Traverse City News and Events

City Planning Commission Tackles Density

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 16, 2021

After identifying housing as a number-one priority in 2020, Traverse City planning commissioners spent the last year passing zoning changes that would reduce barriers to development, such as eliminating minimum parking requirements for residential properties. More zoning changes could be on the way in 2021, with planning commissioners set to discuss a list of short- and long-term goals Wednesday specifically focused on increasing density – that is, changing city rules to allow more housing to be built in certain districts.

Staff want feedback from planning commissioners to gauge interest in rewriting the rules. One option is to increase the density in multiple-family districts – those neighborhoods typically home to apartment complexes, condos, and other buildings with more than one unit. According to City Planning Director Russ Soyring, the city could consider raising the maximum number of units allowed from the current levels – 9, 15, and 29 dwellings per acre, depending on the neighborhood – up to 15,30, and 45 dwellings per acre.

“Since there are other restrictions such as impervious surface maximums, setbacks, and height restrictions, this may result in smaller units being constructed,” Soyring wrote in a memo to planning commissioners. “Another approach is not to count small dwellings (efficiencies) that are less than 500 square feet in floor area to encourage smaller, more affordable units.”

Planning commissioners could also raise the impervious surface maximums in those districts, which would allow more hard surfaces – like rooftops, walkways, driveways, and parking lots – on a particular property, making it easier to fit more development on the site. Planning commissioners are already having discussions about reducing lot size requirements for both multiple-family and single-family districts, allowing smaller parcels to be developed. Other communities across the U.S. have also discussed or approved the reduction of minimum lot sizes, citing studies showing that such restrictions can increase housing costs and that loosening them can open up the variety and affordability of units.

Planning commissioners Wednesday will also discuss the possibility of rezoning certain residential properties that are located on the edges of their neighborhoods to a higher density designation, allowing more units to be built on those parcels. “The (city) Master Plan supports doing so,” says Soyring. “On page four the Master Plan states, 'Higher intensities will be allowed at the periphery of residential neighborhoods than what is allowed in the interior.'” A map created by Soyring flags several properties around Boardman Lake, along Fourteenth Street, on Eighth Street, on State Street, and in Traverse Heights and Oak Park neighborhoods where properties could be candidates for upzoning and higher density.

Though not on the agenda for commission feedback this week, other zoning changes identified as long-term goals could be coming soon. Planning commissioners are already in discussions about the possibility of allowing two smaller homes (1,000 square feet or less) to be built on certain bigger residential lots in the city, instead of just one. The public will have a chance to weigh in on that proposal through a series of Zoom meetings planned to be scheduled in the future.

A related proposal could allow two accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on bigger properties instead of just one, with one of the units required to be part of the main house and the second a detached dwelling. There are 994 lots, or just under one-third of the R-1b single family dwelling district properties, that would qualify for the two-home or two-ADU proposals in the city. Another option for R-1b properties would be allowing duplexes and triplexes to be built by right (without special city approval) on bigger corner lots with alley access.

Finally, planning commissioners could increase density and housing by making it easier for tall buildings to be built in the city – and by ensuring affordable units, not just vacation rentals, are included in such developments. Proposition 3, a city charter amendment passed by voters in 2016, requires a public vote approving any building over 60 feet tall. Those projects then must go to the city for a special land use permit (SLUP). Soyring says the city could consider eliminating the SLUP requirement to remove a layer of bureaucracy from the process.

“If the electors support a taller residential building, it only seems appropriate to allow the building by right,” he wrote to planning commissioners. “This will help to shorten the review process and lower the cost for the review of taller residential buildings.” To ensure taller buildings include long-term housing, the city could add a rule banning vacation rentals in residential buildings taller than 60 feet. The city could also include a condition requiring a certain percentage of units – say, 40 percent – in tall buildings to be under 500 square feet. That condition could “help address the need for affordable units,” Soyring says, noting that smaller units are likely to have lower rents than larger dwellings.

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