Berkley withdraws plans for form-based code after public outcry

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published June 27, 2016


BERKLEY — After outcry from Berkley residents, a proposed form-based code that would have allowed a variety of housing options has been withdrawn by the City Council.

The announcement of the withdrawal was made at the June 20 council meeting, where a crowd cheered the decision to cancel the plans for the code, along with an open house that would have taken place the next day, on June 21, for the public to ask questions and get more information about the proposed code.

The form-based code, according to Mayor Phil O’Dwyer, came about after senior residents contacted the city, as they felt they could not manage taking care of a house and wanted to move to something smaller, like a condominium or a townhouse.

It also came from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which reported in 2013 that there were many more single-family homes than other housing types and that communities should try to change the housing pattern to become more globally and nationally competitive.

In an effort to respond, he said, the Planning Commission began to look at more options. Berkley’s housing stock, in an observation from the 2007 master plan, was about 92 percent single-family homes, while about 8 percent comprised dwellings with two or more units.

With all this in mind, O’Dwyer said a contractor was hired to take a look at where in the city multi-family units could go. A map was produced with at least a dozen areas that could possibly be changed to allow these buildings to be constructed.

“But when one looked at the map, if you took it literally, you might think they mean everywhere,” he said. “And so I think what caused the furor in Berkley was people saw this map and thought, ‘Oh my heavens! That’s where I live.’ And there’s a matter of potential of (sites) where people could build the townhouse or a condo. And I think people became really hyped up on the belief that it was the intention of anybody to rezone half the city.”

Ahead of the open house, the map was circulated among Berkley residents, who created Facebook pages to spread the word about the possible changes.

Resident Rachel Piacentini was worried that a builder could purchase a home, sit on that house, wait for another lot next to it to go up for sale, and then they would be free and clear to build the townhouses or condos because that area would be zoned for multi-family living. She also was worried how “more than 25 percent” of the city would be zoned for this.

“When it became clear that people were thinking that there would be 1,000 such houses built, that is such utter nonsense, and if that’s the indication, the conclusion, we have to correct that,” O’Dwyer said. “The only way to correct that is to shut this thing down and stop it right there.

“It became kind of a big mess,” he said.

Piacentini agreed that the mayor was correct that a builder would not come in and build in all 12 areas zoned for multi-family. But residents were worried that having all 12 areas zoned for multi-family would allow for the potential for that development.

“We weren’t happy with that,” she said.

Piacentini also didn’t buy the logic of the idea that builders would come in and market these properties toward seniors or millennials, as “they would have to make it enough to cover their costs in buying the property, to tear down and to build and to make a profit.”

“You’re not selling these for reasonable prices for lower-income, diverse people who have a diverse economic background. There’s no way you’re going to sell these for that. Their logic in trying to sell this to the city as wanting to get more millennials who don’t make enough money to buy houses in Berkley or seniors who are on a fixed income, that logic was horrible. That’s not going to work. The builder is going to turn around and sell those for $400,000.”

Through all the confusion, both O’Dwyer and Planning Commission Chairman David Barnett said the areas labeled on the map always could have changed and that not every area was going to be zoned for multi-family units, as there would be more discussions with the public and details would get more into the nitty-gritty.

But O’Dwyer said he understood the concerns of the residents and why they didn’t like the proposed code, based on their perceptions of it.

“If you thought where you were living was knocked out for some other kind of building, you would be distressed as well,” he said.

“This was an attempt to try to respond to some needs and continue to be competitive, but I think it was (mishandled),” he said.

“I think releasing a map without context was probably the single biggest error that contributed to people misunderstanding,” he said.

Resident Carol Hermann said that while she understood that not every area on the map would have been developed as multi-unit, she shamed the city for not making areas clear as to what would be and what would not be developed.

“They made it so broad-based,” she said.

The map, which Barnett wanted to make clear was not adopted, as the city has public hearings when it comes to rezoning, was something he and, according to him, some of the other planning commissioners thought was a bit aggressive.

“I even had some reservations on it,” he said.

“There has been no rezoning. The only thing we did was amend the city’s master plan for land use to allow us to look at other forms of residential housing,” he said.

The amendment to the master plan that Barnett was referring to was passed on Aug. 18, 2015, to allow the city to develop the form-based code and deal with such issues as duplexes, apartments and townhouses.

The form-based code now is off the table, according to O’Dwyer and Barnett, with no plans of bringing it back at this time or in the foreseeable future.

“The meeting on Monday night was so contentious that this is an item that needs to be not discussed for a long time,” O’Dwyer said.

“We’ve taken it off the table because there’s just too much antagonism about it to even think about going forward with it,” Barnett said. “We need to let things quiet. Things have to settle down.”

Piacentini said she was very relieved with the resident turnout at the meeting and how they responded to the code.

“Basically, the City Council had come to their senses and that this was not wanted by the city, the residents, and we were pretty upset about it,” she said. “I was glad that they had done that.”

“The fact that the form-based plan has been supposedly withdrawn is great, but I don’t think it will necessarily end the issue,” Hermann said. “The upshot of all of this is people are going to have to really be diligent in attending Planning Commission meetings, because if they’re not, something could still be brought through.”

Barnett said it was unfortunate that they couldn’t hold the open house meeting that was planned, as that was when they were going to roll it out for the first time to let residents have a look at it and share their thoughts.

“At that point in time, we might then formulate what it’s going to really look like,” he said. “And then, of course, we would hold public hearings on it and maybe we would have even had to have a second public forum where we could bring people in and let them look at it for a second time. I’m not sure.

“Everyone I think on our Planning Commission is very sensitive to the idea of, ‘Are we going to tear down three or four houses and then throw a townhouse in between another four or five houses?’ That’s not going to happen,” Barnett said.

Piacentini, as well as Hermann, also had confusion about why they didn’t know about the form-based code when it was being developed, as it went as far back as March 2015.

“There (were) no advertisements to the residents,” Piacentini said. “It was very sad.”

Barnett said the reason why people were finding out about it now was because this was the first time city officials were ready to bring it out for discussion.

“This was going to be the first discussion,” he said of the open house. “We might’ve had another discussion, depending on how receptive it was. So this was the first time we were ready to bring it out and have it looked at by the citizens.

“Should we have brought it sooner? No, because we weren’t ready to bring it out. We’ve been discussing this and all the various pieces to this whole puzzle for quite a while.”

Piacentini said she believes most residents would not be against a form-based code of some kind.

I don’t think most residents would be against taking a couple blocks here or maybe Greenfield,” she said. “Greenfield needs some work. And rezoning Greenfield for these types of multi-family units — put them on the main roads. Don’t put them in the middle of the community. And take a couple blocks and do this, but not more than 25 percent of the whole city.”

With the form-based code seemingly done for now, Piacentini hopes to get one of two things done: either get the amendment to the master plan repealed or get the city to do focus groups, talk to the residents, do surveys and find out where the residents would be OK with some different types of zoning that could go along with the 2015 amended plan.

“I think you would find that most of the residents aren’t opposed to this, but it was the amount that they were trying to rezone,” she said.

“Stick to the main roads. Greenfield needs a lot of help. Do Greenfield. Maybe even a block or two off of Woodward on 11 Mile. … Those are some great areas to work on.”

Hermann said she was against the idea of the code, as she felt it would have changed the nature of the community.

“When you start putting multi-family homes, multi-family dwellings in the midst of single-family homes, you’re kind of really changing the nature of the community,” she said. “You’re kind of changing it from a small town atmosphere where there is a lot of walkability … bikeability, to more of an urban-type thing.

“We’ve seen it in Royal Oak, we’ve seen it in Ferndale, and those are bigger communities. They’re not a small community like Berkley is, and I just don’t think that really this is the place for that type of situation in the neighborhoods.”