a bit for that to happen.  I propose a test site: let’s redevelop the Georgetown Mall. The recent news about the mall means that we are going to have a concrete and asphalt hole in the fabric of Ann Arbor, right on a major thoroughfare.  It would make an excellent spot for a test of the Utopian vision (borrowed from Seattle in most cases) of a dense mixed-use development with charming shops and coffeehouses below, urban residences above, parking sequestered out of site, tree-lined sidewalks, and easy access to transit with a diminished setback to the street.  Maybe we could even get Kroger to come back.

UPDATE: The public meetings are over.  Now we’ll see what the staff do with all the comments.  The project webpage includes videos and maps that are detailed ward-by-ward.  If any proposed changes are adjacent to your own property, now is the time to look it over.

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