Residents argue over multifamily housing in master plan draft

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 25, 2021

 Some residents have pushed back against a recommendation from the Birmingham Planning Board that multifamily housing developments be added to the 2040 master plan.

Some residents have pushed back against a recommendation from the Birmingham Planning Board that multifamily housing developments be added to the 2040 master plan.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

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BIRMINGHAM — During a virtual meeting Feb. 10, the Birmingham Planning Board reviewed elements of the first draft of the city’s new proposed master plan.

While several items were mentioned, including a new neighborhood organization system and a revisit of some speed limits on residential streets, there was really one aspect of the plan community members focused on: multifamily housing.

Included in the board’s recommendations is a zhuzh to future land use designations downtown, in the Triangle District and at the edge of some neighborhoods that would allow, potentially, for more multifamily housing developments.

A future land use designation does not in itself rezone any areas but, instead, recommends the city study and consider revising its current zoning code.

“It’s important to clarify that a master plan does not rezone property. It is a framework setting the course for what the city may or may not do in the future,” said Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker.

Planning Board Chair Scott Clein walked through the concept with contractor Matthew Lambert, of DPZ CoDesign. They explained the idea behind recommending more housing in the city in particular areas because, as it stands now, the need for regional housing growth is on the rise and so are housing costs.

The plan estimates that the need for housing in the city will grow by close to 2,000 units within 20 years. A large part of that growth is expected to come from middle-aged residents and younger families, likely looking for reasonably priced housing. That’s not to be confused with low-income or subsidized housing, but rather residences out of the multimillion dollar range. Clein referred to it as “the missing middle.”

The plan says that if Birmingham prices out younger residents, it could eventually lead to a population decline and all of the negative impacts that come with it.

About half of that proposed housing supply can be accommodated by the downtown, the Rail District and the Triangle District. The rest would potentially go in neighborhood “seams,” the areas where different neighborhoods meet, usually along main roads and on the edges of mixed-use districts.

Not everyone is on board with the idea, though. Even the surveys conducted with Birmingham residents showed a clear divide between baby boomers, who want the city demographics to stay as they are, and millennials, whom boomers “tend to ignore,” according to consultants.

“Focusing too much on one group over another is a distraction of the present; cities need to provide for and retain a population that is diverse in age. This brings forth difficult issues of housing types that are missing in much of the community and increasing prices,” the plan states on page 23.

During the board’s meeting, some residents logged on to express their concerns with multifamily housing options, citing issues ranging from density and traffic to a risk of stretching city services too thin.

“We’ve been Birmingham residents for 30 years. I live on Lincoln, and there’s been a concerted effort to slow down traffic there, perhaps generate a bike lane,” Mark McDermott said to the board. “Then looking at the neighborhood plan, there’s a large area of homes adjoining on either side that are slated to be multifamily. Wouldn’t this be counterproductive to decreasing traffic on Lincoln?”

An email forwarded from a resident and included in an agenda packet states, “There is a great risk to modifying Birmingham’s neighborhoods with this disruptive approach to enhance density, and it is unlikely that the desired lower-income market rental rates could be achieved without the city providing additional incentives — in short, subsidized housing,” the item states, explaining that they believe the move is an attempt to increase density and, in turn, the tax base, but that could backfire, resulting in lower the overall home values, a loss of city tax base and a higher cost of city services.

And Birmingham Citizens for Responsible Government, a political action committee formed in 2014 to campaign against the proposed bond to fund an extensive renovation of Baldwin Public Library, has taken up the topic of multifamily housing on its social media pages.

“No one asked for Birmingham to be reinvented,” reads a post on the BCRG Facebook page. “The 2040 plan is a (...) collage of drawings, none of which depict the current Birmingham. It will be used as a cudgel to hammer in rezoning of our neighborhoods. The current taxpayers, i.e. the homeowners, bought or built homes here because of what it is.”

On the other side of the debate are residents like Charles Carpenter, who wrote in to the Eagle to say he believes some objections of the plan are a renewal of redlining, a historical discriminatory policy that refuses a loan or occupancy to someone in a certain area because of their finances — though it’s often linked to race and ethnicity.

“These risk designations rendered Black households to be almost entirely excluded from the private credit market in our metropolitan community,” he said. He said it increased white flight from Detroit to suburbs like Birmingham.

“Redlining in the Detroit metropolitan area magnified the effects of segregation by race and ethnicity, which are associated with reductions in income, educational attainment, credit-access, crime and environmental quality,” Carpenter said in an email. He encourages people to learn more about redlining and the economic impact of multifamily zoning. “They will find that both have more to do with our own racism and less to do with property values.”

Clein reminded those logged into the meeting that they were reviewing a first draft of the master plan, and residents’ input would be incorporated as the plan is tweaked and ultimately sent to the City Commission for consideration.

“It’s a compilation of ideas, concepts, best management practices and industry standards our consultant has seen from around the world,” said Clein. “It is not a report that the Planning Board is ready to approve. We are going through it to determine what does or does not work for the city of Birmingham.”

“The community is encouraged to review the Frequently Asked Questions document and continue to share their thoughts and ideas on the project website,” Ecker said in a prepared statement after the meeting.

To view the master plan in its current stage or to share input on the plan, visit thebirminghamplan.com.

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